Hello, And Please Don’t Hang Up: The Scourge of Robocalls

Over the last few months, I’ve noticed extra calls coming in from local numbers, and if you live in the US, I suspect maybe you have too. These calls are either just dead air, or recordings that start with “Please don’t hang up.” Out of curiosity, I’ve called back on the number the call claims to be from. Each time, the message is that this number has been disconnected and is no longer in service. This sounds like the plot of a budget horror movie, how am I being called from a disconnected number? Rather than a phantom in the wires, this is robocalling, combined with caller ID spoofing.

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Soyuz Failure Leaves Questions Unanswered

The Russian space program experienced its first serious incident on a manned mission in 35 years when Soyuz MS-10 failed during ascent on October 11th, 2018. The abort system worked as designed, and crew members Aleksey Ovchinin and Nick Hague landed safely approximately 430 km from the launch site in Baikonur. Beyond being put through unusually high G forces, the two men suffered no injuries and will have their mission recycled for a future flight.

From an abort standpoint, the event went as well as could possibly be expected. The fact that the crew walked away unharmed is a testament to the emergency systems on the rocket and spacecraft, and serve as a reminder of why these functions are designed into manned rockets even if they are rarely (if ever) used. The success is especially impressive considering the Soyuz’s launch abort tower, the solid fuel rocket designed to pull the spacecraft away from the failing booster rocket, had already been jettisoned before the event occurred. The spacecraft was instead pulled to safety by the secondary abort thrusters, which were added to the vehicle’s design in 1975 as a contingency and until now had never been used in a real-life scenario.

What Went Wrong?

But while the safe return of the crew was naturally the first priority for all agencies involved, the questions soon turned to the Soyuz itself. What caused the loss of the rocket? Is it a defect which could be present in the other Soyuz rockets currently under construction? Perhaps most importantly, when could the Soyuz fly again? As it’s currently the only way to put humans into space, the International Space Station is completely dependent on regular Soyuz flights, and a delay in the program could endanger the orbiting outpost.

Now, with the initial findings of the Russian incident investigation being made public, we’re starting to get answers on some of those questions. The official report so far agrees with the conclusions many “Armchair Astronauts” made watching the live stream of the launch, and the evidence suggests that the core issue is the same which doomed previous Russian vehicles.

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Kepler Closes Eyes After a Decade of Discovery

Since its launch in March 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope has provided us with an incredible amount of data about exoplanets within our galaxy, proving these worlds are more varied and numerous than we could ever have imagined. Before its launch we simply didn’t know how common planets such as ours were, but today we know the Milky Way contains billions of them. Some of these worlds are so hot they have seas of molten rock, others experience two sunsets a day as they orbit a pair of stars. Perhaps most importantly, thousands of the planets found by Kepler are much like our own: potentially playing host to life as we know it.

Kepler lived a fruitful life by any metric, but it hasn’t been an easy one. Too far into deep space for us to repair it as we did Hubble, hardware failures aboard the observatory nearly brought the program to a halt in 2013. When NASA announced the spacecraft was beyond hope of repair, most assumed the mission would end. Even by that point, Kepler was an unqualified success and had provided us with enough data to keep astronomers busy for years. But an ingenious fix was devised, allowing it to continue collecting data even in its reduced capacity.

Leaning into the solar wind, Kepler was able to use the pressure of sunlight striking its solar panels to steady itself. Kepler’s “eyesight” was never quite the same after the failure of its reaction wheels, and it consumed more propellant than originally intended to maintain this careful balancing act, but the science continued. The mission that had already answered many of our questions about our place in the galaxy would push ahead in spite of a failure which should have left it dead in space.

As Kepler rapidly burned through its supply of propellant, it became clear the mission was on borrowed time. It was a necessary evil, as the alternative was leaving the craft tumbling through space, but mission planners understood that the fix they implemented had put an expiration date on Kepler. Revised calculations could provide an estimate as to when the vehicle would finally run its tanks dry and lose attitude control, but not a definitive date.

For the last several months NASA has known the day was approaching, but they decided to keep collecting data until the vehicle’s thrusters sputtered and failed. So today’s announcement that Kepler has at long last lost the ability to orient itself came as no surprise. Kepler has observed its last alien sunset, but the search for planets, and indeed life, in our corner of the galaxy doesn’t end today.

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DMCA Review: Big Win for Right to Repair, Zero for Right to Tinker

This year’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) triennial review (PDF, legalese) contained some great news. Particularly, breaking encryption in a product in order to repair it has been deemed legal, and a previous exemption for reverse engineering 3D printer firmware to use the filament of your choice has been broadened. The infosec community got some clarification on penetration testing, and video game librarians and archivists came away with a big win on server software for online games.

Moreover, the process to renew a previous exemption has been streamlined — one used to be required to reapply from scratch every three years and now an exemption will stand unless circumstances have changed significantly. These changes, along with recent rulings by the Supreme Court are signs that some of the worst excesses of the DMCA’s anti-circumvention clause are being walked back, twenty years after being enacted. We have to applaud these developments.

However, the new right to repair clause seems to be restricted to restoring the device in question to its original specifications; if you’d like to hack a new feature into something that you own, you’re still out of luck. And while this review was generally favorable of opening up technology to enable fair use, they didn’t approve Bunnie Huang’s petition to allow decryption of the encryption method used over HDMI cables, so building your own HDMI devices that display encrypted streams is still out. And the changes to the 3D printer filament exemption is a reminder of the patchwork nature of this whole affair: it still only applies to 3D printer filament and not other devices that attempt to enforce the use of proprietary feedstock. Wait, what?

Finally, the Library of Congress only has authority to decide which acts of reverse engineering constitute defeating anti-circumvention measures. This review does not address the tools and information necessary to do so. “Manufacture and provision of — or trafficking in — products and services designed for the purposes of circumvention…” are covered elsewhere in the code. So while you are now allowed decrypt your John Deere software to fix your tractor, it’s not yet clear that designing and selling an ECU-unlocking tool, or even e-mailing someone the decryption key, is legal.

Could we hope for more? Sure! But making laws in a country as large as the US is a balancing act among many different interests, and the Library of Congress’s ruling is laudably clear about how they reached their decisions. The ruling itself is worth a read if you want to dive in, but be prepared to be overwhelmed in apparent minutiae. Or save yourself a little time and read on — we’ve got the highlights from a hacker’s perspective.

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The Science of Landing on an Asteroid

Exploiting the resources of the rock-strewn expanse of space between Mars and the outer planets has been the stuff of science fiction for ages. There’s gold in them ‘thar space rocks, or diamonds, or platinum, or something that makes them attractive targets for capitalists and scientists alike. But before actually extracting the riches of the asteroid belt, stuck here as we are at the bottom of a very deep gravity well that’s very expensive to climb out of, we have to answer a few questions. Like, how does one rendezvous with an asteroid? What’s involved with maneuvering near a comparatively tiny celestial body? And most importantly, how exactly does one land on an asteroid and do any useful work?

Back in June, a spacecraft launched by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) finally caught up to an asteroid named Ryugu after having chased it for the better part of four years. The Hayabusa2 was equipped to answer all those questions and more, and as it settled in close to the asteroid with a small fleet of robotic rovers on board, it was about to make history. Here’s how they managed to not only land on an asteroid, but how the rovers move around on the surface, and how they’ll return samples of the asteroid to Earth for study.

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Construction Cranes Versus Hurricanes

When engineers are designing buildings, bridges, or other large construction projects, a lot of thought is given to the environment. Some of these considerations might seem obvious, like designing a skyscraper in San Francisco to tolerate earthquakes, building a stadium in New York City to hold up not only its own weight but the weight of several feet of snow on the roof, or constructing bridges in any coastal area to be able to tolerate salt spray. Not everything is this straightforward, though. Not only do the structures themselves have to tolerate the environmental conditions they are in, but the equipment that is used to build them must tolerate these conditions as well, specifically the large cranes that are often semi-permanently attached to their construction sites.

Perhaps the most extreme example of this in recent memory was during Typhoon Manghut as it hit Hong Kong. There were several large construction cranes that didn’t fare too well with the high winds. At least one toppled as a result and catching the free-spinning of another on video is more than enough to make you gasp. Other videos of construction cranes surfaced from this typhoon showing some concerning, but surprisingly well-designed, emergency operation of the same type of crane.

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International Space Station is Racing the Clock After Soyuz Failure

Today’s failed Soyuz launch thankfully resulted in no casualties, but the fate of the International Space Station (ISS) is now in question.

Just two minutes after liftoff, the crew of the Soyuz MS-10 found themselves in a situation that every astronaut since the beginning of the manned space program has trained for, but very few have ever had to face: a failure during launch. Today the crew of two, Russian Aleksey Ovchinin and American Nick Hague, were forced to make a ballistic re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere; a wild ride that put them through higher G forces than expected and dropped the vehicle approximately 430 km from the launch site in Baikonur. Both men walked away from the event unharmed, but while the ordeal is over for them, it’s just beginning for the crew of the ISS.

Until a full investigation can be completed by Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, the Soyuz rocket is grounded. This is standard procedure, as they obviously don’t want to launch another rocket and risk encountering the same issue. But as the Soyuz is currently the only way we have to get humans into space, this means new crew can’t be sent to the ISS until Roscosmos is confident the issue has been identified and resolved.

Soyuz MS-11, which would have brought up three new crew members to relieve those already on the Station, was scheduled for liftoff on December 20th. While not yet officially confirmed, that mission is almost certainly not going to be launching as scheduled. Two months is simply not long enough to conduct an investigation into such a major event when human lives are on the line.

The failure of Soyuz MS-10 has started a domino effect which will deprive the ISS of the five crew members which were scheduled to be aboard by the end of 2018. To make matters worse, the three current crew members must return to Earth before the end of the year as well. NASA and Roscosmos will now need to make an unprecedented decision which could lead to abandoning the International Space Station; the first time it would be left unmanned since the Expedition 1 mission arrived in November 2000.

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