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.

Rocket Lab Plans Larger Neutron Rocket For 2024

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.

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Monitor SpaceX Rocket Launches With Software-Defined Radio

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 seems as though the data feed included a number of different elements including time, location information, and other real-time data about the rocket’s flight. It’s a great build that demonstrates the wide appeal of software-defined radio, and if you want to get started it’s pretty easy to grab a much cheaper dongle and use it for all kinds of applications like this. Go check out [Tom Nardi]’s piece on the last seven years of RTL-SDR to get caught up to speed.

Thanks to [Adrian] for the tip!

Sirius XM Satellite Failure A Reminder That Space Is Risky (And That Satellite Insurance Is A Thing)

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.

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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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Falcon 9 Lamp Is Touching Down In The Living Room

Many of us have been inspired by the videos of the Falcon 9 booster, tall as an office building, riding a pillar of flame down to a pinpoint landing at Kennedy Space Center or on one of SpaceX’s floating landing pads in the ocean. It’s not often that we get to see science fiction fantasy become reality on such a short timescale, and while they might not be sold on the practicality of reusable rockets, even the most skeptical of observers have to admit it’s an incredible feat of engineering.

Though it can’t quite compare to the real thing, this 1:60 scale Falcon 9 lamp by [Sir Michael II] promises to bring a little of that excitement home every time you flick on the light. Combining a scratch built model of the reusable booster with some RGB LEDs, the hovering tableau recreates the tense final seconds before the towering rocket comes to a rest on its deployable landing legs. We imagine those last moments must seem like an eternity for the SpaceX engineers watching from home as well.

The LED “exhaust” without the fluff.

[Michael] walks readers through assembling the Falcon 9 model, which cleverly uses a 2 inch white PVC pipe as the fuselage. After all, why waste the time and material printing a long white cylinder when you can just buy one at the hardware store for a few bucks?

Dressed up with 3D printed details from Thingiverse user [twuelfing] and splashed with a bit of paint, it makes for a very convincing model. While the diameter of the pipe isn’t quite right for the claimed 1:60 scale, unless Elon Musk is coming over your place to hang out, we don’t think anyone will notice.

The rocket is attached to the pad with a piece of threaded steel rod, around which [Michael] has wrapped one meter of RGB LEDs controlled by an Arduino Uno. With some polyester fiber filler as a diffuser and a bit of code to get the LEDs flickering, he’s able to produce a realistic “flame” that looks to be coming from the Falcon 9’s center engine. While we admit it may not make a very good lamp in the traditional sense, it certainly gets extra points for style.

We’ve actually seen a similar trick used before to light up the engines of a LEGO Saturn V and Apollo Lunar Module. It’s amazing how realistic the effect can be, and we’d love to see it used more often. We’d also like to see more model rockets that actually levitate over their pads, but one step at a time.