Spacing Out: Launch Successes And Failures, Next Stop Mars, Rocket Catching, & Space Stations

As large sections of the globe have seen themselves plunged into further resurgences of the pandemic over the past few weeks there has been no let-up in the world of space exploration even for the Christmas holidays, so here we are with another Spacing Out column in which we take a look at what’s going up, what’s flying overhead, and what’s coming down.

Not today, Paul. r2hox from Madrid, Spain, CC BY-SA 2.0.
Not today, Paul. r2hox from Madrid, Spain, CC BY-SA 2.0.

December was eventful, with China returning lunar samples and Japan doing the same with asteroid dust. And it was reported that we  might just possibly have detected radio waves from ET. The truth may be out there and we sincerely want to believe, but this widely reported signal from Proxima Centauri probably isn’t the confirmation of alien life we’ve all been waiting for.

There has been no shortage of launches over the last month from the usual agencies and companies, with a first launch from China of their Long March 8 heavy lift rocket from the Wenchang launch site in Hainan Province. Its payload of five satellites made it safely to orbit, and we expect the rocket will be a workhorse of their future exploration programme. Meanwhile SpaceX conducted a high-altitude test of their Starship SN8 vehicle, which proceeded according to plan until the craft was approaching the landing pad, at which point the failure of one of its engines to fire caused a spectacular crash. This does not equate to an unsuccessful test flight as it performed faultlessly in the rest of its manoeuvres, but it certainly made for some impressive video.

On the subject of SpaceX and Starship, Elon Musk has said he will sell all his personal property to fund a Martian colony. This will require a fleet of up to 1000 Starships, with three launches a day to ferry both colonists and supplies to the Red Planet. He attracted controversy though by saying that interplanetary immigration would be open to people of all means with loans available for the estimated $50,000 one-way travel cost, and Martian jobs on offer to enable the debt to be paid. Many critics replied to his Tweets likening the idea to indentured servitude. It’s worth remembering that Musk is the master of the grand publicity stunt, and while it seems a good bet that SpaceX will indeed reach Mars, it’s also not inconceivable that his timeline and plans might be somewhat optimistic.

A more tangible story from SpaceX comes in their super heavy booster rocket, which is to be reusable in the same manner as their existing Falcon 9, but not landing on its own legs in the manner of the earlier rocket. It will instead dock with its launch tower, being caught by the same support structures used to stabilise it before launch. At first glance this might seem too difficult to succeed, but no doubt people expressed the same doubts before the Falcon 9s performed their synchronised landings.

Finally away from more troubling developments in the political field, The Hill takes a look at some of those likely to have a hand in providing a commercial replacement for the ISS when it eventually reaches the end of its life. They examine the likely funding for NASA’s tenancy on the station, and looked at the cluster of Texas-based companies gearing up for space station manufacture. That’s right — space station modules from the likes of Axiom Space will become a manufactured assembly rather than one-off commissions. The decades beyond the ISS’s current 2030 projected end of life are likely to have some exciting developments in orbit.

The coming year is likely to be an exciting one, with a brace of missions heading to Mars for February as well as a new space station to catch our attention. The Chinese aren’t content to stop at the Moon, with their Tianwen-1 Mars mission due to start exploring our planetary neighbour, and the first Tianhe module of what will become their much larger space station taking to the skies in the coming year. Meanwhile the Red planet will see NASA’s Perseverance rover also reaching its surface, taking with it the Ingenuity helicopter. Finally, the United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe will go into orbit, making the second month one that should have plenty of news.

Wherever you are, keep yourself safe from Earth-bound viruses, and keep looking at the skies in 2021.

Hackaday Podcast 078: Happy B-Day MP3, Eavesdropping On A Mars Probe, Shadowcasting 7-Segments, And A Spicy Commodore 64

Hackaday editors Elliot Williams and Mike Szczys go down the rabbit hole of hacky hacks. A talented group of radio amateurs have been recording and decoding the messages from Tianwen-1, the Mars probe launched by the Chinese National Space Administration on July 23rd. We don’t know exactly how magnets work, but know they do a great job of protecting your plasma cutter. You can’t beat the retro-chic look of a Commodore 64’s menu system, even if it’s tasked with something mundane like running a meat smoker. And take a walk with us down MP3’s memory lane.

Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always, tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!

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What Is The Tianwen-1 Probe Saying?

A few days ago, the Chinese National Space Administration launched their Tianwen-1 mission to Mars from their launch site in the province of Hainan. It should arrive at the Red Planet in April 2021, when it will face the daunting task of launching a surface probe from its orbiting component, which will release a rover once it has reached the surface. Like all such missions it’s in constant contact with its controllers on the ground, and as with any radio transmissions floating through the aether its telemetry has been received by the radio hacker community and analaysed by [r00t].

Straight away there’s something interesting in the modulation scheme, instead of a carrier with modulation applied to it there is a main unmodulated centre carrier, and the data appears instead on a series of subcarriers. Is this a feature of its being a space probe, the unmodulated carrier making it easier to find and track in deep space?

They quickly find the telemetry carrier, and decode its frames. It carries a series of data sets, including positional and instrumentation data. From the positional data they can tell when the craft has made any course changes, and from the sensor data such as the solar sensor its movement can be deduced and graphed. It makes for a fascinating insight into the mission, and we’re grateful for the analysis.

Mars is a notoriously difficult target for space probes, somewhere that multiple missions have for various reasons failed to reach. We hope the Tianwen-1 mission is ultimately successful and that in time the Chinese space people will in due course be showing us some of the fruits of their labours. They’re not alone in launching this month, so we’ve got a plethora of Mars-related stories to look forward to next year.

Header image: Tianwen-1 rover mockup. Pablo de León‎ / CC BY-SA 3.0