Not All SpaceX Software Goes To Space

SpaceX has always been willing to break from aerospace tradition if they feel there’s a more pragmatic solution. Today this is most visible in their use of standard construction equipment like cranes in their Starship development facility. But the same focus on problem solving can also be found in their software parts we don’t see. Recently we got two different views behind the scenes. First, a four-part series about “software in space” published by StackOverflow blog, followed quickly by an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session on SpaceX Reddit.

Some of the StackOverflow series cover ground that has been previously discussed. Mostly in the first part dealing with their workhorse Falcon and Dragon vehicles, and some in the second part discussing Starlink whose beta program is reaching more and more people. Both confirmed that spaceflight software has to meet very stringent requirements and are mostly close to the metal bespoke C++ code. But we receive fascinating new information in part three, which focuses on code verification and testing. Here they leverage a lot of open source infrastructure more common to software startups than aerospace companies. The fourth and final component of this series covers software to support SpaceX hardware manufacturing, which had been rarely discussed before this point. (Unfortunately, there was nothing about how often SpaceX software developers copy and paste code from StackOverflow.)

The recent Reddit AMA likewise had some overlap with the SpaceX software AMA a year ago, but there were new information about SpaceX work within the past year. There was Crew Dragon’s transition from a test to an operational vehicle, and the aforementioned Starship development program. Our comments section had a lot of discussion about the practicality of touchscreen interfaces in real spacecraft, and here we learn SpaceX put a lot of study into building something functional and effective.

It also showed us that essentially every Sci-Fi Movie Interface was unrealistic and would be unreadable under extreme conditions.

In the course of this research, they learned a lot of pitfalls about fictional touch interfaces. Though to be fair, movie and television spacecraft UI are more concerned about looking cool than being useful.

If the standard AMA format is not to your liking, one of the contributors compiled all SpaceX answers alongside their related questions in a much more readable form here. And even though there’s an obvious recruiting side to these events, we’re happy to learn more about how SpaceX have continued to focus on getting the job done instead of rigidly conforming to aerospace tradition. An attitude that goes all the way back to the beginning of this company.

Crew Dragon’s Short Hop Begins The Era Of Valet Parking At The ISS

They weren’t scheduled to return to Earth until April 28th at the earliest, so why did NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker, along with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi, suit up and climb aboard the Crew Dragon Resilience on April 5th? Because a previously untested maneuver meant that after they closed the hatch between their spacecraft and the International Space Station, there was a chance they weren’t going to be coming back.

On paper, moving a capsule between docking ports seems simple enough. All Resilience had to do was undock from the International Docking Adapter 2 (IDA-2) located on the front of the Harmony module, itself attached to the Pressurized Mating Adapter 2 (PMA-2) that was once the orbital parking spot for the Space Shuttle, and move over to the PMA-3/IDA-3 on top of Harmony. It was a short trip through open space, and when the crew exited their craft and reentered the Station at the end of it, they’d only be a few meters from where they started out approximately 45 minutes prior.

The maneuver was designed to be performed autonomously, so technically the crew didn’t need to be on Resilience when it switched docking ports. But allowing the astronauts to stay aboard the station while their only ride home undocked and flew away without them was a risk NASA wasn’t willing to take.

What if the vehicle had some issue that prevented it from returning to the ISS? A relocation of this type had never been attempted by an American spacecraft before, much less a commercial one like the Crew Dragon. So while the chances of such a mishap were slim, the crew still treated this short flight as if it could be their last day in space. Should the need arise, all of the necessary checks and preparations had been made so that the vehicle could safely bring its occupants back to Earth.

Thankfully, that wasn’t necessary. The autonomous relocation of Crew Dragon Resilience went off without a hitch, and SpaceX got to add yet another “first” to their ever growing list of accomplishments in space. But this first relocation of an American spacecraft at the ISS certainly won’t be the last, as the comings and goings of commercial spacecraft will only get more complex in the future.

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ISS Astronaut Shows Off SpaceX’s Stylish Spacesuit

Beyond the fact that Hollywood costume designer Jose Fernandez was called in to develop its distinctively superhero look, SpaceX hasn’t released a lot of public information about their high-tech spacesuit. But thanks to Japanese astronaut [Soichi Noguchi], Mission Specialist on the first operational Crew Dragon flight and a current occupant of the International Space Station, we now have a guided tour of the futuristic garment. The fact that it was recorded in space is just an added bonus.

As it was released on his personal YouTube account and isn’t an official NASA production, the video is entirely in Japanese, though most of it can be understood from context. You can try turning on the automatic English translations, but unfortunately they seem to be struggling pretty hard on this video. For example as [Soichi] demonstrates the suit’s helmet, the captions read “A cat that is said to have been designed using a 3D printer.” Thanks, Google.

Still, this video provides us with the most information we’ve ever had about how astronauts store, wear, and operate the suit. [Soichi] starts by showing off the personalized bags that the suits are kept in and then explains how the one-piece suit opens on the bottom so the wearer can pull it on over their head. He also points out the three layers the suit is made of: a Teflon-coated outer shell, a fiber-reinforced core for strength, and an inner airtight garment.

Little details are hidden all over the suit, such as a track built into the heel of the boot that’s used to restrain the astronaut’s feet to the Crew Dragon’s seats. [Soichi] also provides what appears to be the first public view of the umbilical connector on the suit. Hidden under a removable cover, the connector features 14-pins for data and power, a wide port for air circulation, and smaller high-pressure port for nitrox that would presumably be used to inflate the suit should the cabin lose pressure while in flight.

It’s taken an incredible amount of work to get commercial spacecraft such as the Dragon to the point that they can begin ferrying crews to the ISS. This close look at all the details that went into something as seemingly mundane as the suit astronauts wear while riding in their craft is a reminder that nothing about human spaceflight is easy.

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Spacing Out: StarShip Explodes (Again), Passenger Space Flight, Space Bugs, Astronaut Bone, And Martian Water

This time I promise I only have a couple of stories from Elon Musk’s company. SpaceX’s latest Starship test launch ended in another explosion, proving that space hardware remains hard to get right. We’ll keep watching as they keep launching, and it can’t be long until they’ve ironed out all the problems. Meanwhile there’s brighter news from the company’s Crew Dragon, a modified version of the capsule with the forward docking ring replaced by a transparent dome is planned for launch in September with the company’s first flight carrying civilian passengers. It’s doubtless unwelcome news for Virgin Galactic, whose suborbital passenger flights are edging closer to reality with the unveiling of their first SpaceShip III craft. Finally, a Falcon 9 upper stage broke up on re-entry over the northwestern USA, giving observers on the ground a spactacular show.

Spectacular view of the Falcon 9 debris. Via Lu Jerz

Meanwhile up there in orbit there have been found on the ISS some strains of bacteria previously unknown to scientists on Earth, but it’s not yet time to panic about Mutant Bugs From Space. It seems these bacteria are of a type that is essential in the growing of plants, so it’s likely they originally hitched a ride up with one of the several plant-growing experiments that have taken place over the station’s lifetime. Staying on the ISS, astronauts visiting the station have been at the centre of a recently published study looking at loss of bone density over long periods in space. The bone experts found that bone density could still be lost despite the astronauts’ in-flight exercise programs, and concluded that exercise regimes pre-flight should be taken into account for future in-orbit exercise planning.

Further away from Earth, the ESA Mars Express satellite has been used for a multi-year study of water loss to space from the Martian atmosphere. The ESA scientists identified the seasonal mechanism that leads to the planet’s upper atmosphere having an excess of water and in particular the effect of the periodic planet-wide dust storms on accelerating water loss, but failed to account for the water that they estimate Mars must have lost over its history. From a study of water-created surface features they can estimate how much liquid the planet once had, yet the atmospheric losses fail to account for it all. Has it disappeared underground? More studies are required before we’ll have an answer.

The exciting news over the coming days will no doubt be the Ingenuity Martian helicopter, which we have seen slowly unfolding itself prior to unloading from the belly of the Perseverence rover. If all goes according to plan the little craft will be set down before the rover trundles off to a safe distance, and the historic flight will take place on April 8th. We’ll be on the edges of our seats, and no doubt you will be, too.

Hackaday Links: November 29, 2020

While concerns over COVID-19 probably kept many a guest room empty this Thanksgiving, things were a little different aboard the International Space Station. The four-seat SpaceX Crew Dragon is able to carry one more occupant to the orbiting outpost than the Russian Soyuz, which has lead to a somewhat awkward sleeping arrangement: there are currently seven people aboard a Station that only has six crew cabins. To remedy the situation, Commander Michael Hopkins has decided to sleep inside the Crew Dragon itself, technically giving himself the most spacious personal accommodations on the Station. This might seem a little hokey, but it’s actually not without precedent; when the Shuttle used to dock with the ISS, the Commander would customarily sleep in the cockpit so they would be ready to handle any potential emergency.

Speaking of off-world visitation, the Hayabusa2 spacecraft is nearly home after six years in space. It won’t be staying long though, the deep-space probe is only in the neighborhood to drop off a sample of material collected from the asteroid Ryugu. If all goes according to plan, the small capsule carrying the samples will renter the atmosphere and land in the South Australian desert on December 6th, while Hayabusa2 heads back into the black for an extended mission that would have it chasing down new asteroids into the 2030s.

Moving on to a story that almost certainly didn’t come from space, a crew from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources recently discovered a strange metal monolith hidden in the desert. While authorities were careful not to disclose the exact coordinates of the object, it didn’t take Internet sleuths long to determine its location, in part thanks to radar data that allowed them to plot the flight path of a government helicopters. Up close inspections that popped up on social media revealed that the object seemed to be hollow, was held together with rivets, and was likely made of aluminum. It’s almost certainly a guerrilla art piece, though there are also theories that it could have been a movie or TV prop (several productions are known to have filmed nearby) or even some kind of military IR/radar target. We may never know for sure though, as the object disappeared soon after.

Even if you’re not a fan of Apple, it’s hard not to be interested in the company’s new M1 chip. Hackers have been clamoring for more ARM laptops and desktops for years, and with such a major player getting in the game, it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing less luxurious brands taking the idea seriously. After the recent discovery that the ARM version of Ubuntu can run on the new M1 Macs with a simple virtualization layer, it looks like we won’t have to wait too long before folks start chipping away at the Walled Garden.

In the market for a three phase servo controller? A reader who’s working on a robotics project worth as much as a nice house recently wrote in to tell us about an imported driver that goes for just $35. Technically it’s designed for driving stepper motors, but it can also (somewhat inefficiently) run servos. Our informant tells us that you’d pay at least $2,000 for a similar servo driver from Allen-Bradley, so the price difference certainly seems to make up for the hit in performance.

Finally, some bittersweet news as we’ve recently learned that Universal Radio is closing. After nearly 40 years, proprietors Fred and Barbara Osterman have decided it’s time to start winding things down. The physical store in Worthington, Ohio will be shuttered on Monday, but the online site will remain up for awhile longer to sell off the remaining stock. The Ostermans have generously supported many radio clubs and organizations over the years, and they’ll certainly be missed. Still, it’s a well-deserved retirement and the community wishes them the best.

Spacing Out: A Big Anniversary, Starlink Failures Plummet, Lunar Cellphones, And A Crewed Launch

After a couple of months away we’re returning with our periodic roundup of happenings in orbit, as we tear you away from Star Trek: Discovery and The Mandalorian, and bring you up to date with some highlights from the real world of space. We’ve got a launch to look forward to this week, as well as a significant anniversary.

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Engine Trouble Delays SpaceX’s Return To The ISS

A crewed mission to the International Space Station that was set to depart from Kennedy Space Center on Halloween has been pushed back at least several weeks as NASA and SpaceX investigate an issue with the company’s Merlin rocket engine. But the problem in question wasn’t actually discovered on the booster that’s slated to carry the four new crew members up to the orbiting outpost. This story starts back on October 2nd, when the computer aboard a Falcon 9 set to carry a next-generation GPS III satellite into orbit for the US Space Force shut down the engines with just two seconds to go before liftoff.

The fact that SpaceX and NASA have decided to push back the launch of a different Falcon 9 is a clear indication that the issue isn’t limited to just one specific booster, and must be a problem with the design or construction of the Merlin engine itself. While both entities have been relatively tight lipped about the current situation, a Tweet from CEO Elon Musk made just hours after the GPS III abort hinted the problem was with the engine’s gas generator:

As we’ve discussed previously, the Merlin is what’s known as an “open cycle” rocket engine. In this classical design, which dates back to the German V-2 of WWII, the exhaust from what’s essentially a smaller and less efficient rocket engine is used to spin a turbine and generate the power required to pump the propellants into the main combustion chamber. Higher than expected pressure in the gas generator could lead to a catastrophic failure of the turbine it drives, so it’s no surprise that the Falcon 9’s onboard systems determined an abort was in order.

Grounding an entire fleet of rockets because a potentially serious fault has been discovered in one of them is a rational precaution, and has been done many times before. Engineers need time to investigate the issue and determine if changes must be made on the rest of the vehicles before they can safely return to flight. But that’s where things get interesting in this case.

SpaceX hasn’t grounded their entire fleet of Falcon 9 rockets. In fact, the company has flown several of them since the October 2nd launch abort. So why are only some of these boosters stuck in their hangers, while others are continuing to fly their scheduled missions?

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