‘What goes up …’
An interview with satellite specialist Dr Mark Harwood, B.Sc., B.E. (Hons.), Ph.D.
Mark Harwood has a fascinating job. In our youth, during the heady days of the ‘space race’, the thought that rocket launches putting satellites into orbits would become an everyday happening was almost futuristic science fiction. But today, it’s science fact, part of our daily lives. For example, those little grey dishes that sit on rooftops—they’re there because there is a satellite in orbit above the earth, sending out a signal strong enough for them to pick up. This is how so-called ‘pay’ or ‘satellite’ television can beam the latest news or sports events from around the world into your living room—direct from space.
Mark has over 30 years experience as a scientist in the Australian telecommunications industry, specializing in satellite communications. In the early 1980s, he was part of a small team that helped develop Australia’s first domestic satellite system, AUSSAT.
Mark Harwood with a model of the Optus C1 satellite. Photo by Warwick Armstrong.
Although still involved in designing the antennas and beams on the satellites, much of Mark’s role is also that of a business strategy manager for one of the largest telecommunications companies in the southern hemisphere. His work involves the design of complete satellite systems, as well as costing potential projects to gauge their viability. Mark told us about the many regulatory requirements in different countries—because, he said, ‘Space is becoming a little crowded these days, especially in the geostationary orbit.’1 Much international negotiation is involved to allocate ‘orbit slots’ so that satellites don’t interfere with one another. Smiling, he said, ‘It’s actually a lot more complicated than most people realize. You can’t just light a giant firecracker and send it off into space wherever you like.’
Early conflicts in faith
Mark has been a Christian since age 11, when he made a confession of faith during an Australian crusade by evangelist Billy Graham. Although enormously grateful for being brought up in a Christian home, he says his denomination was not strong on the authority of God’s Word. This gave him a ‘pretty loose’ understanding of the historical basis of Genesis.
Mark says, ‘Going through university, I was confronted with seeming conflicts with regard to Genesis. So I basically avoided the issue, and just put it in the “too-hard basket”. Then around the time I was finishing my doctoral thesis, I read a book by an evangelist in which he said that the first man wasn’t some cave-dwelling, grunting, growling half-wit, but that Adam was created fully human with every mental and physical capacity fully developed. This challenged me: would I believe that statement, or not?’
Mark started to inquire more and eventually read Henry Morris’s book Scientific Creationism. Mark explains, ‘It just blew me away. For the first time, I saw laid out in a coherent fashion the arguments for a literal understanding of Genesis, one that was entirely consistent with the observable evidence in the world around us.’
Spies in space
Hollywood movies often feature powerful satellite spy cameras able to read a newspaper from space.
Satellite scientist Dr Mark Harwood explains that the most powerful commercial cameras, on a very clear day, can see resolutions of about one metre. In other words, he says, ‘They could tell you whether a vehicle was a sedan or a utility [pickup] but they couldn’t read the registration plate.’
He has no doubt that military spy satellites could achieve far higher resolutions, but explains that the higher the resolution, the more data has to be stored and transmitted by the satellite.
This gives rise to practical limits—the greater the detail, the narrower the field or area that can be imaged at one time.
Dr Harwood described how this realization was liberating for his faith—strengthening his own personal relationship with the Lord. He remarked, ‘When I was growing up, I never fully understood why Jesus had to die. I remember asking the pastors and elders of my church, but I was never satisfied with their answers. After all, why did He have to suffer so much? Why couldn’t He have just shown us the life to live, the way back to the Father and then go back to Heaven?’ He went on, ‘Understanding the “big picture” from Genesis made the whole of the Gospel fall into place. That is, that Jesus had to pay the penalty for sin, which was death. I realized that you could not have death in the world before sin and the Fall of man.’
This was a really big issue for Mark. He says that as a young Christian one of the most common questions he was asked was, ‘If He’s a God of love, how come there is so much death and suffering in the world?’ He says, ‘At the time, I had absolutely no answer—but not any more. I can see now that a loving God placed man in His beautiful and perfect creation. But as a result of our deliberate disobedience, man, who was made in the image of God and placed in authority over creation, caused massive corruption. All of the bad things that we see in the world have come about as a result. Realizing that God did create everything perfect in six literal days suddenly made Him more awesome and more powerful in my eyes.’
A designer recognizes design
Significant moments in early satellite history
Austrian engineer. He realised that an object 35,780 km above the equator moving at 11,070 km/h in a circular orbit would match Earth’s rotation. Thus it would appear stationary from Earth, or ‘geostationary’.
The world’s first artificial satellite was about the size of a basketball and took about 96 minutes to orbit the earth. Its launch ushered into history the space age and marked the beginning of the US-USSR space race.
The first US satellite to successfully orbit the earth. Its major contribution to science was the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belt around the earth, known as the magnetosphere.
TIROS (Television Infrared Observation Satellite program)
Objective was to test experimental television techniques in developing a global meteorological information system. Was operational for only 78 days, but proved the viability of such systems.
AT&T’s two Telstar communications satellites were privately designed and built by Bell Telephone Laboratories, and provided the first transatlantic telecast. Though not the first, they are perhaps the best known communications satellites.
The world’s first geostationary communications satellite. Previous craft were limited to low orbits, but Syncom’s high-orbit synchronous position placed it in full sunlight 99% of the time, negating the need for temperature control systems.
ACTS (Advanced Communication Technology Satellite) (12 September 1993)
This craft is a ‘switchboard in the sky’ because it incorporates on-board switching and steerable antenna systems. At launch, it included higher communication capacity than previous satellites.
Mark says that as a designer of very complex systems himself, he stands in awe of the creation around him, especially the whole time/space/matter universe which, he says, ‘can only exist and be upheld because of an incredibly powerful and intelligent being.’
He adds, ‘There is a wonderful consistency and uniformity right throughout the laws of nature that points to the Creator God of the Bible, and particularly in the area of nature or the animal kingdom. The evidence I see is for originally created kinds containing lots of design information in their genes. The multiplicity of varieties that we see today is a result of a downhill processes. Whether it is through natural or artificial selection, it’s a reduction of genetic information compared to the amount in the original created kinds. This is in contrast to the theory of evolution, which requires increasing information to produce new kinds.’
To think that the original genetic programs could produce such an incredible array of beautiful creatures is, says Mark, ‘mind-blowing—it speaks of a Creator who is infinitely intelligent and has a great imagination, too. No one would believe that something as complex as a communications satellite could end up in orbit by accident. How much more then does something as complex as a living organism speak of an intelligent designer?’
Warranties for spacecraft?
Mark said that the downhill changes in biology were consistent with the laws of thermodynamics—things running down, a familiar theme in his work. He says, ‘We need to factor redundant components into our spacecraft design because key components could wear out or fail. When something is orbiting thousands of kilometres above the earth, you can’t get to it and repair it. The components are designed to last for the 15-year lifetime, but because of the enormous cost of putting such complex devices in orbit, we’d like to be sure they don’t fail while still in use. You can’t have an investment worth hundreds of millions of dollars put at risk because of the failure of a few parts. So on-board spare parts are designed with automatic or ground control switching mechanisms to turn them on.’
He explained that the environment in space is very harsh. High-energy particles and gamma rays can cause damage to electronic components. The vacuum of space can cause solid materials to ‘outgas’, wearing as if by evaporation. These are all problems which don’t occur on Earth, with its protective atmosphere, which Mark calls ‘another godly design feature’.
A creationist doing ‘real science’ and more
Dr Mark Harwood is well known internationally in the commercial communications satellite field, but he says that there has never been any conflict between his beliefs as a creationist and his scientific understanding of how the real world works. He comments, ‘I’ve had a few verbal jousts with some colleagues, but when it comes to discussing science and the Bible I am always able to answer them logically. I’ve found that once this line of discussion has been thoroughly explored, it is then easier to move to issues of faith, and belief that Jesus is the Son of God.’
Even though his full-time career as a high profile executive and design engineer keeps him extremely busy, Mark ‘rolls his sleeves up’ and volunteers his time as the leader of an CMI support group—the one based in Sydney, Australia. He also occasionally gives talks on behalf of CMI. He can be seen on many weekends stocking display tables in churches with CMI books and videos, cheerfully supporting other creation speakers out on ministry. When asked why, he enthusiastically says, ‘I believe that the ministry of Creation Ministries International is incredibly important in strengthening the church to believe that God’s Word is true from cover to cover, starting in Genesis.
‘It’s actually so rewarding when talking to people around the tables after a presentation. You can see the “lights go on” when they realize that they don’t have to park their brains at the church door to come in and worship God. Sadly, many think that origins is a complex scientific issue and beyond their understanding. Often they are told by church leaders, “Don’t worry about it. Just believe.” After a CMI presentation many realize that their faith is totally defendable, based on a rock-solid logical foundation. It’s exciting to see an immediate change in some cases.’
Mark went on: ‘My only regret is that I wish I could have known this information in my university years. Because I didn’t have answers, I was a bit of a “closet Christian”. Now, that’s my motivation for seeing the message spread.’
Thanks, Mark. Despite the perception of you being some sort of ‘rocket scientist’, it’s wonderful to see that you’re prepared to get out there and ‘spread the Word’. That should be added motivation for all of us, too.
Super technology and super dollars for an erroneous cause
Dr Mark Harwood keeps well up to date with the latest ‘goings on’ in the ‘world of space’. At one point in our interview, he casually looked at his watch and said, ‘Thirty minutes ago, in French Guiana, an Ariane 5 rocket was launched containing a spacecraft, Rosetta, which is going to make an intercept with a comet.’ This five-billion-kilometre (three-billion-mile) trek will require four planetary fly-bys of Earth and Mars to build up enough speed in order to meet Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko 675 million km (420 million miles) from the sun in early 2014.1 Even though many billions of kilometres of travel over 10 years are involved, it needed to launch precisely on time to be able to ensure a correct rendezvous. Mark said, ‘Just seconds either way can result in a total mission failure.’
Although an exact degree of science is required for such space ventures, Rosetta’s mission resembles science fiction more than science fact. It is packed with sensors to map the comet’s surface, and will also drop a miniature laboratory onto the moving target to carry out chemical experiments. Why? It is believed that the comet may reveal clues about how the earth and solar system were formed. One news report said, ‘Comets are believed to be orbiting clusters of frozen gas and dust—the primitive material from which the planets accumulated, more than four and a half billion years ago. According to the so-called panspermia theory, comets are replete with complex, volatile molecules. By bombarding Earth in its infancy, comets may have seeded the planet with the chemical building blocks for water and DNA, the stuff of life as we know it.’1
The origin of life is still an unsolved puzzle for evolutionism, so many scientists believe in the idea that life came from outer space—even via aliens.2
Satellite snippets and fast facts
- In a geosynchronous orbit the satellite’s orbital speed matches the earth’s rotation (24 hours—also see ‘Satellite Snippets’). To be geostationary, a geosynchronous satellite must also be in a circular orbit over the equator. To achieve this, its altitude must be 35,784 km (22,240 miles) above sea level. At this altitude one satellite can see over a third of the Earth’s surface.