Spacing Out; OneWeb Rescue, Starlink Base Stations, And Rocket Tests

Another couple of weeks, and a fresh crop of space news to run through as a quick briefing of the latest in the skies above us.

OneWeb's most recent launch, from Baikonur on the 21st of March 2020.
OneWeb’s most recent launch, from Baikonur on the 21st of March 2020. (OneWeb)

The global positioning orbits are getting pretty crowded, with GPS, Russia’s GLONASS, the EU’s Galileo, Japan’s QZSS, and now with the launch of the final satellite in their constellation, China’s BeiDou. As if five were not enough the chance that they might be joined by a sixth constellation from the United Kingdom resurfaced this week, as the UK government is expressing interest in supporting a rescue package for the troubled satellite broadband provider OneWeb. The idea of an independent GPS competitor from a post-Brexit UK has been bouncing around for a couple of years now, and on the face of it until this opportune chance to purchase an “oven ready” satellite constellation might deliver a route to incorporating a positioning payload into their design. The Guardian has its doubts, lining up a bevvy of scientists to point out the rather obvious fact that a low-earth-orbit satellite broadband platform is a very different prospect to a much-higher-orbiting global positioning platform. Despite the country possessing the expertise through its work on Galileo then it remains to be seen whether a OneWeb purchase would be a stroke of genius or a white elephant. Readers with long memories will know that British government investment in space has had its upsets before.

Happily for Brits, not all space endeavours from their islands end in ignominious retreat. Skyrora have scored another milestone, launching the first ever rocket skywards from the Shetland Islands. The Skylark Nano is a relatively tiny craft at only 2m high, and gathered research data during its flight to an altitude of 6km. We’ve followed their work before, including their testing in May of a Skylark L rocket on the Scottish mainland with a view to achieving launch capability in 2023.

A Starlink phased array end user antenna, spotted in Winsconsin. (darkpenguin22)
A Starlink phased array end user antenna, spotted in Winsconsin. (darkpenguin22)

SpaceX’s Starlink is never far away from the news, with a fresh set of launches delayed for extra pre-launch tests, and the prospect of signing up to be considered for the space broadband firm’s beta test. Of more interest for Hackaday readers though are a few shots of prototype Starlink ground stations and user terminals that have made it online, on the roof of a Tesla Gigafactory and at a SpaceX facility in Wisconsin. What can be seen are roughly 1.5m radomes for the ground stations and much smaller dinner-plate-sized enclosed arrays for the user terminals. The latter are particularly fascinating as they conceal computer-controlled phased arrays for tracking the constellation as it passes overhead. This is a technology more at home in billion-dollar military radars than consumer devices, so getting it to work on a budget that can put it on a roof anywhere in the world must be a challenge for the Starlink engineers. We can’t wait to see the inevitable eventual teardown when it comes.

Elsewhere, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two completed its second glide test over its Mojave Spaceport home since being grounded in 2019 for extensive refitting, and is now said to be ready for powered tests leading to eventual commercial service giving the extremely well-heeled the chance to float in the zero gravity of suborbital spaceflight. And finally, comes the news that NASA are naming their Washington DC headquarters building for Mary W. Jackson, their first African American female engineer, whose story some of you may be familiar with from the book and film Hidden Figures. The previously unnamed building sits on a section of street named Hidden Figures Way.

Displaying HTML Interfaces And Managing Network Nodes… In Space!

The touchscreen interface aboard SpaceX Crew Dragon is just one of its many differences from past space vehicles, but those big screens make an outsized visual impact. Gone are panels filled with indicator needles in gauges, or endless rows of toggle switches. It looked much like web interaction on everyday tablets for good reason: what we see is HTML and JavaScript rendered by the same software core underlying Google’s Chrome browser. This and many other details were covered in a Reddit Ask Me Anything with members of the SpaceX software team.

Various outlets have mentioned Chromium in this context, but without answering the obvious follow-up question: how deep does Chromium go? In this AMA we learn it does not go very deep at all. Chromium is only the UI rendering engine, their fault tolerant flight software interaction is elsewhere. Components such as Chromium are isolated to help keep system behavior predictable, so a frozen tab won’t crash the capsule. Somewhat surprisingly they don’t use a specialized real-time operating system, but instead a lightly customized Linux built with PREEMPT_RT patches for better real-time behavior.

In addition to Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule, this AMA also covered software work for Starlink which offered interesting contrasts in design tradeoffs. Because there are so many satellites (and even more being launched) loss of individual spacecraft is not a mission failure. This gives them elbow room for rapid iteration, treating the constellation more like racks of servers in a datacenter instead of typical satellite operations. Where the Crew Dragon code has been frozen for several months, Starlink code is updated rapidly. Quickly enough that by the time newly launched Starlink satellites reach orbit, their code has usually fallen behind the rest of the constellation.

Finally there are a few scattered answers outside of space bound code. Their ground support displays (visible in Hawthorne mission control room) are built with LabVIEW. They also confirmed that contrary to some claims, the SpaceX ISS docking simulator isn’t actually running the same code as Crew Dragon. Ah well.

Anyone interested in what it takes to write software for space would enjoy reading through these and other details in the AMA. And since it had a convenient side effect of serving as a recruiting event, there are plenty of invitations to apply if anyone has ambitions to join the team. We certainly can’t deny the attraction of helping to write the next chapter in human spaceflight.

[Photo credit: SpaceX]

Thousands Of Internet-Connected Satellites Above Us, What Could Possibly Go Wrong!

Our skies are full of satellites, more full than they have been, that is, because SpaceX’s Starlink and a bevvy of other soon-to-launch operators plan to fill them with thousands of small low-earth-orbit craft to blanket the Earth with satellite Internet coverage. Astronomers are horrified at such an assault on their clear skies, space-watchers are fascinated by the latest developments, and in some quarters they’re causing a bit of concern about the security risk they might present. With a lot of regrettable overuse use of the word “hacker”, the concern is that such a large number of craft in the heavens might present an irresistible target for bad actors, who would proceed to steer them into each other can cause chaos.

Invest in undersea cables, folks, the Kessler Syndrome is upon us, we’re doomed!

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How Does Starlink Work Anyway?

No matter what you think of Elon Musk, it’s hard to deny that he takes the dictum “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” to heart. From hurling sports cars into orbit to solar-powered roof destroyers, there’s little that Mr. Musk can’t turn into a net positive for at least one of his many ventures, not to mention his image.

Elon may have gotten in over his head, though. His plan to use his SpaceX rockets to fill the sky with thousands of satellites dedicated to providing cheap Internet access ran afoul of the astronomy community, which has decried the impact of the Starlink satellites on observations, both in the optical wavelengths and further down the spectrum in the radio bands. And that’s with only a tiny fraction of the planned constellation deployed; once fully built-out, they fear Starlink will ruin Earth-based observation forever.

What exactly the final Starlink constellation will look like and what impact it would have on observations depend greatly on the degree to which it can withstand regulatory efforts and market forces. Assuming it does survive and gets built out into a system that more or less resembles the current plan, what exactly will Starlink do? And more importantly, how will it accomplish its stated goals?

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Hackaday Links: January 19, 2020

We’ve seen some interesting pitches in personal ads before, but this one takes the cake. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa is looking for a date to go along with him on his paid trip to the Moon, with the hope of finding a life partner. Maezawa is slated to be SpaceX’s first commercial lunar flyby customer, and will make the trip no earlier than 2023. That should give him plenty of time to go through the 20,000 applications he received from single women 20 and older with bright personalities and positive attitudes. And he should have plenty of time to make an awesome mixtape for the ride.

Imagine snooping through your kid’s garbage can only to find a used syringe lying in there. Most of us would likely be able to tell that the syringe once contained thermal compound or solder paste and be suitably proud of the little chip off the block, but apparently Cooler Master has fielded enough calls from panicked normie parents that they decided to change the design of their applicators. Given the design of the new applicator we doubt that’s really the reason, but it’s a good marketing story, and we can totally see how someone could mistake the old applicator for something illicit.

It looks as though SpaceX could be getting itself into legal trouble with its Starlink launches. Or more correctly, the FCC might, having apparently violated the National Environmental Policy Act, a Nixon-era law that requires government agencies to consider the environmental impact of any projects they approve. The Federal Communications Commission has been using a loophole in the law to claim a “categorical exemption” from these reviews when approving communications projects, particularly space-based projects. It’s not clear whether space is legally considered part of the environment, so the lawyers are hashing that out. If the FCC gets sued and loses, it’s not clear what happens to the existing Starlink satellites or future launches. Stay tuned for details.

Don’t forget that theĀ Open Hardware Summit is coming soon. The 2020 meeting is the 10th anniversary of the confab, to be held on March 13 in New York. Hackaday is, of course, a proud sponsor of the conference, and our own Sophi Kravtiz will be the keynote speaker! Get your tickets soon.

Tired of off-loading data manipulation and analysis tasks to R in your Python programs? Then you’re probably already aware of Pandas, the Python library that converts data into dataframe objects for easier manipulation. Pandas has (have?) been in pre-release for years, but there’s now a legit 1.0.0 release candidate available. Now might be the time for you Python data mungers to get onboard the Pandas Express.

And finally, the Consumer Electronics Show is a yearly gift to anyone in the tech media, providing as it does so many examples of outrageous uses for the latest technology. To wit, we have LuluPet, the world’s first feces-analyzing cat litter box. LuluPet uses a built-in camera along with IR sensors and an “AI chip” to monitor your cat’s dookie and provide an alert if anything looks awry. On the one hand, inspecting cat poop is a job we’d love to outsource, but on the other hand, most cats we know are quick to cover the evidence of their excretions with kitty litter, leaving a clay-encrusted blob rather than the turds with defined borders that would seem to be needed for image recognition to do its job. We’ll reserve judgment on this one until we see a review.

Starlink Satellites Posing Issues For Astronomers

Spotting satellites from the ground is a popular pastime among amateur astronomers. Typically, the ISS and Iridium satellites have been common sightings, with their orbits and design causing them to appear sufficiently bright in the sky. More recently, SpaceX’s mass launches of Starlink satellites have been drawing attention for the wrong reasons.

A capture from the Cerro Telolo observatory, showing the many Starlink satellite tracks spoiling the exposure.

Starlink is a project run by SpaceX to provide internet via satellite, using a variety of techniques to keep latency down and bandwidth high. There’s talk of inter-satellite laser communications, autonomous obstacle avoidance, and special designs to limit the amount of space junk created. We’ve covered the technology in a comprehensive post earlier this year.

The Starlink craft have long worried astronomers, who rely on a dark and unobstructed view of the sky to carry out their work. There are now large numbers of the satellites in relatively low orbits, and the craft have a high albedo, meaning they reflect a significant amount of the sunlight that hits them. With the craft also launching in a closely-packed train formation, there have already been impacts on research operations.

There is some hope that as the craft move to higher orbits when they enter service, this problem will be reduced. SpaceX are also reportedly considering modifications to the design to reduce albedo, helping to keep the astronomy community onside. Regardless, with plans on the table to launch anywhere from 12,000 to 42,000 satellites, it’s likely this isn’t the last we’ll hear about the issue.

Developing Guidelines For Sustainable Spaceflight

In the early days of spaceflight, when only the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union had the ability to put an object into orbit, even the most fanciful of futurists would have had a hard time believing that commercial entities would one day be launching sixty satellites at a time. What once seemed like an infinite expanse above our heads is now starting to look quite a bit smaller, and it’s only going to get more crowded as time goes on. SpaceX is gearing up to launch nearly 12,000 individual satellites for their Starlink network by the mid-2020s, and that’s just one of the “mega constellations” currently in the works.

Just some of the objects in orbit around the Earth

It might seem like overcrowding of Earth orbit is a concern for the distant future, but one needs only look at recent events to see the first hints of trouble. On September 2nd, the European Space Agency announced that one of its research spacecraft had to perform an evasive maneuver due to a higher than acceptable risk of colliding with one of the first-generation Starlink satellites. Just two weeks later, Bigelow Aerospace were informed by the United States Air Force that there was a 1 in 20 chance that a defunct Russian Cosmos 1300 satellite would strike their Genesis II space station prototype.

A collision between two satellites in orbit is almost certain to be catastrophic, ending with both spacecraft either completely destroyed or severely damaged. But in the worst case, the relative velocity between the vehicles can be so great that the impact generates thousands of individual fragments. The resulting cloud of shrapnel can circle the Earth for years or even decades, threatening to tear apart any spacecraft unlucky enough to pass by.

Fortunately avoiding these collisions shouldn’t be difficult, assuming everyone can get on the same page before it’s too late. The recently formed Space Safety Coalition (SSC) is made up of more than twenty aerospace companies that realize the importance of taking proactive steps to ensure humanity retains the unfettered access to outer space by establishing some common “Rules of the Road” for future spacecraft.

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