The Semisub Explanation for the Launch Off the California Coast

November 11, 2010

I’ve been largely unemployed, and arguably unemployable, these last few months.  I keep getting calls, and I keep hearing from friends working on new commercial space projects, but I rarely call them back, and when I do it’s either too late or the job would require more from me than I have to give.

About three months back I did have a series of interesting conversations which came to mind yesterday when I was reading about the alleged undisclosed missile launch off the California coast.  A former colleague had recommended me for a consulting opening managing software development for a company that was working on converting abandoned oil drilling platforms into launch pads for commercial satellites and rockets.  In the course of one of the last calls, with the president of the company, I realized that some of the oil rigs they were talking about modifying were semisubs, or floating, mobile oil rigs.  I asked why they’d outfit semisubs as launch platforms, given the added complexity and insecurity of a floating as opposed to rigidly anchored platform, and he never gave me a satisfactory answer, saying only that some of his customers were very keen on having flexible launch windows and being able to control their visibility.  The latter statement I took as meaning that the companies or governments who would buy these semisub platforms wanted to be able to go unmonitored by other companies or governments.  While I could see some legitimacy to private companies or governments not wanting their rivals overly aware of their activities, it (combined with the president’s peculiarly unsettling personality) made me uneasy, and I politely declined the job citing scheduling conflicts.

I should add that I don’t know to what degree a semisub platform could escape or avoid notice, this is all conjecture on my part.  Surely any launch would be detectable by rival governments or companies, and the launch would be tracked back to its source via commercial or government reconnaissance satellites.  Once spotted any traditional slow moving launch platform would have quite a job escaping the watchful eye of a roused satellite.  The possibility occurred to me that since these semisubs have built into their very design the ability to radically alter their buoyancy, perhaps a modified platform could be made to slip most of its bulk just below the waves, or at least right to the waves, where its remaining imprint could be hidden by the wake of the ships covertly tasked with tugging the platform to its new location.  Such a system might be able to escape notice post launch.

What the practical purpose of such a commercial or foreign launch off the California coast would be I don’t know, unless we consider the possibility that some entity was making the radical statement, “We can launch our benign or malignant payloads from anywhere we choose.  You cannot  stop us, you cannot even identify us.”

I’m not saying that’s what happened, of course, perhaps it was just a trick of perspective and high altitude winds toying with a contrail.  The company I talked to didn’t sound as though they were so close to having a viable mobile platform, and I’m not sure if there are any other competitors in that space. Still, it is an interesting possibility to consider, particularly given the rogue nations we all worry about (North Korea and Iran in particular).


Voyager 2 Has Flipped Its Bit

May 12, 2010

I was just alerted to this story by one of the followers of this blog…  Last month Voyager 2 began returning some unusual signals.  This story is being reported by alternate news outlets as suggesting that aliens have tampered with Voyager 2.  NASA’s own take on the story is quite a bit more conventional.

I’m afraid most of my readers will be disappointed, but I feel confident a conventional explanation is the correct one.  I’ve seen something similar happen before.

As I detailed in Curiosity of Spirit, cosmic rays can have peculiar and devastating effects on electronic hardware. In most cases, like that of Spirit, a computer’s memory can be altered, perhaps even regions of it made unusable.  I remember a meeting I was pulled into at GRC in 1992 or 1993.  A recently launched military spy satellite had suddenly become effectively unresponsive.  It continued to transmit, but its responses were unintelligible, and it didn’t appear to be receiving or reacting to messages transmitted to it.  Ordinarily NASA wouldn’t be involved since it was a military project, but other agencies were apparently being cursorily queried for ideas as the satellite was soon going to miss a burn without which it might pose a risk to other satellites.

We were being asked to spend two hours brainstorming and come up with whatever we could.  Like Voyager 2 the basic protocol was still received as expected, but the contents were no longer readable. Initial theories related to a problem with the memory used to buffer the transmissions, problems with the logic boards, problems with a recent software update, etc.  The engineer who shared the office next to mine suggested something that fit the facts perfectly. “What if the encryption key was somehow changed?” A discussion followed and by the end of the meeting this became the leading theory, that a cosmic ray or some other event had bit flipped one or more bits in the encryption key used to encrypt data for Earth and decrypt data from Earth.  With the key no longer matching the key on Earth, the satellite was effectively speaking a different and incomprehensible language.  Someone relayed our guess to whoever had asked us to be involved and about two weeks later we learned that this was in fact what happened.  Apparently it was no easy task figuring out what the key had now become.  NSA was drawn into it and put their considerable resources to bear in trying different alterations of the original key to make a new key which could decode the received data.  It took them most of those two weeks, a stable of computers, and billions of combinations tested, to find the new key (which was only a handful of bits away from the original).  Once they had the new key, all communication and control was restored.

I’m pretty confident that Voyager 2 is suffering from a similar bit flip problem.


Probing the Mystery of Spirit’s Censors

May 4, 2010

An article in last week’s Sun newspaper was entitled “NASA: Evidence of Life on Mars”. The piece opens very confidently:

NASA scientists last night unveiled compelling evidence of life on Mars.

A special mission to the Red Planet has revealed the likely presence of a form of pond scum – the building blocks of life as we know it.

NASA unveiled the results of the recent Opportunity and Spirit probes sent millions of miles through the solar system to discover signs of extraterrestrial life.

Sadly, NASA reacted quickly and explained that the newspaper must have simply misunderstood the results their scientists had presented.

It got me wondering, though… In my Curiosity of Spirit document I was forced to admit that Rich and I were never able to figure out just what was being censored in the images from Spirit. We couldn’t see anything worth suppressing in the thumbnails they were using to make the determination. We wondered if perhaps they were using some special filters to process the images to bring out subtle artificial or organic patterns in the image. Rich and I made a few attempts with various guessed filter settings, but we gave up as we saw nothing obviously unfamiliar pop out of the thumbnails.

I now begin to wonder if perhaps The Sun accidentally misunderstood it correctly. What if Spirit really had photographed something akin to “pond scum”. What if those mysterious persons who were looking at the Spirit thumbnails transmitted over the faster than light connection to Earth were using filters to process the images which would make organic material coating certain portions of rocks more visible. Rich and I unaided would have likely missed the discolorations, and thus their significance. I am increasingly convinced this may be the right answer to the mystery; it fits the facts so neatly.

It would be a far easier case to prove with the images (and regions) they suppressed, but if we assume they accidentally let a few images slip through, then there is still a chance; the thumbnails would surely have been hard to work with, there’s no way they could have noticed everything.

If anyone reading is available to assist in the analysis of the Spirit imagery, testing various filter settings to see if we can draw out possible organic features, please contact me.


Mutable Thought-Memory Method

May 3, 2010

In my post, Paranoia + Precaution = The Dead Man’s Switch, I vaguely mentioned a method I had for ensuring I wouldn’t reveal information under duress. Someone quite reasonably doubted such a thing could be possible; it does sound rather far fetched, and I think the topic warrants further comment.

I do have vague plans of revealing the method I call the Mutable Thought-Memory Method. I believe it would help a lot of people: from dissidents, to spies, to soldiers taken prisoner, to ordinary people. Anyone who needs to store and remember some small piece of information in their brain that they must not be allowed to recall under emotionally stressful conditions can use this method. But I still have some improvements I wish to make before posting the full information, and I still want to reveal only a variation on the method I actually use so I won’t potentially compromise my own security.

For now, just to satisfy people’s reasonable curiosity, and because I’m rather proud of my scheme, I’ll discuss the approach I came up with in the early 1990s, from which my current approach and the one I’ll reveal later descends.

I was doing some trusted systems work in the early 1990s. Our trusted systems work involved developing the hardware and software necessary to ensure that information can be stored securely and irretrievably in electronic hardware. The data our trusted systems were trying to keep safe were cryptographic keys, with which files or streams of data can be encrypted and decrypted. Protecting the keys is critical because if the keys are compromised and directly readable, then anyone could intercept and falsify any future transmissions anywhere which use those same keys, potentially rendering whole data networks vulnerable. The work I was involved in was intended to secure satellite communications. It’s important that such communication be secured because aside from wanting to protect the data from interception you also want to ensure that the satellite will only accept commands from its owners, not spurious commands sent by hostile nations. And should a satellite fail to achieve orbit and crash halfway around the world, we want to sleep easy knowing no one could recover the cryptographic keys from the wreckage and put other systems at risk.

Commonly with trusted systems the cryptographic keys are stored on the same microchip that holds the code which does the actual data encryption and decryption. The encryption and decryption code is all that can be directly accessed, the keys themselves cannot. To read the key data you would actually need to at least partially physically disassemble the chip itself, and the chip is intentionally designed to be catastrophically damaged if any attempt is made to disassemble it. It’s quite a fascinating and tricky problem, from both the physical construction of the chip to the software and encryption running on it and talking to it.

On the long commutes to and from work I began wondering if I could create a functionally similar scheme that would let me store a memory in my brain in a similarly secure and selectively irretrievable way. On the face of it, it seemed like an unsolvable problem, but those are the kind I like.  I explored quite a few unworkable ideas throughout the rest of that summer but made no real breakthrough until just before my mother’s birthday.

My mother’s birthday is on October 10th. No, that is not right, I think my mother’s birthday might be October 12th. No, I’m not entirely sure which one it is in fact, but I know with absolute certainty it is one or the other. I would say I have 70% confidence that her birthday is the 10th, but if you asked me several months from now when the date was closer and the pressure was on to make sure I sent a card, present, and called, then my confidence would fall to 50% and I’d be totally unable to even hazard an informed guess as to which of those two days it was. For some peculiar psychological reason, related either to brain structure or how we humans happen to use it, some memories are peculiarly mutable under stress. In the case of my mother’s birthday, no matter how hard I try to remember absolutely the specific date, I seem unable to with perfect confidence.

My eureka moment came when I realized that this peculiarity of mind was just the building block I needed to develop a method for securely storing other memories such that they could not be retrieved under duress.

Over the months that followed I began to gradually figure out how to take this simple observation and turn it into a more complicated and complete method. Along the way I had to build a few software applications that would help me pick, test, re-enforce, and use these special memories to store and retrieve the information. I discovered that most of the mutable memories were similar in nature to what I experienced with my mother’s birthday; they were cases where I knew an answer was one of only a small handful of possibilities, usually only two, but in some cases three or four. For simplicity’s sake I made the protocol allow only the more common binary mutable memories. Suitable mutable memories I decided would be ones which I could retrieve while under no stress at a success rate no less than 75%, but when under stress at a rate approximating chance (50%). I would record and/or discover new mutable memory elements with the software I wrote, and then it would test my ability over time to remember those things, including under situations with unexpected time constraints and with stressful noises and interruptions (to simulate duress). The software would also intentionally degrade my success rate in testing by sometimes re-enforcing the wrong responses, thereby helping to keep those memory elements mutable. The elements I would choose could not be easily or quickly externally verifiable, my mother’s birth date would be a less than ideal candidate for this reason, whereas my stress-mutable memory of the name of the second girl I ever kissed at summer camp (“Julie” or “Julia”) was a good candidate since no one but myself (and Julie, possibly Julia) knows of her existence. These individual binary mutable memory elements would need to be combined to form an n bit key which would unlock data stored with traditional software based encryption. Because the success rate of retrieving the individual stress-mutable binary memories under no stress is not 100%, I must allow for a m misses in the n field while still declaring the key a match. I developed a formula for working out a suitable n and m which made it extremely probable that under no stress I would be able to produce the key while under stress or with someone randomly guessing the probability of guessing successfully would be very low. I then built the system which interrogates me for the answers in an appropriate way, including a short but not stressful time limitation on providing responses, a randomization of the questions asked, and the allowance of m misses.

In the next major revision of the system I added additional complexity, certainty, and greater stress-sensitivity to the system by requiring the interrogated person to perform geometric spatial rotations of the mutable results mapped onto a variety of regular shapes. Further revisions continued trying to improve the system by striking the best balance between usability and security.

Actually using the current method in practice is pretty intense, each key retrieval I perform represents a mentally miserable 4 minutes that feels like 40 minutes. For that reason I think the current design would not work outside of realms which require very high security and have very intelligent stewards for the data. But perhaps once I release the details of the method I developed others with greater knowledge of psychology and security can improve upon it.

Hopefully this description gives enough detail that those who feel like such a thing is impossible might reconsider that position.


The Real Mission of the X-37B

April 25, 2010

The USAF launched the X-37B this week amid wild and varied speculation as to its purpose, a mystery fueled by the paucity of official explanations.

Few seem to realize what I am convinced is the X-37B’s true purpose. The X-37B is the first of a sortie of Prompt Global Strike (PGS) vehicles to be placed in orbit. PGS brings all the benefits of a nuclear option without the horrific nuclear consequences. PGS can rain devastating conventional destruction anywhere within only minutes, wholly unannounced and unassailable. Other PGS vehicles are being developed and they will carry warheads larger than the 500 lb guided bomb the X-37B can deliver, but those ground launched systems would take considerably longer to deliver their ordinance.  I believe the USAF already has quite a few X-37Bs built and they merely needed to publicly announce and deploy one so that they could plausibly deny the existence of the others.

In the post 9/11 defense ramp up I did some contract work on flight software for a satellite that I was told off the record was to be used to coordinate a PGS-like system. I don’t know what became of that particular project, I was told it lost funding, but I always suspected it was really just moved farther into the shadows. Unfortunately for my curiosity, my input and access was limited to porting some existing code to run on a new RTOS, I had no cause or ability to learn what the weapons system was capable of.

I was once told by a friend who worked at CIA that they would often get good intel on where Bin Laden was and it was only their inability to strike quickly enough that prevented them getting him, he supposedly moved around so frequently that in the time it would take to get troops on the ground, a bomber in the air, a UAV overhead, or a cruise missile launched he’d have moved. I always suspected he went to CIA because of his massive ego and the power he believed the secrets he couldn’t share with others gave him. I never knew which things he said I could believe, but this seemed like one of the more believable things. He was a complete asshole most of the time, but get him a little drunk and he became quite vulnerably hilarious.