First Fix: Very busy space

March 13, 2024  - By
Artist impression; size of debris exaggerated as compared to Earth. (Image: ESA)

Artist impression; size of debris exaggerated as compared to Earth. (Image: ESA)

So much going on up there!

On Jan.11, speaking at a press briefing in Paris, Javier Benedicto, director of navigation for the European Space Agency (ESA), announced the agency had completed the procurement process for the low-Earth Orbit Positioning Navigation and Timing (LEO PNT) program. ESA expects to have the new LEO PNT demonstration satellites, which will broadcast signals over several frequency bands, up and running by 2026. A positive outcome will most likely lead to the procurement and deployment of a full European LEO PNT constellation for global services.

Also in January, news broke that Google and two of the largest mobile network operators in the world, AT&T and Vodafone, had invested more than $200 million in AST SpaceMobile’s cellular broadband network based on LEO satellites and accessible directly by smartphones. AST SpaceMobile already operates the largest-ever commercial communications array in LEO, the BlueWalker 3 satellite, which, due to its size and brightness, is alarming astronomers.

On Feb. 21, The New York Times reported about U.S. warnings to its allies that Russia might deploy a nuclear weapon in orbit this year. According to the paper, U.S. intelligence agencies told their closest European allies that, “if Russia is going to launch a nuclear weapon into orbit, it will probably do so this year — but that it might instead launch a harmless ‘dummy’ warhead into orbit to leave the West guessing about its capabilities.” A space weapon nested inside a satellite could destroy, jam, or otherwise disable dozens or hundreds of commercial and military satellites in LEO, such as the Starlink satellites that are revolutionizing global communications. See Dana Goward’s analysis.

The next day, Tim Crain, chief technology officer of the Houston-based company Intuitive Machines announced, “Houston, Odysseus has found its new home.” For the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972, a U.S.-built spacecraft had landed on the moon. Odysseus, described by the Times as “a bit bigger than a telephone booth,” (which most people under the age of 20 have never seen), was later confirmed to be upright and sending images. It was delivered into lunar orbit by a SpaceX rocket. NASA hopes this mission will help inaugurate a new era of economical spaceflights around the solar system. Intuitive Machines is one of several small companies the agency has hired to transport instruments to reconnoiter the surface of Earth’s only natural satellite in preparation for the return of NASA astronauts.

My highly synthetic description of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) aircraft tracking systems in last month’s First Fix was a bit muddled. Fortunately, I can count on our Editorial Advisory Board member Mitch Narins to clarify:

FAA systems determine an aircraft’s position using a combination of independent and dependent surveillance. Independent surveillance does not require the “cooperation” of the aircraft (e.g., primary radar), while dependent surveillance requires the aircraft to either respond to an interrogation signal or periodically transmit its position — e.g., Automatic Dependent Surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B).

About the Author: Matteo Luccio

Matteo Luccio, GPS World’s Editor-in-Chief, possesses more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for GNSS and geospatial technology magazines. He began his career in the industry in 2000, serving as managing editor of GPS World and Galileo’s World, then as editor of Earth Observation Magazine and GIS Monitor. His technical articles have been published in more than 20 professional magazines, including Professional Surveyor Magazine, Apogeo Spatial and xyHt. Luccio holds a master’s degree in political science from MIT. He can be reached at or 541-543-0525.