Mini Falcon 9 Uses NASA Software

[T-Zero Systems] has been working on his model Falcon 9 rocket for a while now. It’s an impressive model, complete with thrust vectoring, a microcontroller which follows a predetermined flight plan, a working launch pad, and even legs to attempt vertical landings. During his first tests of his model, though, there were some issues with the control system software that he wrote so he’s back with a new system that borrows software from the Space Shuttle.

The first problem to solve is gimbal lock, a problem that arises when two axes of rotation line up during flight, causing erratic motion. This is especially difficult because this model has no ability to control roll. Solving this using quaternion instead of Euler angles involves a lot of math, provided by libraries developed for use on the Space Shuttle, but with the extra efficiency improvements the new software runs at a much faster rate than it did previously. Unfortunately, the new software had a bug which prevented the parachute from opening, which wasn’t discovered until after launch.

There’s a lot going on in this build behind-the-scenes, too, like the test rocket motor used for testing the control system, which is actually two counter-rotating propellers that can be used to model the thrust of a motor without actually lighting anything on fire. There’s also a separate video describing a test method which validates new hardware with data from prior launches. And, if you want to take your model rocketry further in a different direction, it’s always possible to make your own fuel as well.

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With Rocket Lab’s Daring Midair Catch, Reusable Rockets Go Mainstream

We’ve all marveled at the videos of SpaceX rockets returning to their point of origin and landing on their spindly deployable legs, looking for all the world like something pulled from a 1950s science fiction film.  On countless occasions founder Elon Musk and president Gwynne Shotwell have extolled the virtues of reusable rockets, such as lower operating cost and the higher reliability that comes with each booster having a flight heritage. At this point, even NASA feels confident enough to fly their missions and astronauts on reused SpaceX hardware.

Even so, SpaceX’s reusability program has remained an outlier, as all other launch providers have stayed the course and continue to offer only expendable booster rockets. Competitors such as United Launch Alliance and Blue Origin have teased varying degrees of reusability for their future vehicles, but to date have nothing to show for it beyond some flashy computer-generated imagery. All the while SpaceX continues to streamline their process, reducing turnaround time and refurbishment costs with each successful reuse of a Falcon 9 booster.

But that changed earlier this month, when a helicopter successfully caught one of Rocket Lab’s Electron boosters in midair as it fell back down to Earth under a parachute. While calling the two companies outright competitors might be a stretch given the relative sizes and capabilities of their boosters, SpaceX finally has a sparing partner when it comes to the science of reusability. The Falcon 9 has already smashed the Space Shuttle’s record turnaround time, but perhaps Rocket Lab will be the first to achieve Elon Musk’s stated goal of re-flying a rocket within 24 hours of its recovery.

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Astra’s Frugal Design Leads To Latest Unusual Failure

We’ve all heard it said, and it bears repeating: getting to space is hard. But it actually gets even harder the smaller your booster is. That’s because the structure, engines, avionics, and useful payload of a rocket only make up a tiny portion of its liftoff mass, while the rest is dedicated to the propellant it must expend to reach orbital velocity. That’s why a Falcon 9 tipping the scales at 549,054 kilograms (1,207,920 pounds) can only loft a payload of 22,800 kg (50,265 lb) — roughly 4% of its takeoff weight.

As you might imagine, there’s a lower limit where there simply isn’t enough mass in the equation for the hardware necessary to build a fully functional rocket. But where is that limit? That’s precisely what aerospace newcomer Astra is trying to find out. Their Rocket 3 is among the smallest orbital boosters to ever fly, closer in size and mass to the German V2 of World War II than the towering vehicles being built by SpaceX or Blue Origin. Even the Rocket Lab Electron, itself an exceptionally svelte rocket, is considerably larger.

The reason they’re trying to build such a small rocket is of course very simple: smaller means cheaper. Assuming you’ve got a payload light and compact enough to fit on their launcher, Astra says they can put it into orbit for roughly $2.5 million USD; less than half the cost of a dedicated flight aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron, and competitive with SpaceX’s “rideshare” program. Such a low ticket price would have been unfathomable a decade ago, and promises to shake up an already highly competitive commercial launch market. But naturally, Astra has to get the thing flying reliably before we can celebrate this new spaceflight milestone.

Their latest mission ended in a total loss of the vehicle and payload when the upper stage tumbled out of control roughly three minutes after an otherwise perfect liftoff from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Such issues aren’t uncommon for a new orbital booster, and few rockets in history have entered regular service without a lost payload or two on the books. But this failure, broadcast live over the Internet, was something quite unusual: because of the unconventional design of Astra’s diminutive rocket, the upper stage appeared to get stuck inside the booster after the payload fairing failed to open fully.

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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.

SpaceX Drops The Ball On Catching Fairings

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.

SpaceX’s concept art for propulsive landing

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.

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The Last Days Of The Wild West

We loved it a few weeks ago when an international team of hackers managed to record and decode telemetry and images from SpaceX launches. And now it looks like SpaceX has started encrypting it all in response. Booo!

Decoding satellite and other space ship transmissions has been a great hacker pastime. Most recently, we’ve seen a group working on listening in to the Chinese Tianwen-1 Mars probe shortly after its launch, but listening to the Deep Space Network or even just decoding weather satellite broadcasts can give folks a reason to stretch their radio muscles.

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!

Fun While It Lasted, Falcon 9 Telemetry Now Encrypted

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.

Unfortunately, it looks like those heady days are now over, as [derekcz] reports the downlink from the latest Falcon 9 mission was nothing but intelligible noise. Since the hardware and software haven’t changed on his side, the only logical conclusion is that SpaceX wasn’t too happy about radio amateurs listening in on their rocket and decided to employ some form of encryption.

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.

Some of the images [derekcz] was able to capture from the Falcon 9

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.

At the end of the post [derekcz] echos a sentiment we’ve been hearing from other amateur radio operators  recently, which is that pretty soon space may be off-limits for us civilians. As older weather satellites begin to fail and get replaced with newer and inevitably more complex models, the days of picking up satellite images with an RTL-SDR and a few lines of Python are likely numbered.