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Space Communications Patents

Satellite Abandoned Due To Orbital Patent 366

EreIamJH brings news about a commercial geostationary satellite that was launched last month. Due to a launch failure, the satellite did not reach the orbit required to perform its function. The satellite's owner, SES Americom, looked for a way to salvage the satellite, but ran into an unexpected hurdle; a Boeing patent on the lunar flyby process that would be used to correct the satellite's orbit. If another company doesn't purchase the satellite, it is likely to become another piece of space junk. The European Space Agency has posted a gallery of the maps they have put together for man-made debris in orbit around the earth.
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Satellite Abandoned Due To Orbital Patent

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  • by seifried ( 12921 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @05:30AM (#23034060) Homepage
    They are suing Boeing in another matter, Boeing told them they could use the patent if they drop the suit (50 million according to the article). Unlikely Boeing will license them the patent.
  • by Detritus ( 11846 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @05:34AM (#23034082) Homepage
    RTFA. There is an unrelated legal dispute between the two companies and Boeing wanted to tie the licensing of the patent to a settlement of that dispute.
  • by radaos ( 540979 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @05:36AM (#23034088) Homepage
    There does not seem to be any question of this satellite turning into space debris. From the article...

    both parties are "eager to splash the satellite within days".
  • by njfuzzy ( 734116 ) <ian.ian-x@com> on Friday April 11, 2008 @05:43AM (#23034118) Homepage
    It's worth pointing out that Boeing only denied the request to license the patent because SES Americom is suing them over something else. So really this isn't a case of "patents are evil" it is a case of "you reap what you sow".

    Also, SES Americom has the option of selling the satellite to someone who might be able to get the license from Boeing. However, they have chosen to "splash" the satellite and collect their insurance money.

    Dirty tricks all around by SES Americom, but less so by Boeing.

  • method patent (Score:1, Informative)

    by twitter ( 104583 ) * on Friday April 11, 2008 @05:53AM (#23034150) Homepage Journal

    You might do better with ski jump instructions or methods of arranging sails for maneuver on the high seas. A maneuver in space is still just a maneuver and a patent on that looks silly when you take it out of the heavens and put it into situations most of us are familiar with.

  • by jmdc ( 1152611 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @06:00AM (#23034180)
    I know its a pretty reasonable assumption that nobody will read the summary or the article, but come on... The summary says it's likely to become another piece of space junk. The entire last paragraph of the article concerns plans to deorbit the satellite, and claims that everyone involved is "eager to splash the satellite within days".
  • Re:Jurisdiction? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Hellcom ( 1041714 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @06:36AM (#23034316)
    Likely jurisdiction would fall under wherever the owner of the satellite is.
  • Re:Jurisdiction? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Loke the Dog ( 1054294 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @06:40AM (#23034338)
    It's basically the same as international waters, it depends on what flag you're flying. The owner is american, and that means the satellite is a tiny part of america. Thus, american patents apply to it.
  • Re:method patent (Score:5, Informative)

    by foobsr ( 693224 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @06:43AM (#23034362) Homepage Journal
    ski jump instructions

    Time to again draw attention to us patent 6368227: "A method of swing on a swing is disclosed, in which a user positioned on a standard swing suspended by two chains from a substantially horizontal tree branch induces side to side motion by pulling alternately on one chain and then the other."

    A question that sometimes drives me hazy: am I or are the others crazy? Einstein

  • by njfuzzy ( 734116 ) <ian.ian-x@com> on Friday April 11, 2008 @06:50AM (#23034394) Homepage
    Getting into a specific orbit isn't just a matter of reaching a certain altitude. It's a matter of reaching it with the right vector-- you have to be going the right speed or its not an orbit, it's called "falling".
  • Re:Jurisdiction? (Score:2, Informative)

    by ringmaster_j ( 760218 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @06:56AM (#23034418)

    I understood space to be a legal no-man's land

    Kind of, but not really. The laws of space are so unclear that a lot of people assume that you can do anything you want there, and no one can stop you because it simply isn't Earth. Alas, this isn't the case. SES Americom is an American and, indeed, Earth-based company, and as such is bound by both American and international law, including those regarding patents.

    If I were Boeing's lawyers, I'd argue it this way: Boeing has the patent in America. SES (presumably) operates its satellites from America. All the work being done in order to use the patent is being done in America (i.e. reading the procedure, making the calculations, sending directions to the satellite). Ergo, the patent is being used in America, even if the end result of the patent (the 'lunar flyby process') is in space.

    What one has to remember is that space is actually pretty tightly bound by national laws. Because no one can say who it belongs to, the Americans just treat it like it's part of America, and the Russians like it's part of Russia. Out of convenience, American companies operating in space are subject to American law, and those of their home states. This is the de facto position, of course, and de jure there really are no laws. Your activities in space are, for legal purposes, domestic activities because you rarely actually act in space; you send orders to objects that tell them to take actions. Even if you were to somehow act illegally in space, if you returned to America you'd be subject to American law, under federal jurisdiction.
  • by ChrisCampbell47 ( 181542 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @07:19AM (#23034514)
    I remember when they pulled off that lunar flyby method to save the satellite. It was May 1998 and the AsiaSat 3 launch had been presumed a complete failure, just like AMC-14 this time. The lunar flyby option uses the satellite's own fuel (instead of a booster) to slowly, over weeks, nudge the satellite's apogee further out until it reached the moon's orbit. It flew by the moon as the moon itself was flying around the earth, and the result was that the moon's gravity pulled the satellite in the right direction to get it going towards a useful GEO orbit.

    I had that trajectory plot (done with AGI's STK [], I think) as the desktop image on my computer for 3 years.

    Here is what the trajectory looked like []. The big tradeoff of this method is that you burn most of the satellite's fuel, fuel that was intended to be used over the 15-year life of the sat for stationkeeping. So you end up with a sat in GEO orbit but with much less lifetime. Better than nothing! Well, except for an insurance payout, I guess.

  • Re:method patent (Score:5, Informative)

    by rhendershot ( 46429 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @08:22AM (#23034786) Journal
    This had to be a joke, thought I.

    It isn't. Here's the USPTO page. OMG...

    Patent Granted: Tarzan Swinging []

    Lastly, it should be noted that because pulling alternately on one chain and then the other resembles in some measure the movements one would use to swing from vines in a dense jungle forest, the swinging method of the present invention may be referred to by the present inventor and his sister as "Tarzan" swinging. The user may even choose to produce a Tarzan-type yell while swinging in the manner described, which more accurately replicates swinging on vines in a dense jungle forest. Actual jungle forestry is not required.

    Licenses are available from the inventor upon request.
  • Flamebait article (Score:3, Informative)

    by slashbart ( 316113 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @08:26AM (#23034810) Homepage
    I know I'm not supposed to, but I actually skimmed the article, and have the following quotes:

    In the face of unrelated legal battles between the current patent owner Boeing and the satellite's owner SES Americom - any efforts to salvage AMC-14 have been cast aside.

    Primarily this is because SES is currently suing Boeing for an unrelated New Skies matter in the order of $50 million dollars - and Boeing told SES that the patent was only available if SES Americom dropped the lawsuit.

    Industry sources have told SpaceDaily that the patent is regarded as legal "trite", as basic physics has been rebranded as a "process", and that the patent wouldn't stand up to any significant level of court scrutiny and was only registered at the time as "the patent office was incompetent when it came to space matters".

    SES has decided not to pursue any legal options against Boeing and wants to collect their insurance policy payout. However, their insurance company was not being fully briefed on the options and at this time is planning to pay the policy out.

    Separately, another company has approached the insurers about buying the spacecraft for salvage using the lunar flyby option. Initially, the insurers were surprised as they had no knowledge of this option and suggested that they contact SES Americom directly.

  • by khayman80 ( 824400 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @08:33AM (#23034858) Homepage Journal
    Mod parent down. I just looked at the links provided by another poster in this thread, and realized I misread the description of this "lunar flyby" maneuver. It isn't just a resonance, it's an orbital transfer that literally involves a close pass by the moon. The maneuver is useful (I think) to regularize orbits that are both very eccentric and have high inclinations. A high eccentricity orbit can have its apogee (farthest point on the orbit) shifted with little delta-V required if the rocket burn is applied at perigee (closest point to earth along orbit). By doing this, the apogee can be shifted close to the moon, and lunar gravity can very efficiently (compared to a brute force burn) shift the inclination of the orbit.
  • by dabadab ( 126782 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @08:54AM (#23035062)

    New ideas get shared because they are very hard to keep secret.

    And that, my liege, is why patents were not meant to apply to ideas but to actual inventions.
    Having the idea that some elastic stuff would come really handy, but that's just an idea that anyone can come up with. But, on the other hand, the process of vulcanization is an entirely different beast: it can be kept a secret rather effectively and it really takes some hard work (or huge luck) to come up with that.
  • by 1800maxim ( 702377 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @11:28AM (#23036914)
    What will happen is this. His methods will be labeled quackery, he will be mocked, and there will be ridicule of his unscientific methods. Pharma companies will push their propaganda that only their scientifically-derived drugs work, and will continue to sells its drugs as teh best possible thing short of a cure (does anyone still feel that prozac helps?). Cures are the demise of pharma companies. They don't want cures. Much like RIAA, they want subscription fee for life, not pay once and enjoy for your lifetime.

    The FDA will side with pharma companies, as it has been doing for decades.
  • by Firethorn ( 177587 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @12:14PM (#23037498) Homepage Journal
    But he's not, at the moment at least, he's keeping it a trade secret.

    So, if anything goes wrong, the knowledge would be lost forever. This happened with a specific process used to make artificial gemstones(I think rubies). The inventor died without passing it on, and while we've found alternate methods, we've never found [i]his[/i]. The process is unique.

    By allowing patents, we get people like him to divulge his or her information in exchange for protection of their patent, allowing them to make money off from it in a non-secretive fashion, helping society as a whole. Beyond that, setting terms and time limits is 'tweaking' the formula to try to gain maximum benefit.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 11, 2008 @01:34PM (#23038422)
    Cow's nuts, sometimes called prairie oysters, are often eaten in ranching regions. This includes US and Canada. Granted they are a novelty menu item, but they are not generally considered that gross.

Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.