NEWS

23 November 2021

Sputnik 1: the first artificial satellite

Sputnik 1: the first artificial satellite

Satellites are fantastically useful tools, and there are thousands of them in orbit around the Earth right now. Before the current age of satellites could come into being, though, someone had to take the first step.

In today’s post, we’re taking a look at the early history of satellites, and in particular at Sputnik 1: the first artificial satellite in space.

Satellites are fantastically useful tools, and there are thousands of them in orbit around the Earth right now. We’ve already talked about satellite orbit types and what satellites are used for. Before the current age of satellites could come into being, though, someone had to take the first step. In today’s post, we’re taking a look at the early history of satellites, and in particular at Sputnik 1: the first artificial satellite in space. What was Sputnik 1? On 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first manmade satellite, Sputnik 1, into low Earth orbit. Sputnik 1’s orbit was elliptical; it was approximately 230 km from Earth at its closest point (perigee) and 940 km away at its furthest point (apogee). It took just under an hour and a half to circle the entire planet. Sputnik 1 was an extremely simple satellite. It was a metal sphere with four long antennas protruding from it. It contained a thermometer, a fan, a radio transmitter, batteries and little else. The sphere was only 58 cm in diameter and weighed 83 kg, making it very small and light in comparison to many of today’s satellites. Modern-day geostationary communications satellites can weigh as much as 7,000 kg: over eighty times as much as Sputnik 1. The largest artificial satellite currently in orbit, the International Space Station, weighs more than 5,000 times as much as Sputnik 1 at 440,000 kg. Why was the first satellite called Sputnik? ‘Sputnik’, or спутник, literally meaning ‘fellow traveller’, is simply the Russian word for a satellite. Although Sputnik 1 was the first artificial satellite, the word ‘sputnik’ was already in use to describe natural satellites such as moons. ‘Sputnik 1’ was therefore more a description than a name. It would be similar to an English-speaking country launching a satellite called ‘Satellite 1’. What was the international response to Sputnik? Sputnik 1’s successful launch created huge international interest. The launch took place in the midst of the Cold War, and it was seen as a display of great technological ability from the Soviet Union. This created a sense of anxiety and competition in the USA, which considered the Soviet Union a rival. The USA hurried to catch up and, on 6 December 1957, just two months after Sputnik 1’s launch, attempted to launch the satellite Vanguard TV-3. Unfortunately, the launch was unsuccessful. The unmanned rocket carrying the satellite lost thrust almost immediately, fell back to the landing pad and exploded in a fireball. Although there was no live broadcast, the failed launch was filmed, rushed to broadcasters and shown on television within two hours: a discouraging experience for the American public. (For details of the broadcast, see the 16 December 1957 edition of Broadcasting magazine, p.76.) Vanguard TV-3 was thrown clear of the explosion and recovered, damaged but still transmitting a signal. It can be seen at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. On 31 January 1958, the USA successfully launched its first satellite, Explorer 1, making the USA the second country to launch a satellite into space. However, Explorer 1 was not the second artificial Earth satellite; the Soviet Union had already launched another, Sputnik 2, on 3 November 1957. What was Sputnik 1 used for? Sputnik 1 didn’t remain in orbit for very long. Its batteries ran out after three weeks, so it could no longer transmit radio signals. Its orbit decayed over time, and on 4 January 1958, three months after launch, it burned up from air friction after re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. Despite this, it was still an incredible achievement. Sputnik 1’s short life in space gave scientists basic but essential information about how satellites could operate. By observing how quickly the satellite’s orbit decayed, scientists could draw conclusions about atmospheric drag and density at high altitudes. Sputnik 1’s radio transmissions also showed how radio waves could travel through Earth’s atmosphere from orbit. The signal Sputnik sent out was a simple one; it transmitted a steady beeping. However, it had a very simple, very clever way of communicating major changes in pressure or temperature. If the pressure inside the satellite dropped dramatically due to a puncture (Sputnik was filled with nitrogen gas), or if the temperature went above or below a certain threshold, a switch would be triggered and the beeping would become slightly different. Because of this, Sputnik could convey specific information without needing to transmit anything more complicated than a beep. These beeps weren’t solely received by researchers. Any interested member of the public with a shortwave radio could tune in and hear Sputnik beeping as it travelled overhead. Sputnik 1’s most significant function was simply being the first artificial Earth satellite. It told the world that artificial satellites weren’t simply theoretical; it was possible to put an object into orbit around the Earth. With this knowledge, researchers were able to build on Sputnik’s success and launch more ambitious satellites. In the present day, we make use of satellites on a daily basis. We use them for navigation, communications, weather forecasting and much more. None of that would have been possible without somebody taking that first step. In that sense, both modern society and Darwin owe a lot to Sputnik.
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12 November 2021

Blue Door podcast: The environmental benefits of connected transportation

Blue Door podcast: The environmental benefits of connected transportation

David Owens, Darwin’s head of technical trials and chief pilot, went on O2 Business’s Blue Door podcast this week to talk about the environmental benefits of connected transportation.

David Owens, Darwin’s head of technical trials and chief pilot, went on O2 Business’s Blue Door podcast this week to talk about the environmental benefits of connected transportation. You can listen to Blue Door episode 27, ‘COP26 - Connectivity creating better transport options’, over here. The entire thing is worth listening to; it’s only half an hour, and David, who has over forty years of telecommunications experience, gives interesting insight into this important area of sustainability. Between the 17.30 and 21.40 marks, David and the host Danny Hicks talk about the Darwin SatCom Lab and the work we’re doing here. They touch on subjects including: the Renault Twizys we’ve converted into autonomous vehicles the different ways autonomous vehicles ‘see’, including LiDAR the problem of insuring autonomous vehicles, and how we’ve partnered with Aviva to help solve it the Darwin Autonomous Shuttle how Darwin is aiming to create a ‘network of networks’ by combining satellites and terrestrial base stations our ubiquitous communications trial in Cornwall O2 Business’s Blue Door podcast is a weekly technology and business podcast that often looks to the future. If you’re interested in more discussions like this, you can find previous episodes over here.
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10 November 2021

Smart, Green, Connected Vehicles: The Future of Transportation

Smart, Green, Connected Vehicles: The Future of Transportation

It was a pleasure to be involved with the University of Glasgow’s ‘Smart, Green, Connected Vehicles: The Future of Transportation’ panel on 4 November! The occasion marked the opening of the Darwin Innovation Lab at the University of Glasgow.

It was a pleasure to be involved with the University of Glasgow’s ‘Smart, Green, Connected Vehicles: The Future of Transportation’ panel on 4 November! The occasion marked the opening of the Darwin Innovation Lab at the University of Glasgow. This discussion was hosted in Glasgow and streamed online as part of the university’s COP26 programme. Darwin’s co-founder and delivery director, Daniela Petrovic, was one of the panellists. The moderator was Nuran Acur, professor of innovation at the University of Glasgow and Darwin’s business model innovation lead. Nuran ably hosted the discussion, ensuring everyone had a chance to speak, and talked about the need to bring different stakeholders together in order to achieve innovation. Also present on the panel were: David Owens, head of industry trials at Virgin Media O2, and Darwin’s chief drone pilot. Robert Gardner, head of innovation at Network Rail. Rafael Hidalgo, telecommunications engineer at Hispasat. Paul Coffey, CEO of Scotland 5G Centre. Muhammad Imran, professor of communication systems at the University of Glasgow. You can watch the panel online; the University of Glasgow Adam Smith Business School has uploaded it to YouTube over here. If you don’t have time to watch the entire thing, though, we’ve given an overview of some of the talking points below. Daniela Petrovic: Darwin, CAVs and the environment Daniela spoke about some of the technologies Darwin has been working on and how they could help to enable greener transportation. For example, Darwin and ESA’s Air Quality Unit is distinct from existing air quality monitoring stations, which are static. It’s important to have these static stations, which can give information about air quality in a particular area, but the Air Quality Unit can be attached to a vehicle, and can therefore gather information about emissions from that particular vehicle as it moves. She also discussed how, in the future, CAVs could be used as a way to connect other means of transport. For example, autonomous vehicle services could transport passengers between rail stations on different lines when there’s no existing public transport between those points, reducing the need for traditional petrol-powered vehicles. David Owens: mobile networks and the environment David Owens talked about how O2 and other mobile networks have an important role to play in reducing transport emissions. Tackling transport emissions, both by reducing transportation use and by investing in greener transport, is one of the most important things we can do in order to drive ourselves towards net zero. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world saw temporary but dramatic reductions in carbon emissions due to lockdowns and home working. If employees have the connectivity they need to work effectively from home, they can reduce the number of days they need to go into the office, resulting in a smaller carbon footprint from commuting. We’ve discovered new ways to live and work during this pandemic, and we now have the opportunity to alter our habits in ways that will be beneficial for the environment. Robert Gardner: trains and the environment Robert Gardner discussed Network Rail’s environmental sustainability strategy, which was published recently; you can take a look at it over here. In the same way safety procedures are baked into the current rail system, Network Rail hopes to build in sustainability procedures. Its priorities include creating a low-emissions railway, reducing industrial waste through reuse or recycling, and protecting and enhancing biodiversity on railway-owned land. It also intends to create a more reliable railway, resilient against the effects of climate change. It’s important to take action to reduce emissions, but it’s also important to be prepared for the problems climate change is anticipated to cause, such as more frequent episodes of severe weather. The goal is to make it as easy as possible to choose green forms of transport, which can be achieved by making sure we have accessible, reliable rail systems, and by making sure that organising and booking a journey is a simple process. Connectivity is a valuable tool for this. It’s also possible for bus and train systems to work together for greater efficiency, as seen in, for example, London’s Oyster card. Rafael Hidalgo: satellites and the environment Rafael Hidalgo talked about how Hispasat valued innovation, and how it demonstrated that value by collaborating with innovative projects such as the Darwin Project. Hispasat is currently developing a solution to provide connectivity to passengers in high-speed trains. Robert Gardner mentioned that high-speed rail is one of the greenest forms of transport available. By ensuring that passengers stay connected, Hispasat can help to make it a more attractive form of transport for travellers. Rafael also touched on the positive results of Darwin’s ubiquitous communications trial in Cornwall, in which terrestrial and satellite networks were able to complement each other in areas where one form of network was unreliable. For reliable universal coverage, it’s essential for terrestrial networks and satellites to work together. Paul Coffey: 5G and the environment Paul Coffey spoke about how Scotland 5G Centre is helping to address 5G adoption challenges by ensuring the infrastructure for widespread 5G use is in place. Scotland 5G Centre and similar organisations can broaden access to 5G and help people understand what it can do, laying the groundwork for innovation, which can help us to establish greener ways of doing things. It’s important to ensure people have access to a strong infrastructure regardless of where they live. If there are areas where people don’t have access to public transport or a reliable connection for remote work, for example, they’ll be forced to use the car. Muhammad Imran: universities, collaboration and the environment Muhammad Imran spoke about the importance of universities as a place for innovation. Universities allow people from many disciplines to come together and discuss problems, pooling their varied knowledge and experience. Innovation thrives when people are able to share different viewpoints; we touched on this in our article about the value of diversity in the workplace. Muhammad also touched on how connectivity achieves a similar thing, allowing us to distribute information and hold discussions that can encourage people to change their long-term behaviours in greener ways. A recurring theme throughout the panel was the importance of discussion and collaboration in pursuit of new ideas. Projects like Darwin enable government, industry and academia to work together, creating fertile ground for innovation. Similarly, events like COP26 let experts from many different fields tackle the problems that we as a planet are facing.
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1 November 2021

Measuring vehicle emissions to analyse air quality: the Air Quality Platform

Measuring vehicle emissions to analyse air quality: the Air Quality Platform

Air quality is an issue for countless people, particularly those living in urban areas, and climate change is an issue for everyone. In the fight against the pollutants behind these issues, information is essential.

In collaboration with ESA and AWS, Darwin has been working on the Air Quality Unit, a device that measures the pollutants emitted by vehicles, and the Air Quality Platform, an online platform that gathers and processes this information. We spoke to Darwin’s CEO, Milos Petrovic, about how this air quality analysis works and why it matters.

Air quality is an issue for countless people, particularly those living in urban areas, and climate change is an issue for everyone. In the fight against the pollutants behind these issues, information is essential. In collaboration with ESA and AWS, Darwin has been working on the Air Quality Unit, a device that measures the pollutants emitted by vehicles, and the Air Quality Platform, an online platform that gathers and processes this information. We spoke to Darwin’s CEO, Milos Petrovic, about how this air quality analysis works and why it matters. What is the Air Quality Unit? The Air Quality Unit is a collection of sensors and electronics inside a 3D-printed plastic case. These sensors can measure temperature, humidity and light levels, as well as the levels of pollutants such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, ammonia and nitric oxide in the air. The Air Quality Unit can be attached to a vehicle or drone to take measurements of the air as it travels. It’s lightweight and simple to secure using suction. It transmits information about air quality to the Air Quality Platform, where it can be viewed and analysed. We currently have a working prototype that can collect air quality data on the go. In fact, we’ve already made use of it; we brought it to Cornwall in July and equipped it to the van testing our ubiquitous communications technology. From the Cornwall trial, we identified some changes we’d like to make; for example, we’d like to experiment with different materials for the casing and streamline the design. Once we’ve made these changes, we’re planning to use the Air Quality Unit in our future autonomous shuttle trials. What is the Air Quality Platform? The ESA Air Quality Platform was originally created by ESA for educational purposes. ESA has provided schools across Europe with the tools they need to set up air monitoring stations, and the resulting air quality information is displayed in real time on an interactive map. Although the Air Quality Platform was created as an educational tool, Darwin took an interest in it, as it was sophisticated enough to aid in Darwin’s goal of helping commercial organisations track their emissions. We spoke to a senior ESA engineer about the possibilities of the platform, and ESA agreed to build an Air Quality Platform for Darwin’s use. Darwin supplied material to ESA, and ESA provided the hardware, casing and software. Once we had received the ‘off-the-shelf’ platform from ESA, we started working with ESA to modify it to our needs: adding new sensors, for example. Darwin’s modified version of the Air Quality Platform is currently hosted by AWS, rather than by ESA, although the unit also transmits information to ESA’s servers. For more information about Darwin and AWS, take a look at our article on the experience of working with AWS. With the Air Quality Platform, we can analyse information from the Air Quality Unit and draw conclusions. For example, the Air Quality Platform can map air quality levels in a particular area, or give an idea of the level of pollution produced by the vehicles reporting air quality information. By presenting this information in an understandable way, the Air Quality Platform makes it possible to identify areas where improvements can be made. How does the Air Quality Unit work? The Air Quality Unit takes and analyses measures of the air. The many sensors inside the unit work in various ways. For example, some of them are chemical sensors. A miniature plate may be heated to a high temperature: 200°C, for example. When ammonia (NH3) particles make contact with the heated plate, they break down into ammonia’s constituent elements: nitrogen and hydrogen. This creates a tiny electrical impulse, and the sensor counts these impulses to get an idea of the number of ammonia particles in the air. Some of the sensors, meanwhile, work on mechanical principles, such as the particle sensors. The unit is able to measure the number of particles of a certain size: particles of up to 10 microns, and particles of up to 2.5 microns. The smaller 2.5 micron particles are generally more dangerous because they’re too small to be filtered out by hairs inside the nose, so they can end up in the lungs and bloodstream more easily. To measure particles based on size, the Air Quality Unit uses a miniature chamber. A filter ensures that only particles below a certain size can enter the chamber, in which a tiny laser beam, projected from one wall, illuminates a plate on the other side. When a particle passes through, the particle casts a shadow on the plate. The sensor can count the number of these moving shadows detected in a given time period and, with that information, the Air Quality Platform can estimate how many of these particles are in the air. Electronics inside the Air Quantity Unit constantly receive information from the sensors and send it wirelessly to AWS, where it can be analysed on the Air Quality Platform. Darwin’s work combining terrestrial and satellite communications is useful here, as the Air Quality Unit needs to maintain a steady connection to AWS as it moves around. Why is measuring air quality important? Darwin’s goal is to make it possible to fit this air quality monitoring technology on the factory line, or to retrofit it into existing vehicles. If many vehicles were equipped with air quality monitoring technology, they would be able to create an image of what air quality is like across the country, and of how different vehicles can impact on it. With this information, governments could take action to improve air quality in the areas where improvement is most needed. For example: Creating low emission zones, or zero emission zones, in areas with dangerous levels of air pollution. Planting trees to absorb pollutants such as carbon dioxide. Providing more charging points and other incentives to use electric cars, rather than petrol or diesel cars, in areas with high emissions. (For more about the potential for electric cars to reduce emissions, take a look at our article on self-driving cars and the environment.) Organisations could also use this information in various ways. For example: Environmental agencies could create maps of pollutants – carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide or dust particles, for example – and see how they change over time. Delivery or transport companies could make informed decisions about the greenest vehicles available to them. If a vehicle’s tyres are producing a lot of airborne particles as they wear down, the manufacturer could look at other models of tyre, or at technology designed to capture these particles. It’s important not to feel helpless in the face of large environmental issues like air pollution. It’s absolutely possible to make changes and improvements, and the Air Quality Platform is a step towards that.
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29 October 2021

Darwin at the Space2Connect Conference 2021

Darwin at the Space2Connect Conference 2021

We were delighted to be invited to the Space2Connect Conference 2021! This was a hybrid event, attended by experts both online and in person, and skilfully organised by the European Space Agency (ESA).

We were delighted to be invited to the Space2Connect Conference 2021! This was a hybrid event, attended by experts both online and in person, and skilfully organised by the European Space Agency (ESA). It ran from 11 to 14 October. The conference was a fascinating opportunity to explore and discuss the potential of space-based technology. If you’re interested, you can watch the panels over here. Space2Move: 5G/6G & the Integration of Satcom in Future Networks Daniela Petrovic, our delivery director, spoke on the Space2Move panel, so we’re going to look at that discussion in a bit more depth! The panel was an exploration of how satellite communications and terrestrial communications could be combined for greater reach and versatility. The panel was moderated by Aarti Holla-Maini, secretary general of ESOA, and the other panellists were Helmut Zaglauer of Airbus, Antonio Arcidiacono of the European Broadcasting Union, Francesco Rispoli of Ansaldo STS, Peter Stuckmann of the European Commission, and Stéphane Anjuère of Thales Alenia Space. It was an honour for Darwin to take a place alongside such an impressive array of experts. From 14 minutes into the video of the panel on the Space2Connect website (Session 4), you can hear Daniela talking about our Cornwall demonstration in July. The results were very positive; the quality of signal was good throughout the demonstration, and there was no loss of communication when switching between terrestrial and satellite networks. We’re hoping to have a full-length article in the near future, talking in more depth about how our ubiquitous communications technology performed in Cornwall. At the 41m50s mark, you can also listen to Daniela talking about how the combination of terrestrial and satellite networks can open up new markets, creating the potential for new products in the worlds of transportation, insurance and more. The entire panel is worth watching for anyone with an interest in the satellite industry; it touches on a lot of interesting ideas, including the applications of satellite communication in rail systems, potential innovations on the design of the satellite dish, and whether mobile phones will be able to communicate directly with satellites in the future. Space2Connect 2021 was a great success: a testament to the combined efforts of the organisers, moderators, guests and everyone else who had a hand in it. We’re grateful to ESA for organising the conference, and we’re looking forward to next year!
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