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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 Anonymous Coward on Friday April 11, 2008 @05:19AM (#23034022)
    Damn! I'm going to have to start patenting all those 'inventions' by Newton. The first one I'm going to call gravity (TM).
    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 11, 2008 @06:00AM (#23034182)
      That's a bad name and will never be approved. A better one is "a procedure to transport a payload from one point to another by the use of an attractive force that is proportional to the mass of the payload and a reference object and is inversely proportional to the square of the distance of separation between the respective centers of mass". This one will be approved in a heartbeat and you can immediately use it to sue the airlines. See if you can get an injunction to prevent airplanes in flight from violating your patent. And if they crash you can sue the estates of the passengers!
    • I'm going to have to start patenting all those 'inventions' by Newton
      Just wait until Major League Baseball hears about my new patent "Method and Procedure for Throwing a Baseball so its Trajectory 'Curves' upon reaching Home Plate".
  • by seifried ( 12921 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @05:20AM (#23034028) Homepage
    What a ridiculous waste of time, money and energy. This is sickening.
    • 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?
      • Re:Jurisdiction? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 11, 2008 @06:35AM (#23034314)

        Even if the patent is "valid", what jurisdiction would it have in space?
        None, I'm sure. So all SES Americom would have to do is relocate themselves into geosynchronous orbit, and Bob's your uncle!

        Seriously though, from TFA:

        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".

        So, it's a moot point. We can't really be sure why SES Americom isn't pursuing this. For all we know, they're confident they'd win---but it might screw their chances for a reasonable settlement on their other suit against Boeing.

        Or, maybe, the satellite would have crashed into the sea by the time they got a resolution.
        • by Perl-Pusher ( 555592 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @08:49AM (#23035012)
          SES has decided not to pursue any legal options against Boeing and wants to collect their insurance policy payout.

          Why operate a satellite for years at diminishing returns when you can get an immediate big payoff? And as a side benefit the blame goes to a competitor whom your are engaged in a lawsuit with. Immoral? Not to them. Just businesses screwing each other. The Insurance company will pass the loss down the chain. Somewhere down the chain I figure I'm going to end up paying in a tax . Especially since the Fed and Congress are into the business of bailing out companies.
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Reziac ( 43301 ) *
            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.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Hellcom ( 1041714 )
        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: (Score:3, Interesting)

        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 c
      • In space? doubtful.
        In the place where any insurance payout will take place. Very valid probably.

        If you read the article you see that SES at this point want the insurance payout and does (pretent) not care for anything else.
      • Jurisdiction was the first thought that popped into my head

        IANALSIIPT(I am not a lawyer specialising in international patent treaties), but it seems to me that they need to source a company prepared to perform the manouvre from a country that does not respect US patents in all their absurtity.

        Said company, perhaps owned and operated by a toothless fish monger with excellent business accumen and ability to hire the right people from around the world, and existing for the sole purpose of moving one space veh

      • by rah1420 ( 234198 ) <> on Friday April 11, 2008 @08:08AM (#23034726)
        In space, no one can hear lawyers scream.
      • by v1 ( 525388 )
        well you have to manufacture and plan it somewhere.
      • Re:Jurisdiction? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Richard Kirk ( 535523 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @08:11AM (#23034738)

        This is not really about patents, but two companies having a scrap and using whatever tools come to hand. However, it does give some insights into the wonderful and wacky world of US patent law.

        The internaltional patent treaties require symmetrical rights across internaltional boundaries for the signatories, even though the patent laws of the signatories may not be the same. If a patent can cover something in country A, and cannot in country B, then within country B there is no infringement of that which cannot be patented.

        In Europe, for example, we cannot patent business practices, and software patents are being challenged. We canot patent either of these, which also means we cannot apply for a US patent even though the US patent would be valid.

        Consequently, an infringement of a US patent has to be found on US soil. Once a case has been found, then the lawysers can ask for (and get) damages that include losses of sales abroad. But without an infringement on US soil, the game doesn't start.

        If the Boeing patent was properly worded, then infringement would cover building a craft that could do the patented process, or issuing instructions for the patented process. As the craft was not designed to do this, then SES Americom might get around this by having someone in Europe issue the signals.

        Unfortunately, in such cases, neither side in a patent case is likely to get their costs back, so it is often easier to roll over then fight, particularly when one company is smaller than another.

  • by ulash ( 1266140 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @05:22AM (#23034032)
    ...when common sense does not prevail. The company and Boeing need to come to an agreement of sorts in order to avert the turning of the satellite into space debris. We already have enough stuff out there. The fact that there is no explicit "cost" to the company, of leaving something up there is the main reason for the seeming unwillingness for taking action.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by radaos ( 540979 )
      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 ) <(moc.x-nai) (ta) (nai)> 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.

      • by TorKlingberg ( 599697 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @06:43AM (#23034356)
        How do you know that SES Americom is doing anything wrong by suing Boeing? If that other suit is valid, then Boeing is abusing the patent system to prevent others from suing them.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward
        Why is splashing the satellite a "dirty trick"? It is good business sense. The satellite is insured for the full value that SES would have gained had it stayed in orbit for it's intended 15 years. The fact is, with the lunar fly by, the satellite would have burned so much fuel that it could have only been kept in orbit for four years, and the insurance company would have had to pay off for the other 11 years. Makes much more sense to me to just splash it, collect the insurance, and get back to work.

      • by Whiteox ( 919863 )
        Perfectly good satellite that can be saved or sold, but being dumped for insurance?
        Makes no sense.
  • Abandon patents (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 11, 2008 @05:28AM (#23034054)
    Can't we just abandon the whole patent system?
  • by Ihlosi ( 895663 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @05:37AM (#23034092)
    Send more lawyers !
  • 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.
    • 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.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      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.

  • 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: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      The advantage of this would be that, somewhere in the universe, there's likely to be prior art for just about any invention that's even remotely useful, so bye, bye, patents.
    • by njfuzzy ( 734116 )
      There are treaties that govern mutual patent respect between different nations.
  • by pla ( 258480 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @05:57AM (#23034170) Journal
    a Boeing patent on the lunar flyby process that would be used to correct the satellite's orbit.

    So this amounts to a patent on moving in a given direction? April first passed by almost two weeks ago. C'mon, guys, bad joke?

    Unbelievable. We don't need patent reform, we need an angry mob to storm the USPTO and burn the place to dust, then sift through the dust and re-burn anything left, then haul the entire mess to a live volcano. You just can't have a monopoly on basic physics, Boeing, whether or not the rules allow it. Seriously, grow the fuck up and go back to competing with Airbus on technical merits rather than endless pissing contests with the WTO/WIPO.
  • 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".
  • 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?

  • Worst.....Patent.....Ever.
  • Does anybody have the number of the patent that Boeing is referring to?
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      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 M
  • 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.
  • by dotmax ( 642602 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @06:42AM (#23034348)
    I found it interesting that the article said the insurance company did not previously know about the lunar maneuver. Seems kind of incompetent of them, given the kind of money that is involved in this sort of stuff. This leads to a related thought: i wonder how many other satellites have a) used this maneuver or b) been lost for failing to use it. In the meantime, i have patented my "drive around the block because you missed your turn" business strategy, along with my "drive around the block until a parking space opens up" business strategy. You all owe me a MILLION dollars.
  • When a company, a non corporeal legal entity, has more rights than the meat sacks something is seriously out of whack.

    Companies now hold more of an interest [] in the inner [] workings [] of your own body than you do, and have laid successful claim [] to elements of orbital mechanics [].

    What's next? Patents being issued on the revitalizing and energizing properties of sunshine? The hydrating effects of water?

    What are 1000 patent lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?

    A good start.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      The patent system is broken... we need to fix it

      1) Only allow patents on processes not things
      2) Only allow patents on processes people can prove they invented (not as now that no-one has yet proved they didn't)
      3) Force people to licence patents (i.e. anyone can use it for a fee) and restrict the fee charged so they cannot bury it or skew the market

    • What are 1000 patent lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?

      ... a waste of perfectly good ocean floor.
  • Really.

    This is total and utter nonsense - just friggin move the satelite and prove for once and for all that patents such as these are dumb crap.

    There. Said it.
  • 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.

  • Wow (Score:2, Insightful)

    by setrops ( 101212 )
    Unbelievable! Wouldn't Douglas Adams's process on falling and missing the ground be considered as prior art?
  • Can we get a "fuckingstupid" tag?
  • 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 Jerry ( 6400 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @08:13AM (#23034744)
    "the patent office was incompetent when it came to space matters".

    To "space matters." ??

    Some corporate bozo just found out the incompetence of the USTPO isn't just in software patents, it's stupidity crosses ALL boundaries and affects every activity, personal or otherwise.

    Giant corporations and multinationals have purchased the USTPO lock, stock and barrel. It's snuggled up in their pockets right next to the USDept Of Justice, our Congress, and those Judges who are given expensive trips to re-educate them in ways they can help corporations circumvent the Sherman-Clayton Anti-Trust Act, and other laws.

  • 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.

  • Just guessing, but the patent in question might be about Ed Belbruno's [] US patent #6999860, "Low energy method for changing the inclinations of orbiting satellites using weak stability boundaries and a computer process for implementing same" It's the similar to the trick that Hiten [] used back in the 90's. Basically, a spacecraft in Earth orbit enters a highly eccentric yet fairly low energy trajectory that takes it out very far from Earth. As the vehicle passes approaches apogee the perturbations from the
  • 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.

Today is the first day of the rest of your lossage.