Hacking An Experimental ESA Satellite

Hacking these days means everything from someone guessing your password and spamming your contacts with toxic links, to wide-scale offensive cyberattacks against infrastructure by sophisticated operators backed by nation states. When it comes to hacking satellites, though, [Didelot Maurice-Michel] found himself tangling with some hardware belonging to the European Space Agency. 

As part of an event called HackCYSAT, hackers were invited to attack the ESA’s OPS-SAT, a CubeSat intended to demonstrate improved techniques for mission control and more advanced satellite hardware. The computer hardware on board is ten times more powerful than other existing ESA satellites, and aims to take satellite technology on a new leap forward.

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Mothballing Rosalind: How To Put A Space Mission In Storage

In planetary exploration circles, Mars has quite a bad reputation. The Red Planet has a habit of eating spacecraft sent there to explore it, to the degree that nearly half of the missions we’ve thrown at it have failed in one way or another. The “Mars Curse” manifests itself most spectacularly when landers fail to negotiate the terminal descent and new billion-dollar craters appear on the Martian regolith, while some missions meet their doom en route to the planet, and an unlucky few have even blown up on the launchpad.

But the latest example of the Mars Curse, the recent cancellation of the second half of the ExoMars mission, represents a new and depressing failure mode: war — specifically the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The international outrage over the aggression resulted in economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation of Russia, which retaliated by ending its partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA), depriving the mission of its launch vehicle and dooming the mission that would have landed the rover Rosalind Franklin on Oxia Planum near the Martian Equator in 2023.

While there’s still a chance that administrators and diplomats will work things out, chances are slim that it will be in time for the narrow launch window that the mission was shooting for in September of 2022. That means the Rosalind Franklin, along with all the other flight hardware that was nearly ready to launch, will have to be put in storage at least until the next launch window opens in 2024. That begs the question: how does one put a complex spacecraft into storage? And could such mothballing have unintended consequences for the mission when it eventually does fly?

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Hackaday Links: March 6, 2022

As if the war in Ukraine weren’t bad enough right here on Earth, it threatens knock-on effects that could be felt as far away as Mars. One victim of the deteriorating relationships between nations is the next phase of the ExoMars project, a joint ESA-Roscosmos mission that includes the Rosalind Franklin rover. The long-delayed mission was most recently set for launch in October 2022, but the ESA says that hitting the narrow launch window is now “very unlikely.” That’s a shame, since the orbital dynamics of Earth and Mars will mean that it’ll be 2024 before another Hohmann Transfer window opens. There are also going to be repercussions throughout the launch industry due to Russia pulling the Soyuz launch team out of the ESA’s spaceport in Guiana. And things have to be mighty tense aboard the ISS right about now, since the station requires periodic orbital boosting with Russian Progress rockets.

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You Can Find Military Radars On Publicly-Available Satellite Data

When it comes to hunting down military radar installations and associated hardware, we typically think of equipment that is firmly in the price bracket of nation states and their military forces. Whether it’s early warning radar, those used for air defence, or for naval purposes, you’d think it was relatively difficult to intercept or track these emissions.

However, a new tool built by geocomputation lecturer Ollie Ballinger shows this isn’t the case. In fact, openly-available data captured via satellite can be used to find all manner of military radar emitters. Let’s explore how!

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Hackaday Links: December 26, 2021

At the time of this writing, the James Webb Space Telescope was perched upon its ride to space, ready for its much-delayed launch from the ESA spaceport in French Guiana. The $10 billion space observatory suffered one final delay (knocks on wood) when predictions of high winds aloft pushed it back from a Christmas Eve launch to a Christmas Day departure, at 12:20 UTC. Given the exigencies of the day, we doubt we’ll be able to watch the launch live — then again, past experience indicates we’ll still be wrapping presents at 4:20 PST. Either way, here’s hoping that everything comes off without a hitch, and that astronomers get the present they’ve been waiting many, many Christmases for.

In other space news, things are getting really interesting on Mars. The ESA announced that their ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter has detected signs of water in the Valles Marineris. The satellite found a large area of increased hydrogen concentration in the top meter of Martian soil; the assumption is that the hydrogen comes from water, meaning that as much as 40% of the material in the region scanned may be water. If so, that’s a huge find, as we thought most of Mars’ water was locked in the polar regions. The Mariner Valley stretches more than 4,000 km just below the equator, and so may prove to be an important resource for future explorers.

Meanwhile, in Jezero crater, Perseverance has decided to upstage its rotorcraft sidekick for a change by finding signs of organic molecules on Mars. It’s not the first time organic compounds have been found — Perseverance’s cousin Curiosity found some too, ESA’s Mars Express mission spotted methane from on high, and then there were the equivocal but intriguing results from the Viking missions in the 1970s. But the latest evidence is really great news for the scientists who picked Jezero crater as a likely place to search for signs of past life on Mars. The organics found are not proof of life by any means, as there are many ways to make organic molecules abiotically. But then again, if you’re going to find evidence of life on Mars, you’ve got to start with detecting organics.

Back on Earth, getting your laptop stolen would be bad enough. But what if it got yoinked while it was unlocked? Depending on who you are and what you do with that machine, it could be a death sentence. That’s where BusKill could come in handy. It’s a hardware-software approach to securing a laptop when it — or you — suddenly goes missing. A dongle with a breakaway magnetic lanyard gets plugged into a USB port, and the other end of the lanyard gets attached to your person. If you get separated from your machine, the dongle sends customizable commands to either lock the screen or, for the sufficiently paranoid, nuke the hard drive. The designs are all up on GitHub, so check it out and think about what else this could be useful for.

If you like the look of low-poly models but hate the work involved in making them, our friend and Hack Chat alumnus Andrew Sink came up with a solution: an online 3D low-poly generator. The tool is pretty neat; it uses three.js and runs completely in-browser. All you have to do is upload an STL file and set sliders to get rid of as many triangles as you want. Great stuff, and fun to play with even if you don’t need to decimate your polygons.

And finally, what have you done with your oscilloscope for the last three years? Most of us can’t answer that except in the vaguest of terms, but then there’s DrTune, who took three years’ worth of screencaps from this Rigol DS1054z and strung them together into a 60-second movie. He swears he didn’t purposely sync the video to the soundtrack, which is “Flight of the Bumblebee” by Rimsky-Korsakov, but in some places it’s just perfect. See if you can guess what DrTune has been working on by watching the waveforms fly by. And watch for Easter eggs.

Two Mars Orbiters Chatted For Atmospheric Science

Mission extensions for interplanetary robot explorers are usually continuations of their primary mission. But sometimes the hardware already on board are put to novel uses. European Space Agency has started using radio equipment on board two Mars orbiters to probe the Martian atmosphere.

The scientific basis is straightforward: radio signals are affected by whatever they had traveled through. When transmitting data, such effects are noises to be minimized. But we can also leverage it for atmospheric science here on Earth. ESA applied the same concept at Mars: by transmitting a known signal from one Mars orbiter to another, changes in the received signal tells scientists something about the Martian atmosphere between them.

So the theory sounds good, but the engineering implementation took some work. Most radio equipment on board ESA’s orbiters were not designed to talk to each other. In fact they were deliberately different to minimize interference. However, both Mars Express and Trace Gas Orbiter were designed to act as data relays for surface probes, and not just the one they each carried to Mars. Thus their related radio gear were flexible enough to be adapted to this experiment.

These two machines launched over a decade apart. Yet they could now communicate with each other in Mars orbit using radios originally designed for talking to the surface. In the near future such chatter will probably be limited, as Trace Gas Orbiter is still in the middle of its primary mission. But this success lets ESA think about how much further to push the idea in the future. In the meantime Mars Express will continue its observation of Mars, doing things like giving us context on Perseverance rover landing.

Quick Reaction Saves ESA Space Telescope

Once launched, most spacecraft are out of reach of any upgrades or repairs. Mission critical problems must be solved with whatever’s still working on board, and sometimes there’s very little time. Recently ESA’s INTEGRAL team was confronted with a ruthlessly ticking three hour deadline to save the mission.

European Space Agency INTErnational Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory is one of many space telescopes currently in orbit. Launched in 2002, it has long surpassed its original designed lifespan of  two or three years, but nothing lasts forever. A failed reaction wheel caused the spacecraft to tumble out of control and its automatic emergency recovery procedures didn’t work. Later it was determined those procedures were dependent on the thrusters, which themselves failed in the summer of 2020. (Another mission-saving hack which the team had shared earlier.)

With solar panels no longer pointed at the sun, battery power became the critical constraint. Hampering this time-critical recovery effort was the fact that antenna on a tumbling spacecraft could only make intermittent radio contact. But there was enough control to shut down additional systems for a few more hours on battery, and enough telemetry so the team could understand what had happened. Control was regained using remaining reaction wheels.

INTEGRAL has since returned to work, but this won’t be the last crisis to face an aging space telescope. In the near future, its automatic emergency recovery procedures will be updated to reflect what the team has learned. Long term, ESA did their part to minimize space debris. Before the big heavy telescope lost its thrusters, it had already been guided onto a path which will reenter the atmosphere sometime around 2029. Between now and then, a very capable and fast-reacting operations team will keep INTEGRAL doing science for as long as possible.