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.
You don’t have to look very hard to find another rousing success by SpaceX. It’s a company defined by big and bold moves, and when something goes right, they make sure you know about it. From launching a Tesla into deep space to the captivating test flights of their next-generation Starship spacecraft, the private company has turned high-stakes aerospace research and development into a public event. A cult of personality has developed around SpaceX’s outlandish CEO Elon Musk, and so long as he’s at the helm, we can expect bigger and brighter spectacles as he directs the company towards its ultimate goal of putting humans on Mars.
Of course, things don’t always go right for SpaceX. While setbacks are inevitable in aerospace, the company has had a few particularly embarrassing failures that could be directly attributed to their rapid development pace or even operational inexperience. A perfect example is the loss of the Israeli AMOS-6 satellite during a static fire of the Falcon 9’s engines on the launch pad in 2016, as industry experts questioned why the spacecraft had even been mounted to the rocket before it had passed its pre-flight checks. Since that costly mistake, the company has waited until all engine tests have been completed before attaching the customer’s payload.
But sometimes the failure isn’t so much a technical problem as an inability for the company to achieve their own lofty goals. Occasionally one of Musk’s grand ideas ends up being too complex, dangerous, or expensive to put into practice. For instance, despite spending several years and untold amounts of money perfecting the technology involved, propulsive landings for the Crew Dragon were nixed before the idea could ever fully be tested. NASA was reportedly uncomfortable with what they saw as an unnecessary risk compared to the more traditional ocean splashdown under parachutes; it would have been an impressive sight to be sure, but it didn’t offer a substantive benefit over the simpler approach.
A similar fate recently befell SpaceX’s twin fairing recovery ships Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief, which were quietly retired in April. These vessels were designed to catch the Falcon’s school bus sized payload fairings as they drifted down back to Earth using massive nets suspended over their decks, but in the end, the process turned out to be more difficult than expected. More importantly, it apparently wasn’t even necessary in the first place.
We understand that SpaceX runs some contract missions for US gov’t agencies that don’t appreciate leaking info about their satellite’s whereabouts, but for non-secret missions, we don’t see the harm in letting the amateurs listen in over their shoulder. Maybe they’re doing it for PR reasons if/when something goes badly wrong?
Whatever the reasons, it’s a shame. Space has been open to hackers for a long time, knowingly in the case of amateur satellites, and unknowingly in the case of many other satellites which until the mid-90s had command channels that were unencrypted. (I’ll have to stick with “unnamed sources” on this one, but I do know a person who has rotated a satellite that he or she didn’t own.) There’s a lot to be learned by listening to signals from above, and while you can still decode weather satellite data yourself, it’s not quite as sexy as downloading images straight from a Falcon 9.
The cool hand for SpaceX to have played would have been to say “of course — we broadcast unencrypted as PR to our biggest fans” but it looks instead like they simply didn’t think that anyone would be listening in, and this caught them by surprise and they panicked. In 2021, with something as complicated as a space mission, that’s a little bit embarrassing. Anyway, to those of you who managed to get in before encryption, kudos!
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A few weeks back we brought word that Reddit users [derekcz] and [Xerbot] had managed to receive the 2232.5 MHz telemetry downlink from a Falcon 9 upper stage and pull out some interesting plain-text strings. With further software fiddling, the vehicle’s video streams were decoded, resulting in some absolutely breathtaking shots of the rocket and its payload from low Earth orbit.
Since this data has apparently been broadcast out in the clear for nearly a decade before anyone on the ground noticed, it’s easy to see this as an overreaction. After all, what’s the harm in a few geeks with hacked together antennas getting a peek at a stack of Starlink satellites? [derekcz] even mused that allowing hobbyists to capture these space views might earn the company some positive buzz, something Elon Musk never seems to get enough of.
On the other hand, we know that SpaceX is actively pursuing more lucrative national security launch contracts for both the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. For these sensitive government payloads, the normal on-screen telemetry data and space views are omitted from the company’s official live streams. It seems likely the Pentagon would be very interested in finding out how civilians were able to obtain this information, and a guarantee from SpaceX that the link would be encrypted for all future flights could have helped smooth things over.
When Rocket Lab launched their first Electron booster in 2017, it was unlike anything that had ever flown before. The small commercially developed rocket was the first to use fully 3D printed main engines, and instead of pumping its propellants with traditional turbines, the vehicle used electric motors that jettisoned their depleted battery packs overboard during ascent to reduce weight. It even looked different than its peers, as rather than a metal fuselage, the Electron was built from a lightweight carbon composite which gave it a distinctive black color scheme.
Packing so many revolutionary technical advancements into a single vehicle was a risk, but Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck believed a technical shakeup was the only way to get ahead in an increasingly competitive market. While that first launch in 2017 didn’t make it to orbit, the next year, Rocket Lab could boast three successful flights. By the end of 2020, a total of fifteen Electron rockets had completed their missions, carrying payloads from both commercial customers and government agencies such as NASA, the United States Air Force, and DARPA.
Rocket Lab’s gambit paid off, and the company has greatly outpaced competitors such as Virgin Orbit, Astra, and Relativity. In fact Electron is now the second most active orbital booster in the United States, behind SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Considering their explosive growth, it’s only natural they’d want to maintain that momentum going forward. But even still, the recent announcement that the company will be developing a far larger rocket they call Neutron to fly by 2024 took many in the industry by surprise; especially since Peter Beck himself had previously said they would never build it.
The amateur radio community has exploded with activity lately especially in the software-defined radio (SDR) area since it was found that a small inexpensive TV tuner could be wrangled to do what only expensive equipment was able to do before. One common build with these cards is monitoring air traffic, which send data about their flights out in packets over the radio and can easily be received and decoded now. It turns out another type of vehicle, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 spacecraft, reports data via radio as well and with some slightly upgraded hardware it’s possible to “listen in” to these flights in a similar way.
Reddit users [derekcz] and [Xerbot] used a HackRF module to listen in to the Falcon 9’s data transmissions during its latest launch. While the HackRF is a much more expensive piece of equipment compared to the RTL-SDR dongles used to listen in on aircraft, it is much more capable as well, with a range from 1 MHz to 6 GHz. Using this SDR peripheral as well as a 1.2 m repurposed satellite dish, the duo were able to intercept the radio transmissions from the in-flight rocket. From there, they were recorded with GNU Radio, converted into binary data, and then translated into text.
It’s easy to imagine that once a spacecraft leaves Earth’s atmosphere and is in a stable orbit, the most dangerous phase of the mission is over. After all, that’s when we collectively close the live stream and turn our attentions back to terrestrial matters. Once the fire and fury of the launch is over with, all the excitement is done. From that point on, it’s just years of silently sailing through the vacuum of space. What’s the worst that could happen?
Unfortunately, satellite radio provider Sirius XM just received a harsh reminder that there’s still plenty that can go wrong after you’ve slipped Earth’s surly bonds. Despite a flawless launch in early December 2020 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 and a reportedly uneventful trip to its designated position in geostationary orbit approximately 35,786 km (22,236 mi) above the planet, their brand new SXM-7 broadcasting satellite appears to be in serious trouble.
Maxar Technologies, prime contractor for the SXM-7, says they’re currently trying to determine what’s gone wrong with the 7,000 kilogram satellite. In a statement, the Colorado-based aerospace company claimed they were focused on “safely completing the commissioning of the satellite and optimizing its performance.” But the language used by Sirius XM in their January 27th filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission was notably more pessimistic. No mention is made of bringing SXM-7 online, and instead, the company makes it clear that their existing fleet of satellites will be able to maintain service to their customers until a replacement can be launched.
So what happened, and more importantly, is there any hope for SXM-7? Neither company has released any concrete details, and given the amount of money on the line, there’s a good chance the public won’t get the full story for some time. But we can theorize a bit based on what we do know, and make some predictions about where things go from here.