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  1. Science and Technology
  2. News & Events
  3. Technologically Speaking Podcast
  4. Season Three
  5. Episode 10: Space Is the Next Big Expansion

Space Is the Next Big Expansion

Space is the Next Big Expansion Podcast Episode 10

The final episode of Technologically Speaking Season 3 is out of this world! Host Deepak Saini is joined by Technical Manager Ernest Wong of S&T’s Technology Centers for a discussion about critical infrastructure resiliency. Learn about position, navigation, and timing and how it impacts numerous aspects of everyday life on Earth. And find out what the future may hold when it comes to research and development in outer space. 

Run time: 23:00
Release Date: January 3, 2024

Show Notes

Guest: Ernest Wong, Technical Manager, Technology Centers Division, Science and Technology Directorate 

Host: Deepak Saini, Media Strategist, Science and Technology Directorate

[00:00:00] Ernest Wong: There's going to be more activity in space or there's talk about, manufacturing in space, right? Tourism in space, research and development and microgravity in space.

[00:00:10] Dave: This is Technologically Speaking, the official podcast for the Department of Homeland Security, Science & Technology Directorate, or S&T, as we call it. Join us as we meet the science and technology experts on the front lines, keeping America safe.

[00:00:25] Deepak: Hi, everyone. I'm your host, Dee Sani. Today, I'm joined by Ernest Wong, Technical Manager in S&T's Technology Centers Division in the Office of Science and Engineering. Welcome, Ernest.

[00:00:36] Ernest Wong: Hey Dee, good to be talking with you again.

[00:00:38] Deepak: So if you had to go back to your high school and speak to a high school class and describe your job to them, how would you help them understand kind of a day in your life at S&T or what it is that a technical manager in your role does?

[00:00:53] Ernest Wong: Okay, well, within the Technology Centers Division, we do a lot. So…

[00:00:57] Deepak: Yeah.

[00:00:58] Ernest Wong: If I were to describe it, you know, simply, I guess, a Technical Manager helps to… I guess design the approach for different types of R&D activities that we have. So if there's a particular, research problem that we're trying to solve, technical managers help look at what are the different ways that we can get at that. What are different approaches to solving that, and helping, you know, whether it's a program manager or others within an organization, because we provide support to all of S&T, is to help figure out what are those potential approaches. Then there's another part of the role of the job, which involves engaging with other departments and agencies outside of S&T, outside of DHS. And this is where some of the technical policy stuff comes into play where maybe we're looking at developing like the national R&D plan or something like that. So there's that opportunity to also help formulate, provide input into national strategy, national policy.

[00:01:55] Deepak: Okay, yeah, I mean, honestly, that made sense to me. So Ernest, you have been so instrumental to S&T's resilient position, navigation, and timing efforts, which will, you know, people will hear us refer to this as PNT as well. For someone that has never heard of positioning, navigation, and timing, can you explain, what PNT is?

[00:02:19] Ernest Wong: so PNT is probably a term that most people in the public probably aren't familiar with, but I'm sure most people are familiar with GPS, right? The Global Positioning System. And, so PNT is, just a broader way of describing things like GPS, right? There's, the United States has GPS, the European Union has a similar system called Galileo. Russia has a system called... GLONASS, you know, China has Beidou. So different countries have their own like global navigation, satellite systems. And so PNT is a, it's just a terminology that captures those sorts of capabilities more broadly. And as far as why it matters, you know, most people think of, when people think of GPS, they think of their phone and vehicle navigation, and that is definitely, you know, a huge part of what we use GPS for in our daily lives.

[00:03:09] But when it comes to critical infrastructure, GPS also plays a big role So the P, N, and T stands for positioning, navigation, and timing, and that last part, T, the timing, is the one that's often forgotten, when it comes to maybe the general public, but it is a very important part of critical infrastructure. So precision timing is used for a lot of things within critical infrastructure, right? Within, say, communication networks, right? The telecommunication networks, or, your cell phone networks. It's used for synchronization, network synchronization. Within the power grid, it's used for, you know, fault detection, right? When there are issues with the grid, they need timing to identify where is the fault in the line, right? So that can go send out a crew and fix it. Within the financial sector, you know, timing is important for time stamping for transactions. So timing is a huge part of that. In addition to all of the typical positioning and navigation capabilities that we think of.

[00:04:03] Deepak: Yeah. I mean, that's such an important point to bring up. So, Ernest, working in the Technology Centers Division, I also hear that there's a strong appetite looking, you know, not only around our globe, but upwards into the sky. Can you explain the interest that the Tech Centers Division has in space systems?

[00:04:21] Ernest Wong: Yeah, and this is a really interesting domain. And there's a couple of things to say about this, but I guess the first thing is that, when we talk about space, right, one of the big things that's happening now is the commercialization of space. And people call this different things. They call it new space or space 2.0. Those are terms you might hear being thrown around. And that's really to... demarcate this change in paradigm where in the past, the domain of space has primarily been, within, elected players within the domain of space have traditionally been sovereign states and entities, right? And now we have this shift where now, a lot of the assets are being, launched, operated and funded by the commercial sector. And this has, this is throwing a whole… a whole entire new set of capabilities and, also concerns. But I think one of the things that's also interesting is if we think about each, like, really huge advancement in civilization, I think there are generally three factors, when it comes to, major advances in civilization.

[00:05:27] The first one is having denser forms of energy, right? Going from wood to coal to oil, right? And then I think the next step probably is nuclear fusion. So that's the first factor. The second factor is more efficient means of labor, right? So when we think about, you know, very early, way back to like the beginning of the agricultural times, right? The water wheel was a huge innovation because that helped save a lot of labor in terms of grinding, you know, crops like wheat into flour. Now instead of having people do it, you could have the water mill do it. That freed up labor to go back into farming, right?

[00:06:04] Deepak: True.

[00:06:05] Ernest Wong: So, and, if you think about each step of the way, you know, steam engine, like manual oars versus like a steam ship, right? And then moving into information age, you think about computers and software and the type of, savings and labor that does for you. And so that brings us to the current day where the next big, advancement in this area of more efficient labor is automation, right? And specifically, we're talking about AI and robotics. And then it's only a third area, this is where space becomes relevant, is when we expand the domain of a society's activities, right? Or a civilization's activities, right? Because going back to the agrarian society, it all initially started along the waterways, right? That's where they had to be to support a lot of the farming. Then there was advent of the windmill, right? Now they can move further away from the waterways and then later on, wind combined with... advanced engineering gave way to deep sea water navigation, right? And that expanded the range of a society's operations in terms of having more trade over longer distances, exchange of ideas and cultures.

[00:07:12] And I think now, bringing it back to this conversation, space is the next big expansion in the range of a civilization's activities. And, it's not just SATCOM, right? Satellite communications. Like, we think about Starlink or the more traditional geostationary satellites like, you know, Viasat, you know, Telesat. There's lots of different geostationary satellite communication providers. So it's not just that, it's also that there's going to be more activity in space or there's talk about, manufacturing in space, right? Tourism in space, research and development and microgravity in space. There's also talk about, you know, supply depots in space for on-orbit servicing and maintenance. Because there's going to be all these satellites in space that are going to need a way to be maintained. 

[00:08:00] Deepak: Let me ask you something…

[00:08:00] Ernest Wong: It's just going to be a lot more activity.

[00:08:02] Deepak: Oh, of course. Yeah, so I really want to ask you something because I feel like a lot of people who are as close to this work as you are, kind of have this on top of mind, you know, we do, we hear a lot about space exploration, the potential in space. We hear about all these tech billionaires and millionaires that are trying to launch folks for, you know, tourism campaigns into space and whatnot. But, you know, when we look at the state of the world today, it's on fire. Right? When it comes to critical infrastructure, when it comes to climate resilience, there's a lot that we have to fix here still. I'm just curious to know what your opinion is, whether professionally or personally, or a little bit of both, like, are we… do we have unfinished business here that we just need to really fix and close out before we even think about launching ourselves into a whole other universe?

[00:08:57] Ernest Wong: So when we talk about space, I think, you know, we have to define the scope, right? Like, you can talk about things like going to the moon, going to Mars. And, you know, that's... that's very ambitious, right? Um, my focus is really more on what space can do for us on the ground. Yeah, because there are already dependencies that we didn't know about, you know, a couple of years ago. Like for instance, right before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there was a major cyber attack against a very big satellite communications provider called Biosat. And you know, that was also servicing Ukrainian government. One of the side effects was that it also impacted a lot of the wind turbines in Germany, and so they lost their satellite communications connection, which also meant that particular German utility operator lost remote monitoring and control of I think it was 11 gigawatts worth of wind turbine generation, which is a lot. Like that's the equivalent of… So the largest nuclear reactors are about 1 gigawatt. So think 11 of those. That's a lot of power.

[00:10:00] Deepak: Yeah.

[00:10:01] Ernest Wong: Um, and so we didn't know about these sorts of, or perhaps we didn't think, about these sorts of dependencies that grid infrastructure has on space assets, on, on satellite communications, right? Kind of like how we don't really think about the dependencies that we have on GPS within our critical infrastructure, right? This is an expansion of that. Now, it's not just GPS. There's all these different communication networks in space that our critical infrastructure assets are dependent on. And so it raises the question of, are we going to see more of these space-based dependencies being incorporated into our terrestrial critical infrastructure? And what do we do about that? How do we make sure that those things are resilient, and they're being used in a resilient way? And also, how do we help the DHS components, like Coast Guard, CBP, also use these in a way that will be operationally resilient.

[00:10:47] Deepak: Yeah, I mean, one thing that comes to mind is I know we're working with the Coast Guard on technology we recently transitioned that uses satellite aperture radar imagery to help them predict icebergs or to be able to view them from space instead of just kind of at eye level on the ground, right? So there's definitely advances as seeding satellites or just kind of the space sort of territory. And I like what you brought up earlier that, you know, it seems like, and correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like from your perspective, at least for S&T, we're kind of looking at space as to like, how can we utilize it to improve our infrastructure that we already have on the ground here? Do I understand that right?

[00:11:31] Ernest Wong: Yeah, that's exactly right. Because, you know, the, these space systems offer a lot of capabilities that can fill gaps that we have. At the same time, you know, as we adopt more of these space-based systems, we're also building in these dependencies into all these critical missions. And, you know, space is kind of fragile if you think about it, right? Compared to on the ground, right? If you have a cyber attack against the terrestrial network, well, in the worst case, you can have someone walk to the data center and, you know, maybe, re-image all the systems, right? But someone can go there and manually restore it. If you're up in space, your options are limited, and if you lose control of the satellite, you know, just imagine the type of, you know, collateral damage that could happen. So…

[00:12:13] Deepak: Oh, yeah.

[00:12:13] Ernest Wong: Um, you know, having dependencies on these sorts of systems, does introduce some risks and vulnerabilities.

[00:12:19] Deepak: Yeah. So for you and your team in the technology centers division, how are you tackling this space when it comes to space?

[00:12:29] Ernest Wong: Yeah, you know, some of the details are probably a little premature to get into, but we are looking at, we are looking at, first formulating, you know, a strategy for how to approach, like R&D, like an R&D strategy. Um, because there's, there's all different, and one of the challenges is also space, the rate that the… space industry is moving at is astounding, right?

[00:12:52] Deepak: Oh yeah. Light years, right?

[00:12:54] Ernest Wong: Yeah, they move so fast, because, you know, there are capabilities that exist now that didn't a year ago. Think like Arctic coverage for SATCOM, right? It's, you have a lot more options now than a year ago. And then by next year, Amazon Kuiper is also going to start launching their satellites, their constellations. So that's going to also change things. So, just trying to keep up with this industry is, is challenging enough. But, there are, I'd say, a couple areas that are important to focus on. The first one is some of these cyber security and resilience concerns that I mentioned earlier in terms of, not just…

[00:13:29] So there's, you can think of it in three parts, probably there's the ground stations that are used to control the satellites. Those have to be secure. Then the satellites themselves have to be secure. And then the users and their equipment also have to be secure. So you have these like three segments, ground, space, and user. So you have to be able to secure all of that. And then there's also the aspect of, as a user, you know, what sort of, concerns might a user have in terms of operational resilience. You know, if, for instance, there is an attack on the constellation that they use, and they're relying primarily on that SATCOM provider for communications, like, then what? What are their options, to continue operations? And then I guess the third leg of it is also looking at how future emerging technologies intersect with space systems, right? Because space is interesting in another way, which is that intersects with a lot of different other emerging technology areas. If we think AI and ML, right? Space has a lot of applications there as well. If you look at, imagery, for instance. Let's say it's using imagery to, you know, the example you gave earlier about looking for icebergs, right?

[00:14:41] Deepak: Yeah.

[00:14:41] Ernest Wong: if you were to do it manually and you're looking over the oceans, right? there's a lot of water there, right? Trying to do that manually as an analyst is going to take forever. So using AI in the know, they just identify the images that are useful and contain signal rather than noise you know…it’s pretty important and that's also one of the trends where they're trying to do more of that processing on board the satellite so that they don't have to transmit all those down because that also eventually, the amount of imagery that you have exceeds the bandwidth of the satellite. So there's things like that. There's also discussion about data centers in space. We talk about high performance computing, cloud computing, that has some intersections with space. So there's just a lot of intersections between space and other emerging technology areas.

[00:15:29] Deepak: Yeah, I get it. It's all unchartered territory.

[00:15:32] Ernest Wong: Yeah.

[00:15:33] Deepak: So I do want to ask you personally, if you had the opportunity to go into space, would you?

[00:15:39] Ernest Wong: Uh, that's a good question. I'm not sure. I mean, I'm, first of all, I'm an introvert, so I'm not necessarily a…

[00:15:45] Deepak: I mean what better place to go to avoid a lot of people, right? You have all this space in space.

[00:15:52] Ernest Wong: So you actually, that's an interesting point that you bring up. Cause one of the other things that is happening, our, NASA program called Commercial LEO destinations, I believe. And basically, the International Space Station is going to be phased out by the end of the decade. And NASA is pushing for these to be replaced with commercial space stations. Um, and so, yeah, so these could be used for, research, for business, or for leisure, where people, you know, maybe go out to space for a couple days and you have like a space hotel or something. So that, that could be, part of that whole space tourism trend.

[00:16:26] Deepak: Yeah. No, I'm good right here. I mean, if you want to go, more power to you. So, okay. You know, obviously I'm just asking you for fun right now, but do you think one day… one day in the future, even if maybe you and I are just old in our retirement home, do you think life will basically turn into the Jetsons? Or, and if so, when do you think that might happen?

[00:16:50] Ernest Wong: You know, that is… predicting the future is always really iffy, right?

[00:16:55] Deepak: Yeah.

[00:16:56] Ernest Wong: Who would have known, like, just think about cell phones, right? Like, cell phones came in to really, it was like, in the early 2000s, right? And then within 10 years, like, everyone had one and it changed the way we did things, right? So if we think about what might change in the future with space, at least in the near term, one of the things I see… if we think about communications, and this is both interesting, but also a concern of mine, which is this merging, this blending of trusted communications with space-based communications. Because it's, if we want to have widespread adoption of, you know, space systems and their capabilities, I think, it needs to be as transparent as possible to the user. And so some of the developments we're seeing now with like, like Qualcomm and others developing like direct phone-to-satellite, you know, capabilities into the chipsets now. Imagine that happening more broadly and then, you know, having that become ubiquitous, right? An. so when we think about how traffic on the internet goes from place to place, right?

[00:17:59] You want to send information from point A to point Z, right? It takes a route to get from point A to point Z and that route, there's any number of routes it can take and there's any number of networks that it can cross and there's tolling fees associated with this. But the point is it can cross any number of networks. And it normally takes the route that uses the most efficient, or is the cheapest, because again, total fees. Now, if you introduce satellite communication networks into the mix, potentially, the future could be that you may be on the ground, but it just happens that to get to wherever you want your traffic to land, the fastest route is going to involve crossing one of the satellite communication networks before coming back down. And so that, that brings up a whole range of concerns because just on the ground alone, there are things like, BGP vulnerabilities that have to do with how someone can, reroute, affect the route that your traffic takes…

[00:18:52] Deepak: Got it.

[00:18:53] Ernest Wong: And that, that can have problems in terms of, maybe going where you don't want. and so then you have to start worrying about this in space as well if you have this future where, you know, these networks start to, you know, merge together and interoperate.

[00:19:04] Deepak: Yeah. I mean, we'll just have to take it day by day you know, one small leap for mankind. We've been orbiting around this conversation of space. So I'm going to bring us back down to earth now. Outside of S&T, do you have any hobbies totally unrelated to all of that?

[00:19:25] Ernest Wong: Totally unrelated. Well, I mean, right. I'm a gamer, so that's, I guess there's that.

[00:19:31] Deepak: Yeah. No, that's great. I feel like gaming can help you de stress, right? Take your mind off and it's fun as well. So that, that, that's really interesting to hear. All right. When it comes to films, Star Trek or Star Wars?

[00:19:44] Ernest Wong: You know, I'm gonna be one of those blasphemous, like, heretics that, hasn't really spent a whole lot on either, but I think the concept of Star Wars does appeal to me in the sense that, you know, it's the whole, you know, a long time ago in a galaxy far away, right? In the sense that, it kind of, if we think about, history of mankind, right? It also makes you wonder, like, the Star Wars makes you wonder sometimes, like, well, could there be life on other planets? And maybe, you know, from eons ago, right? And so I think the whole backdrop of that is very interesting.

[00:20:16] Deepak: Oh yeah, I mean, if there's like alien puppies out there, then I definitely want to explore that. All right, you know, one, one thing that I thought was really interesting is, I hear you speak a little bit of Chinese and Japanese as well. I was just curious to see if you speak, any other languages.

[00:20:33] Ernest Wong: I mean, it's the ones you listed, so there's Mandarin. It's more of the Taiwanese dialect of Mandarin and, Cantonese is a little bit. It's more listening at this point. I don't really use it. So I lost it. And then also, Japanese as well. It’s something I studied in undergrad.

[00:20:49] Deepak: Yeah. you know, when I was growing up, my parents had really pushed, to really be fluent in their native languages, which were Urdu and Punjabi. And then if you know those two, then it's kind of easier to pick up on Hindi, which is like, my parents’ native countries’, I would say they're like their official language in India. And so I didn't value it enough, but in my adult life, I really wish I did.

[00:21:12] Ernest Wong: Yeah so I didn't know the meaning of my Chinese name until I learned Japanese because when I learned Japanese and I was studying the characters, the kanji in Japanese, I was like, Oh, that looks like the character in my Chinese name. So what's it like? Oh, finally know the meaning of my name in Chinese. And it and it actually is very, uh, similar to my English name.

[00:21:30] Deepak: What is the meaning?

[00:21:32] Ernest Wong: So it's, straight, and like straight, frank, honest. That's one character. And then the other character is, truth, right? So it kind of matches like earnest and a bit, right?

[00:21:44] Deepak: Yeah…

[00:21:45] Ernest Wong: I didn't appreciate the naming of my Chinese name until I, I learned that.

[00:21:49] Deepak: No, thank you for sharing that with me. I think that's really cool because I feel like those are all kind of qualities that, you know, just in our conversation, I feel like really resonate, right? Like, you're clear, you're straight in your delivery, you know, and I'm sure how you approach your work, too, you kind of have to be, right? So Ernest Wong, Technical Manager in the Technology Centers Division under the Office of Science and Engineering at the Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate. What a mouthful right, Ernest? Thank you so much for being here. I've really learned a lot from you. It's been so interesting to just hear about, you know, your scope when it comes to PNT and then also you know, your division's exploration around space. Thank you. Really informative. I appreciate your time.

[00:22:35] Ernest Wong: Yeah. Thanks. The future is interesting. And, pleasure talking with you, Dee.

[00:22:39] Dave: Thank you for listening to Technologically Speaking. To learn more about what you've heard in this episode, check out the show notes on our website, and follow us on Apple and Google Podcasts, and on social media at DHS SciTech. DHS SCI TE CH. Bye!

Last Updated: 04/01/2024
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