Sending An ESP32 Into Space

Just two weeks ago, the crew from the International Space Station released a photo of their nine crew members – an odd number considering that the facility only has space to house six astronauts at a time. In fact, the crew had just gathered for a celebratory dinner before three of the astronauts were to return home. The new astronauts joining including Hazza Al Mansouri, the first astronaut from the United Arab Emirates (who has since returned from his mission), as well as astronaut Jessica Meir and cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka.

Amidst the excitement over the upcoming 10 (!) spacewalks in the next three months, there’s also been some cool developments in the open source space, with one of the first ESP32s launched into space.

[Nico Maas] from the Microgravity User Support Center (MUSC) at DLR (German Aerospace Center) worked on an experiment launched by MORABA (Mobile Rocket Base) at DLR. The launch site was at the Esrange Space Center in Kiruna, Sweden, with the mission launching on June 13, 2019 at 4:21 am local time.

The experiment – APEX (Advanced Processors, Encryption, and Security Experiment) was onboard the ATEK / MAPHEUS-8, mission, rising to an altitude of 240km into space and returning back to earth after six minutes of microgravity.

[via AIP]
The goal of the research was to develop an off-the-shelf computer with a more powerful system for high-speed sensors and image acquisition than the Microchip ATmega328P, the current standard. The flight test measured the speed of the system as well as stress testing its ability to handle compute-intensive tests.

The main board included two ESP32s and a Raspberry Pi Zero W, running resinOS / balenaOS, an operating system designed to run parallel Docker containers and optimized for IoT fleet management.

Prior to the experiment, the standard for on-board computers for use in CubeSats was the ATmega/Arduino-based ARDUSAT. Since it was first made available for use in CubeSats in 2013, the performance has become limited, with improvements needed to perform higher throughput data sampling or operations requiring more computational power.

It’s also cool to note that the system, built using a 3D-printed holder, survived the re-entry (reaching up to 20.6g) with hardly a scratch.

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Bouncing Signals Off The Moon

One of the great things about ham radio is that isn’t just one hobby. Some people like to chit chat, some like to work foreign countries, some prepare for emergencies, and there are several space-related activities. There are hundreds of different kinds of activities to choose from. Just one is moonbounce, and [Ham Radio DX] decided to replicate a feat many hams have done over the years: communicate with someone far away by bouncing signals from the moon.

The set up is pretty sophisticated but not as bad as you might imagine. You can see that they spend a lot of time getting the equipment aligned. A known reference point helps them set the position of the antenna. A GPS keeps both stations in sync for frequency and time.

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Off-World Cement Tested For The First Time

If the current Administration of the United States has their way, humans will return to the surface of the Moon far sooner than many had expected. But even if NASA can’t meet the aggressive timeline they’ve been given by the White House, it seems inevitable that there will be fresh boot prints on the lunar surface within the coming decades. Between commercial operators and international competition, we’re seeing the dawn of a New Space Race, with the ultimate goal being the long-term habitation of our nearest celestial neighbor.

Schmitt's dusty suit while retrieving samples from the Moon
An Apollo astronaut covered in lunar dust

But even with modern technology, it won’t be easy, and it certainly won’t be cheap. While commercial companies such as SpaceX have significantly reduced the cost of delivering payloads to the Moon, we’ll still need every advantage to ensure the economical viability of a lunar outpost. One approach is in situ resource utilization, where instead of transporting everything from Earth, locally sourced materials are used wherever possible. This technique would not only be useful on the Moon, but many believe it will be absolutely necessary if we’re to have any chance of sending a human mission to Mars.

One of the most interesting applications of this concept is the creation of a building material from the lunar regolith. Roughly analogous to soil here on Earth, regolith is a powdery substance made up of grains of rock and micrometeoroid fragments, and contains silicon, calcium, and iron. Mixed with water, or in some proposals sulfur, it’s believed the resulting concrete-like material could be used in much the same way it is here on Earth. Building dwellings in-place with this “lunarcrete” would be faster, cheaper, and easier than building a comparable structure on Earth and transporting it to the lunar surface.

Now, thanks to recent research performed aboard the International Space Station, we have a much better idea of what to expect when those first batches of locally-sourced concrete are mixed up on the Moon or Mars. Of course, like most things related to spaceflight, the reality has proved to be a bit more complex than expected.

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Tracking The Satellites That Keep Us On Track; Monitoring GPS, Galileo, BeiDou, And GLONASS

We may not always be aware of it, but the daily function of the technological world around us is extremely dependent on satellite navigations systems. It helps the DHL guy deliver those parts you were waiting for, and keeps the global financial and communication systems running with precision timing. So, when these systems have a bad day, they can spread misery across the globe. To keep an eye on these critical constellations, [Bert Hubert] and friends set up a global open source monitoring network that aims to track every satellite in the GPS, Galileo, BeiDou and GLONASS constellations.

Local azimuth and local elevation of GPS, Galileo, and BeiDou satellites passing overhead [via @GalileoSats]
Off-the-shelf GNSS receivers are used to feed navigation messages to a machine running Linux/OSX/OpenBSD. The messages are processed to calculate the position (ephemeris), extract atomic clock timings and status codes of each satellite. Publicly available orbital data is then used to make an informed guess regarding the identity of the satellite in question.

All this data enables [Bert] to determine ephemeris discontinuities, time offsets, and atomic clock jumps. The project’s twitter feed, @GalileoSats, is very active with interesting updates. Go check it out! All the collected data is available for research purposes and the software is up on Github.

GPS hacks are never in short supply around here and another open source satellite network, SatNOGS has been featured a number of times on Hackaday after it won the 2014 Hackaday Prize.

Thanks for the tip [DarkSideDave]!

India’s Moon Mission Is Far From Over

India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission to the Moon was, in a word, ambitious. Lifting off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on July 22nd, the mission hoped to simultaneously deliver an orbiter, lander, and rover to our nearest celestial neighbor. The launch and flight to the Moon went off without a hitch, and while there were certainly some tense moments, the spacecraft ultimately put itself into a stable lunar orbit and released the free-flying lander so it could set off on its independent mission.

Unfortunately, just seconds before the Vikram lander touched down, an anomaly occurred. At this point the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) still doesn’t know exactly what happened, but based on the live telemetry stream from the lander, some have theorized the craft started tumbling or otherwise became unstable between three and four kilometers above the surface.

Telemetry indicates a suboptimal landing orientation

In fact, for a brief moment the telemetry display actually showed the Vikram lander completely inverted, with engines seemingly accelerating the spacecraft towards the surface of the Moon. It’s unclear whether this was an accurate depiction of the lander’s orientation in the final moments before impact or a glitch in the real-time display, but it’s certainly not what you want to see when your craft is just seconds away from touchdown.

But for Chandrayaan-2, the story doesn’t end here. The bulk of the mission’s scientific goals were always to be accomplished by the orbiter itself. There were of course a number of scientific payloads aboard the Vikram lander, and even the Pragyan rover that it was carrying down to the surface, but they were always secondary objectives at best. The ISRO was well aware of the difficulties involved in making a soft landing on the Moon, and planned their mission objectives accordingly.

Rather than feel sorrow over the presumed destruction of Vikram and Pragyan, let’s take a look at the scientific hardware aboard the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter, and the long mission that still lies ahead of it.

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Hams In Space: Gearing Up For The Lunar Gateway

Humanity had barely taken its first tentative steps into space with primitive satellites when amateur radio operators began planning their first satellites. Barely four years after Sputnik’s brief but momentous launch and against all odds, OSCAR 1 was launched as a secondary payload from an Air Force missile taking a spy satellite into orbit. Like Sputnik, OSCAR 1 didn’t do much, but it was a beginning.

Since then, amateur radio has maintained a more or less continuous presence in space. That first OSCAR has been followed by 103 more, and hams have flown on dozens of missions from the Space Shuttle to the ISS, where pretty much everyone is a licensed amateur. And now, as humans prepare once again to journey into deep space via the stepping stone of the proposed Lunar Gateway, amateur radio is planning on going along for the ride.

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Watching The Watchers: The State Of Space Surveillance

By now you’ve almost certainly heard about the recent release of a high-resolution satellite image showing the aftermath of Iran’s failed attempt to launch their Safir liquid fuel rocket. The geopolitical ramifications of Iran developing this type of ballistic missile technology is certainly a newsworthy story in its own right, but in this case, there’s been far more interest in how the picture was taken. Given known variables such as the time and date of the incident and the location of the launch pad, analysts have determined it was likely taken by a classified American KH-11 satellite.

The image is certainly striking, showing a level of detail that far exceeds what’s available through any of the space observation services we as civilians have access to. Estimated to have been taken from a distance of approximately 382 km, the image appears to have a resolution of at least ten centimeters per pixel. Given that the orbit of the satellite in question dips as low as 270 km on its closest approach to the Earth’s surface, it’s likely that the maximum resolution is even higher.

Of course, there are many aspects of the KH-11 satellites that remain highly classified, especially in regards to the latest hardware revisions. But their existence and general design has been common knowledge for decades. Images taken from earlier generation KH-11 satellites were leaked or otherwise released in the 1980s and 1990s, and while the Iranian image is certainly of a higher fidelity, this is not wholly surprising given the intervening decades.

What we know far less about are the orbital surveillance assets that supersede the KH-11. The satellite that took this image, known by its designation USA 224, has been in orbit since 2011. The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has launched a number of newer spacecraft since then, with several more slated to be lifted into orbit between now and 2021.

So let’s take a closer look at the KH-11 series of reconnaissance satellites, and compare that to what we can piece together about the next generation or orbital espionage technology that’s already circling overhead might be capable of.

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