NASA’s Lucy Stretches Its Wings Ahead Of Trojan Trek

The good news about using solar power to explore space is there are no clouds to block your sunlight. Some dust and debris, yes, but nowhere near what we have to deal with on planets. The bad news is, as you wander further and further out in the solar system, your panels capture less and less of the sunlight you need for power. NASA’s Lucy spacecraft will be dependent on every square inch, so we’re happy to hear technicians have successfully tested its solar panel deployment in preparation for an October 2021 launch.

An animation of Trojan asteroids and inner planets in orbit around the Sun.
Trojan asteroids (in green) orbit the Sun ahead of and behind Jupiter.

Lucy’s 12-year mission is to examine one Main Belt asteroid and seven so-called Trojans, which are asteroids shepherded around the Sun in two clusters at Lagrange points just ahead and behind Jupiter in its orbit. The convoluted orbital path required for all those visits will sling the spacecraft farther from the sun than any solar-powered space mission has gone before. To make up for the subsequent loss of watts per area, the designers have done their best to maximize the area. Though the panels fold up to a package only 4 inches (10 centimeters) thick, they open up to an enormous diameter of almost 24 feet (7.3 meters); which is enough to provide the roughly 500 watts required at literally astronomical distances from their power source.

Near-Earth asteroids are exciting targets for exploration partly because of the hazards they pose to our planet. Trojan asteroids, thought to be primordial remnants of the same material that formed the outer planets, pose no such danger to us but may hold insights about the early formation of our solar system. We’re already eagerly anticipating the return of OSIRIS-REx’s sample, and Hayabusa2 continues its mission after so many firsts. An extended tour of these farther-off objects will keep us watching for years to come. Check out the video embedded below for Lucy’s mission overview.

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X-Rays Are The Next Frontier In Space Communications

Hundreds of years from now, the story of humanity’s inevitable spread across the solar system will be a collection of engineering problems solved, some probably in heroic fashion. We’ve already tackled a lot of these problems in our first furtive steps into the wider galaxy. Our engineering solutions have taken humans to the Moon and back, but that’s as far as we’ve been able to send our fragile and precious selves.

While we figure out how to solve the problems keeping us trapped in the Earth-Moon system, we’ve sent fleets of robotic emissaries to do our exploration by proxy, to make the observations we need to frame the next set of engineering problems to be solved. But as we reach further out into the solar system and beyond, our exploration capabilities are increasingly suffering from communications bottlenecks that restrict how much data we can ship back to Earth.

We need to find a way to send vast amounts of data back as quickly as possible using as few resources as possible on both ends of the communications link. Doing so may mean turning away from traditional radio communications and going way, way up the dial and developing practical means for communicating with X-rays.

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Engineering For The Long Haul, The NASA Way

The popular press was recently abuzz with sad news from the planet Mars: Opportunity, the little rover that could, could do no more. It took an astonishing 15 years for it to give up the ghost, and it took a planet-wide dust storm that blotted out the sun and plunged the rover into apocalyptically dark and cold conditions to finally kill the machine. It lived 37 times longer than its 90-sol design life, producing mountains of data that will take another 15 years or more to fully digest.

Entire careers were unexpectedly built around Opportunity – officially but bloodlessly dubbed “Mars Exploration Rover-B”, or MER-B – as it stubbornly extended its mission and overcame obstacles both figurative and literal. But “Oppy” is far from the only long-duration success that NASA can boast about. Now that Opportunity has sent its last data, it seems only fitting to celebrate the achievement with a look at exactly how machines and missions can survive and thrive so long in the harshest possible conditions.

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The Deep Space Energy Crisis Could Soon Be Over

On the face of it, powering most spacecraft would appear to be a straightforward engineering problem. After all, with no clouds to obscure the sun, adorning a satellite with enough solar panels to supply its electrical needs seems like a no-brainer. Finding a way to support photovoltaic (PV) arrays of the proper size and making sure they’re properly oriented to maximize the amount of power harvested can be tricky, but having essentially unlimited energy streaming out from the sun greatly simplifies the overall problem.

Unfortunately, this really only holds for spacecraft operating relatively close to the sun. The tyranny of the inverse square law can’t be escaped, and out much beyond the orbit of Mars, the size that a PV array needs to be to capture useful amounts of the sun’s energy starts to make them prohibitive. That’s where radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) begin to make sense.

RTGs use the heat of decaying radioisotopes to generate electricity with thermocouples, and have powered spacecraft on missions to deep space for decades. Plutonium-238 has long been the fuel of choice for RTGs, but in the early 1990s, the Cold War-era stockpile of fuel was being depleted faster than it could be replenished. The lack of Pu-238 severely limited the number of deep space and planetary missions that NASA was able to support. Thankfully, recent developments at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) appear to have broken the bottleneck that had limited Pu-238 production. If it pays off, the deep space energy crisis may finally be over, and science far in the dark recesses of the solar system and beyond may be back on the table.

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The Clementine Spacecraft

Preventing Embedded Fails With Watchdogs

Watchdog timers are an often overlooked feature of microcontrollers. They function as failsafes to reset the device in case of a software failure. If your code somehow ends up in an infinite loop, the watchdog will trigger. This is a necessity for safety critical devices. If the firmware in a pacemaker or a aircraft’s avionics system gets stuck, it isn’t going to end well.

In this oldie-but-goodie, [Jack Ganssle] provides us with a great write up on watchdog timers. This tells the story of a failed Clementine spacecraft mission that could have been saved by a watchdog, and elaborates on the design and implementation of watchdog techniques.

If you’re designing a device that needs to be able to handle unexpected failures, this article is definitely worth a read. [Jack] explains a lot of traps of using these devices, including why internal watchdogs can’t always be trusted and what features make for a great watchdog.

Thanks to [Jan] for the tip!

In-Band Signaling: Quindar Tones

So far in this brief series on in-band signaling, we looked at two of the common methods of providing control signals along with the main content of a transmission: DTMF for Touch-Tone dialing, and coded-squelch systems for two-way radio. For this installment, we’ll look at something that far fewer people have ever used, but almost everyone has heard: Quindar tones.

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Credit Card Sized Spacecraft Poised To Sail To Alpha Centauri

As a space-faring species, we’ve done a fair job of exploring and exploiting our local neighborhood. We’re pretty good at putting people and machines into orbit, but our galactic-scale signature is pretty tiny. Our radio signals are no more than 100 light-years away, and our farthest physical artifact isn’t even a light-day away from us 40 years after it launched.

Clearly we need to do a better job of getting out there, and that’s the goal of Breakthrough Initiatives’ Starshot program, which aims to launch a nano-spacecraft to Alpha Centauri and get it there fast. The program aims to build solar-powered credit card-sized spacecraft with sensors, cameras, communications, and even MEMS thrusters for attitude control. Motive power will come from solar sails catching laser light shined onto it from Earth, eventually accelerating the craft to 20% of the speed of light and reaching its destination within a generation.

The thought that we could start spreading ourselves out into the galaxy within the lifespan of most of the people on Earth is intoxicating. Sure, a wafer of silicon is a far cry from a sleek starship with powerful warp engines and all the finest appointments, or a gritty star freighter that can make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. But the laws of physics and the limits of engineering conspire to keep us mostly stuck at the bottom of a deep gravity well, and if this means sending fleets of nanobots across the galaxy in our stead, so be it.

And no matter what form our first galactic spacecraft take, you can bet that the Deep Space Network will be supporting the mission. For now, you can listen in on the program’s test satellites currently in orbit if you tune to 437.240 MHz.

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