Flipped Bit Could Mark The End Of Voyager 1‘s Interstellar Mission

Sometimes it’s hard to read the tea leaves of what’s going on with high-profile space missions. Weighted down as they are with the need to be careful with taxpayer money and having so much national prestige on the line, space agencies are usually pretty cagey about what’s going on up there. But when project managers talk about needing a “miracle” to continue a project, you know things have gotten serious.

And so things now sit with Voyager 1, humanity’s most distant scientific outpost, currently careening away from Mother Earth at 17 kilometers every second and unable to transmit useful scientific or engineering data back to us across nearly a light-day of space. The problem with the 46-year-old spacecraft cropped up back in November, when Voyager started sending gibberish back to Earth. NASA publicly discussed the problem in December, initially blaming it on the telemetry modulation unit (TMU) that packages data from the remaining operable scientific instruments along with engineering data for transmission back to Earth. It appeared at the time that the TMU was not properly communicating with the flight data system (FDS), the main flight computer aboard the spacecraft.

Since then, flight controllers have determined that the problem lies within the one remaining FDS on board (the backup FDS failed back in 1981), most likely thanks to a single bit of corrupted memory. The Deep Space Network is still receiving carrier signals from Voyager, meaning its 3.7-meter high-gain antenna is still pointing back at Earth, so that’s encouraging. But with the corrupt memory, they’ve got no engineering data from the spacecraft to confirm their hypothesis.

The team has tried rebooting the FDS, to no avail. They’re currently evaluating a plan to send commands to put the spacecraft into a flight mode last used during its planetary fly-bys, in the hope that will yield some clues about where the memory is corrupted, if indeed it is. But without a simulator to test the changes, and with most of the engineers who originally built the spacecraft long gone now, the team is treading very carefully.

Voyager 1 is long past warranty, of course, and with an unparalleled record of discovery, it doesn’t owe us anything at this point. But we’re not quite ready to see it slip into its long interstellar sleep, and we wish the team good luck while it works through the issue.

NASA’s Tech Demo Streams First Video From Deep Space Via Laser

Everyone knows that the most important part of a tech demo is to make the right impression, and the team over at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) definitely had this part nailed down when they showed off streaming a cat video from deep space using laser technology as part of NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communication (DSOC) program. This system consists out of a ground-based laser transmitter and receiver along with a space-based laser transceiver, which for this experiment was positioned at a distance of 31 million kilometers – 80 times the distance between the Moon and Earth – as a part of the Psyche spacecraft.

After a range of tests with the system to shake out potential issues, the team found that they could establish a 267 Mbps link, with a one-way latency of a mere 101 seconds, allowing Psyche’s transceiver to transmit the preinstalled 15-second high-definition video in effectively real-time and making the cat Taters instantly world-famous. Although the potential for space-based cat videos cannot be underestimated, the main purpose of DSOC is to allow spacecraft to send back much larger data sets than they could before.

For robotic and potential future manned missions DSOC would mean high bandwidth video and data links, enabling more science, better communication and possibly the occasional cat video during interplanetary travel.

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Change Of Plans For New Horizons Sparks Debate

In 2015 NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft provided humanity with the first up-close views of Pluto, passing just 12,472 km (7,750 mi) from the surface. What had always been little more than a fuzzy blip at the edge of the solar system could finally be seen in stunning high resolution. Unfortunately, the deep space probe could only provide us with a relatively fleeting glimpse at the mysterious dwarf planet — the physics of such a distant interplanetary flight meant the energy required to slow down and enter orbit around Pluto was beyond the tiny spacecraft’s abilities.

The craft, often described as being roughly the size and shape of a grand piano, raced past Pluto and its moons at a relative velocity of approximately 49,600 km/h (30,800 mph) and headed out in the direction of Sagittarius. The incredible rate at which New Horizons traveled officially put it on track to be just the fifth spacecraft to leave the solar system, after the Pioneer and Voyager probes. Even so, its onboard systems were still in good health, and if given a sufficiently distant target, the $700 million craft was ready and able to collect more data.

Pluto, as seen by New Horizons

Accordingly, almost exactly a year after it flew over Pluto, New Horizons officially received a mission extension from NASA. As it blasted through deep space, the craft would seek out and study as many objects as it could in the region of space known as the Kuiper belt. Given that there are no current plans to send other spacecraft through this distant area of the outer solar system, New Horizons was uniquely positioned to make what could be once-in-a-lifetime observations.

Or at least, that was the plan. Recently, notes from a May 4th meeting of the Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG) were released that revealed NASA’s plans to redirect New Horizons from its work in the Kuiper belt to focus on heliospheric science in 2025. Those in attendance said the meeting became “heated” as New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern questioned the logic of potentially changing the craft’s mission this late in the game.

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NASA Aces Artemis I, But The Journey Has Just Begun

When NASA’s Orion capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean yesterday afternoon, it marked the end of a journey that started decades ago. The origins of the Orion capsule can be tracked back to a Lockheed Martin proposal from the early 2000s, and development of the towering Space Launch System rocket that sent it on its historic trip around the Moon started back in 2011 — although few at the time could have imagined that’s what it would end up being used for. The intended mission for the incredibly powerful Shuttle-derived rocket  changed so many times over the years that for a time it was referred to as the “Rocket to Nowhere”, as it appeared the agency couldn’t decide just where they wanted to send their flagship exploration vehicle.

But today, for perhaps the first time, the future of the SLS and Orion seem bright. The Artemis I mission wasn’t just a technical success by about pretty much every metric you’d care to use, it was also a public relations boon the likes of which NASA has rarely seen outside the dramatic landings of their Mars rovers. Tens of millions of people watched the unmanned mission blast off towards the Moon, a prelude to the global excitement that will surround the crewed follow-up flight currently scheduled for 2024.

As NASA’s commentators reminded viewers during the live streamed segments of the nearly 26-day long mission around the Moon, the test flight officially ushered in what the space agency is calling the Artemis Generation, a new era of lunar exploration that picks up where the Apollo left off. Rather than occasional hasty visits to its beautiful desolation, Artemis aims to lay the groundwork for a permanent human presence on our natural satellite.

With the successful conclusion of the Artemis I, NASA has now demonstrated effectively two-thirds of the hardware and techniques required to return humans to the surface of the Moon: SLS proved it has the power to send heavy payloads beyond low Earth orbit, and the long-duration flight Orion took around our nearest celestial neighbor ensured it’s more than up to the task of ferrying human explorers on a shorter and more direct route.

But of course, it would be unreasonable to expect the first flight of such a complex vehicle to go off without a hitch. While the primary mission goals were all accomplished, and the architecture generally met or exceeded pre-launch expectations, there’s still plenty of work to be done before NASA is ready for Artemis II.

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NASA Sets Eyes On Deep Space With Admin Shuffle

Since the Apollo 17 crew returned from the Moon in 1972, human spaceflight has been limited to low Earth orbit (LEO). Whether they were aboard Skylab, Mir, the Space Shuttle, a Soyuz capsule, or the International Space Station, no crew has traveled more than 600 kilometers (372 miles) or so from the Earth’s surface in nearly 50 years. Representatives of the world’s space organizations would say they have been using Earth orbit as a testing ground for the technology that will be needed for more distant missions, but those critical of our seemingly stagnated progress into the solar system would say we’ve simply been stuck.

Many have argued that the International Space Station has consumed an inordinate amount of NASA’s time and budget, making it all but impossible for the agency to formulate concrete plans for crewed missions beyond Earth orbit. The Orion and SLS programs are years behind schedule, and the flagship deep space excursions that would have utilized them, such as the much-touted Asteroid Redirect Mission, never materialized. The cracks are even starting to form in the Artemis program, which appears increasingly unlikely to meet its original goal of returning astronauts to the Moon’s surface by 2024.

But with the recent announcement that NASA will be splitting the current Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate into two distinct groups, the agency may finally have the administrative capacity it needs to juggle their existing LEO interests and deep space aspirations. With construction of the ISS essentially complete, and the commercial spaceflight market finally coming together, the reorganization will allow NASA to start shifting the focus of their efforts to more distant frontiers such as the Moon and Mars.

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The Cost Of Moving Atoms In Space; Unpacking The Dubious Claims Of A $10 Quintillion Space Asteroid

The rest of the media were reporting on an asteroid named 16 Psyche last month worth $10 quintillion. Oddly enough they reported in July 2019 and again in February 2018 that the same asteroid was worth $700 quintillion, so it seems the space rock market is similar to cryptocurrency in its wild speculation. Those numbers are ridiculous, but it had us thinking about the economies of space transportation, and what atoms are worth based on where they are. Let’s break down how gravity wells, distance, and arbitrage work to figure out how much of this $10-$700 quintillion we can leverage for ourselves.

The value assigned to everything has to do with where a thing is, AND how much someone needs that thing to be somewhere else. If they need it in a different place, someone must pay for the transportation of it.

In international (and interplanetary) trade, this is where Incoterms come in. These are the terms used to describe who pays for and has responsibility for the goods between where they are and where they need to be. In this case, all those materials are sitting on an asteroid, and someone has to pay for all the transport and insurance and duties. Note that on the asteroid these materials need to be mined and refined as well; they’re not just sitting in a box on some space dock. On the other end of the spectrum, order something from Amazon and it’s Amazon that takes care of everything until it’s dropped on your doorstep. The buyer is paying for shipping either way; it’s just a matter of whether that cost is built into the price or handled separately. Another important term is arbitrage, which is the practice of taking a thing from one market and selling it in a different market at a higher price. In this case the two markets are Earth and space.

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Tensions High After Second Failed Cable At Arecibo

Today we’re sad to report that one of the primary support cables at the Arecibo Observatory has snapped, nudging the troubled radio telescope closer to a potential disaster. The Observatory’s 300 meter reflector dish was already badly in need of repairs after spending 60 years exposed to the elements in Puerto Rico, but dwindling funds have made it difficult for engineers to keep up. Damage from 2017’s Hurricane Maria was still being repaired when a secondary support cable broke free and smashed through the dish back in August, leading to grave concerns over how much more abuse the structure can take before a catastrophic failure is inevitable.

The situation is particularly dire because both of the failed cables were attached to the same tower. Each of the remaining cables is now supporting more weight than ever before, increasing the likelihood of another failure. Unless engineers can support the dish and ease the stress on these cables, the entire structure could be brought down by a domino effect; with each cable snapping in succession as the demands on them become too great.

Workers installing the reflector’s mesh panels in 1963.

As a precaution the site has been closed to all non-essential personnel, and to limit the risk to workers, drones are being used to evaluate the dish and cabling as engineers formulate plans to stabilize the structure until replacement cables arrive. Fortunately, they have something of a head start.

Back in September the University of Central Florida, which manages the Arecibo Observatory, contacted several firms to strategize ways they could address the previously failed cable and the damage it caused. Those plans have now been pushed up in response to this latest setback.

Unfortunately, there’s still a question of funding. There were fears that the Observatory would have to be shuttered after Hurricane Maria hit simply because there wasn’t enough money in the budget to perform the relatively minor repairs necessary. The University of Central Florida stepped in and provided the funding necessary to keep the Observatory online in 2018, but they may need to lean on their partner the National Science Foundation to help cover the repair bill they’ve run up since then.

The Arecibo Observatory is a unique installation, and its destruction would be an incredible blow for the scientific community. Researchers were already struggling with the prospect of repairs putting the powerful radio telescope out of commission for a year or more, but now it seems there’s a very real possibility the Observatory may be lost. Here’s hoping that teams on the ground can safely stabilize the iconic instrument so it can continue exploring deep space for years to come.