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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 Zantetsuken ( 935350 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @05:40AM (#23034100) Homepage
    With so much crap like this, why doesn't Boeing make such rescue techniques cost effective and safe enough to do regularly and then offer it as a service = Your satellite dies, we rescue it for a decent fee.

    While launching a satellite might cost less than the rescue mission, I would think that figuring building another of the doomed satellite into the cost of launching another would make a rescue mission more attractive...

    BTW: don't take it too much to heart, I'm only an armchair astronaut...
  • Jurisdiction? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Kooshman ( 248753 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @05:42AM (#23034114)
    Does anybody know how this patent even has jurisdiction? I understood space to be a legal no-man's land, so any action taken there can't fall under the laws of any nation. Perhaps they could track it back to "sending the signals from earth", at which point you could do the same thing from international waters or an apathetic country.
  • by kirthn ( 64001 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @05:46AM (#23034128)
    So in the case that the patent holds in the USA... why not then involving ESA (european Spece Agency) to solve this or other non-american company....besieds the question if patents are applicable outside earth for that matter ;)..wha's next? suing the martians for a patent??

  • Re:Jurisdiction? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 11, 2008 @05:51AM (#23034140)
    Totally. Set up a shell company abroad, sell the satellite for 1 dollar to it, that company can fix the problem outside of the ridiculous patent, then sell the satellite back to SES.

    How much did the satellite cost to build and launch? Presumably nowhere near $50m, and the sunk design cost can be reused.

    Someone should tell the insurance company that the satellite is savable.
  • Jurisdiction? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by countach ( 534280 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @05:55AM (#23034158)
    Even if the patent is "valid", what jurisdiction would it have in space?
  • by khayman80 ( 824400 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @06:06AM (#23034220) Homepage Journal
    Patent issues aside, I'm interested in the maneuver they want to perform. As far as I can tell, the satellite is slightly below geostationary orbit (36,000 km up, if memory serves) and they want to use a "lunar flyby" maneuver to get the satellite up to the Clarke orbit.


    The moon is about 400,000 km away. If they can perform a flyby, doesn't that mean they've got enough remaining delta-V to slightly increase the radius of their current orbit? Or is it a problem with the orientation of the plane of the orbit?

  • by Hal_Porter ( 817932 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @06:21AM (#23034256)
    Why does slashdot keep running these stories?

    It reminds me of those insipid company newsletter I occasionally get emailed which are inept propaganda.

    "We scored a design win in France"

    Translation: The CEO spent a couple of weeks there eating good food and bumped into one of his school mates in a restaurant and pretended to do some work. Funny how they don't mention he picked a legal fight with another megacorp that caused the project I was working on with them to get cancelled. And it's not we you brainwashed drone.

    "Competitor technology not picked in Nigeria"

    Well great. I guess we paid a bigger bribe than them. If you subtract the bribe how much did we actually make.

    "Project moneyburner a success"

    Yeah, because we all worked unpaid overtime and the only customer was internal.
  • by Keramos ( 1263560 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @06:37AM (#23034318)

    From the article:

    a) Industry sources say the patent is basically worthless
    b) Americom wants to collect it's insurance
    c) Third party goes to insurer, says "We'll buy the satellite and recover it ourselves"
    d) Insurer says "No one told us you could recover satellites" so we haven't taken possession of the satellite (if we did, we'd have to worry about getting rid of it, you see). BTW, good risk evaluation & mitigation, guys. I've got a sandcastle I'd like to insure for $50M vs. water damage. Interested?
    e) Third party goes to Americom, says "We'll buy the satellite and recover it ourselves"
    f) Americom ignores them, meanwhile tries real hard to de-orbit the satellite really quick.

    Now, if this were a movie/book, sticking in "QA finds a problem in the satellite before launch, PHB's decide to launch it anyway, have an unfortunate, totally unforeseen and obviously accidental problem, ditch the unit and collect from insurance" somewhere would fit in naturally.

    Hollywood is just a French movie's way of reproducing.
  • Re:Jurisdiction? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Oktober Sunset ( 838224 ) <> on Friday April 11, 2008 @06:46AM (#23034374)
    And if they did it, how would Boeing find out, or prove it?

    Surly Boeing doesn't have the ability to track someone else's satellite where ever it is, they could sneak it round, do the flyby, and get it in the right orbit when Boeing aren't looking. What are Boeing going to do, sue them for some shit that happened in space that they can't prove?

    Tho given the US legal stsyem, that's still not 100% certain. T totaly avoid any attempt to sue them, they could just start a small holding company in some country that Boeing doesn't have a patent, sell the satellite to the holding company, they do the manoeuvre, then buy it back. Then the holding company liquidates itself. Boeing can't do shit.
  • by Smidge204 ( 605297 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @06:54AM (#23034408) Journal
    But you're not patenting "a method for the thermal expansion of a gas" - you're patenting a specific arrangement of parts that allow you extract work from such an event. (And there are lots of different methods that can be used)

    An orbit calculation is just (fairly) basic math involving position, velocity and time. Centuries-old math. Basically they patented a specific set of input values to the equations. I call bullshit.
  • by AliasMarlowe ( 1042386 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @06:54AM (#23034412) Journal
    It could be 6,116,545 with abstract:
    "A method is provided for using a lunar flyby maneuver to transfer a satellite from a quasi-geosynchronous transfer orbit having a high inclination to a final geosynchronous orbit having a low inclination. The invention may be used to take the inclination of a final geosynchronous orbit of a satellite to zero, resulting in a geostationary orbit, provided that the satellite is launched in March or September."
    Alternatively, it might be 6,149,103 which does not have the March/September dependency.

    Both of these patents were originally assigned to Hughes. Boeing and GM own nearly all of what was Hughes, and Boeing got the space and satellite parts (including bits via Raytheon as an intermediate owner).
  • Doesn't add up (Score:5, Interesting)

    by evilviper ( 135110 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @08:05AM (#23034716) Journal
    Okay, so the patent won't stand up to scrutiny.

    The company is already in court, suing Boeing on an unrelated issue.

    But they won't risk violating this terrible patent, why? Clearly they're more than willing to risk a lawsuit from Boeing.

    If the patent is so obviously invalid, it won't take much effort to fight and have it invalidated. And on the off chance they fail, they can argue the issue to a judge, who will decide the value of the infringement, as opposed to Boeing, who refuses to budge.

    And time on a satellite is very, very expensive, so they will easily be making tens of millions of dollars on the deal, worst case.

    This whole story makes no sense. Sounds like something even shadier is going on under the table, and they'd prefer to use this as cover.
  • by thePig ( 964303 ) <> on Friday April 11, 2008 @08:17AM (#23034760) Journal
    Not quite.
    In India, near where I live , there is a village doctor who can completely cure jaundice (at least the ones caused by Viral hepatitis) with a medicine his grandfather invented long long back.
    It is an amazing medicine - he has cured people with bilurubin count as high as 12 - that too with just two portions of this medicine.
    He keeps it a secret - just as his grandfather and his father has done.
    Since he is not known outside, only a few people get the benefit of the medicine.
    Also, if he dies before he can tell his children about the medicine, this information is lost forever.

    That is where patents can help. If he can just patent it, and sell the patent to medicine companies, he would become richer than he can now even dream of. The companies can then sell the medicine all over the world and people all over gets the benefit.

    This is the reason patents are there. And it makes a whole lot of sense too.

    p.s -> he does not believe any one, so he doesnt believe in patents also. but that is a completely different matter.
  • by tomhudson ( 43916 ) <barbara.hudson@b ... u d s o n . c om> on Friday April 11, 2008 @08:22AM (#23034784) Journal

    No - dumping the satellite and collecting the insurance is the smart thing to do. The satellite was supposed to have a 15 year lifespan. With the reduced fuel after the "patented application", it only has 4 years - so they're only going to get about 1/4 the revenue, and still have to launch another one. In other words, their satellite had already lost 3/4 of its' value no matter what.

    Since this is slashdot, let's use a car analogy.

    You buy a car, and you expect it to last 15 years (okay, you buy a JAPANESE car, and expect it to last 15 years), for $30k. However, just after you take it off the dealer's lot, it gets pretty much totalled. The insurance company will pay to fix it, but it will never be the same, and they've told you that after 4 years, you'll have to scrap it because the repairs will not last beyond that time. In other words, even after everything is "fixed", you'll have to fork out for another car within 4 years ...

    You will have spent $60k for 2 cars, for 19 years of combined service, or more than $3k/year.

    Or you can take the insurance payout for the full value and buy another new car that will last 15 years. The new car is, essentially, free, so you $30k investment for 15 years brings your cost down to $2k/year.

    Scale up the numbers, and they hold true for the satellite company. Keeping the old one will saddle them with additional capital costs of almost 60%.

  • by OeLeWaPpErKe ( 412765 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @08:42AM (#23034942) Homepage
    Well if it matters to you the direct approach (ie bouncing light of mirrors into* a sterling engine) is unencumbered (it *was* patented, so don't worry anyone will repatent it).

    * "onto" would be the more correct term physically, but the sunlight makes the engine turn, so I'm thinking "into" is a nicer way to say that

    Also oil companies have patents on solar power because solar panels are made of ... (tadaa) ... oil (well an oil substrate, followed by Si, followed by more oil).

    If it makes you feel better, they hardly have any patents on biofuels (I guess they thought that using people's food to drive cars was both not feasible and inhumane. The "green" nuts thought that it lowered co2 and killed (faraway) humans, again lowering co2 output, so I guess for them it's just great business, right ?)

    And since you are so against oil companies (not that I'm pro, but I don't believe they're evil, and I find your conspiracy idiocies truly irritating and hypocritical, since you typed said post in on a product, made by those "evil" oil companies), surely you do not have a car, or anything made of plastic ?

    Right ? The keyboard you type the answer to this post on is ... wood, right ? Because without oil, it couldn't have been plastic.
  • by ktappe ( 747125 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @09:11AM (#23035224)
    If I damage my car, my insurance company doesn't just take my word for it that it's totalled and hand me a check. They send an assessor out and THEY decide if the car is salvageable or a total loss. Why in this case is the insurance company so willing to pay up? Why don't they tell SES "Um, you need to at least try to contest that patent before we're paying. We'll cover court fees, but we think that will be much less costly than building and launching a whole new bird." They beancounter the average citizen to death on any/all claims but are willing to fork over $50 million without so much as a word of objection?? Something does indeed sound fishy here.
  • by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @09:18AM (#23035288) Homepage []

    A CNN article about the procedure and how it was done back when they first tried it.

  • by SQLGuru ( 980662 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @10:13AM (#23035908) Journal
    Not everything in corporate America is patented. ( Patents give you legal protection of your invention for a set period of years. Trade secrets give you benefit for as long as you can keep it a secret. The formula for Coke has been kept under wraps for many years not because it isn't patentable, but because once the patent "runs out" anyone could make it.

    So, the formula he uses to cure jaundice is a trade secret. Of course, the implication is that it is not covered by the FDA which could lead to other complications for this guy. I would think that he would be better off with a patent licensed to a big drug company. They'd do the work to get it approved by the FDA and take the hit of any lawsuits and he'd get some cash for his family. If the license was worked right, he'd be able to continue to use it. But I am not a lawyer.

  • Re:method patent (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jank1887 ( 815982 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @12:30PM (#23037682)
    I heard that the guy who submitted that patent did so deliberately to demonstrate the absurdity of the patent system. Iirc, he was a lawyer, possibly a patent attorney.
  • by Reziac ( 43301 ) * on Friday April 11, 2008 @01:11PM (#23038154) Homepage Journal
    Hmm... I think you may have nailed it. Satellite goes down due to some engineering mistake, insurance company won't pay cuz it's our own damn fault. Satellite goes down due to "they won't *let* us fix it", insurance pays, then insurance company sues the patent holder. -- It would be very interesting to get a look at their insurance contract.

  • by repapetilto ( 1219852 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @01:16PM (#23038194)
    What I wanted to find out is the annual consumer spending on drugs and compare that to your number of $10 billion So according to this [] drug companies made 35.9 billion dollars in 2002. Its not exactly the data I wanted but you can figure that money already supplied by the government(medicare, etc) and money "wasted" (would be unnecessary otherwise) on marketing will cancel each other out to some extent. The ultimate point was that people are privately spending tens of billions of dollars a year on patented medicines right now anyway, if we did away with patents and just funneled that into research (via taxes)it could be that everyone ends up paying less for their medicines.

    So really patents aren't obviously necessary to the process of drug discovery.

To write good code is a worthy challenge, and a source of civilized delight. -- stolen and paraphrased from William Safire