NASA Mission Off To Rough Start After Astra Failure

When Astra’s diminutive Rocket 3.3 lifted off from its pad at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on June 12th, everything seemed to be going well. In fact, the mission was progressing exactly to plan right up until the end — the booster’s second stage Aether engine appeared to be operating normally until it abruptly shut down roughly a minute ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, orbital mechanics are nothing if not exacting, and an engine burn that ends a minute early might as well never have happened at all.

According to the telemetry values shown on-screen during the live coverage of the launch, the booster’s upper stage topped out at a velocity of 6.573 kilometers per second, well short of the 7.8 km/s required to attain a stable low Earth orbit. While the video feed was cut as soon as it was clear something had gone wrong, the rigid physics of spaceflight means there’s little question about the sequence of events that followed. Without the necessary energy to stay in orbit, the upper stage of the rocket would have been left in a sub-orbital trajectory, eventually reentering the atmosphere and burning up a few thousand kilometers downrange from where it started.

An unusual white plume is seen from the engine as it shuts down abruptly.

Of course, it’s no secret that spaceflight is difficult. Doubly so for startup that only has a few successful flights under their belt. There’s no doubt that Astra will determine why their engine shutdown early and make whatever changes are necessary to ensure it doesn’t happen again, and if their history is any indication, they’re likely to be flying again in short order. Designed for a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) competition that sought to spur the development of cheap and small rockets capable of launching payloads on short notice, Astra’s family of rockets have already demonstrated unusually high operational agility.

Astra, and the Rocket 3.3 design, will live to fly again. But what of the payload the booster was due to put into orbit? That’s a bit more complicated. This was the first of three flights that were planned to assemble a constellation of small CubeSats as part of NASA’s TROPICS mission. The space agency has already released a statement saying the mission can still achieve its scientific goals, albeit with reduced coverage, assuming the remaining satellites safely reach orbit. But should one of the next launches fail, both of which are currently scheduled to fly on Astra’s rockets, it seems unlikely the TROPICS program will be able to achieve its primary goal.

So what exactly is TROPICS, and why has NASA pinned its success on the ability for a small and relatively immature launch vehicle to make multiple flights with their hardware onboard? Let’s take a look.

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Satellite image of hurrican Dorian

Hurricane Hunting From Outer Space

If you live in the right part of the world, you spend a lot of the year worried about hurricanes or — technically — tropical cyclones. These storms carry an amazing amount of power and can change your life. However, we are relatively spoiled these days compared to the past. It is hard to imagine, but there was a time when a hurricane’s arrival was something of a mystery. Sure, ships would report what they encountered, but finding exact data about a hurricane was a bit hit or miss. We often talk about space technology making life better. Weather forecasting — especially for tropical storms — is one place where money spent in space has made life much better on Earth.

The lack of data about storms can be fatal. The Great Galveston hurricane of 1900 took around 12,000 lives. It might have had a better outcome, but forecasters missed where the storm was heading, announcing that it would go from Cuba to Florida which was just totally wrong. Not that a forecaster couldn’t make a mistake today, but with aircraft and satellite coverage, you’d know very quickly that the prediction was wrong and you’d sound the alarm. In truth, the prediction models have become very good over the years, so the chances of this happening today are virtually nil in any event. But being able to precisely locate and track storms helps reduce the impact of the storm and also feeds data into the models that makes them even more accurate for the future.

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Satellite Ground Station Upcycles Trash

While the term “upcycle” is relatively recent, we feel like [saveitforparts] has been doing it for a long time. He’d previously built gear to pick up low-Earth orbit satellites, but now wants to pick up geosynchronous birds which requires a better antenna. While his setup won’t win a beauty contest, it does seem to work, and saved some trash from a landfill, too. (Video, embedded below.)

Small dishes are cheap on the surplus market. A can makes a nice feedhorn using a classic cantenna design, although that required aluminum tape since the only can in the trash was a cardboard oatmeal carton. The tape came in handy when the dish turned out to be about 25% too small, as well.

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Get Your Weather Images Straight From The Satellite

[Josh] has a series called Ham Radio Crash Course and a recent installment covers how you can grab satellite images directly from weather satellites. This used to be more of a production than it is now thanks to software defined radio (SDR). Josh also has another project using a 3D printer to make an antenna suitable for the job. You can see the video below.

The software is the venerable WXtoImg program. This is abandonware, but the community has kept the software available. The program works on Linux, Windows, and Mac. The satellites in question operate around 137 MHz, but that’s easily in the range of even the cheap SDR dongles. [Josh] shows how to use a virtual audio cable on Windows to connect the output of the radio to the input of the WXtoImg program. Under Linux, you can do this with Pulse or Jack very easily without any extra hardware.

There’s some setup and calibration necessary for the software. You’ll also need the current orbital data and the program will tell you when you can find the next satellite passing overhead. Generally speaking you’ll want your antenna outside, which [Josh] solved by taking everything outdoors and having some lunch during the pass. It also takes some time to post-process the data into images and audio.

We know this isn’t new. But we did like [Josh’s] clear and up-to-date guide. We remember watching NOAA 15 as it started to lose its electronic mind.

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The Final Days Of The Fire Lookouts

For more than a century, the United States Forest Service has employed men and women to monitor vast swaths of wilderness from isolated lookout towers. Armed with little more than a pair of binoculars and a map, these lookouts served as an early warning system for combating wildfires. Eventually the towers would be equipped with radios, and later still a cellular or satellite connection to the Internet, but beyond that the job of fire lookout has changed little since the 1900s.

Like the lighthouse keepers of old, there’s a certain romance surrounding the fire lookouts. Sitting alone in their tower, the majority of their time is spent looking at a horizon they’ve memorized over years or even decades, carefully watching for the slightest whiff of smoke. The isolation has been a prison for some, and a paradise for others. Author Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 in a lookout tower on Desolation Peak in Washington state, an experience which he wrote about in several works including Desolation Angels.

But slowly, in a change completely imperceptible to the public, the era of the fire lookouts has been drawing to a close. As technology improves, the idea of perching a human on top of a tall tower for months on end seems increasingly archaic. Many are staunchly opposed to the idea of automation replacing human workers, but in the case of the fire lookouts, it’s difficult to argue against it. Computer vision offers an unwavering eye that can detect even the smallest column of smoke amongst acres of woodland, while drones equipped with GPS can pinpoint its location and make on-site assessments without risk to human life.

At one point, the United States Forest Service operated more than 5,000 permanent fire lookout towers, but today that number has dwindled into the hundreds. As this niche job fades even farther into obscurity, let’s take a look at the fire lookout’s most famous tool, and the modern technology poised to replace it.

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Full Earth Disc Images From GOES-17 Harvested By SDR

We’ve seen lots of hacks about capturing weather images from the satellites whizzing over our heads, but this nicely written how-to from [Eric Sorensen] takes a different approach. Rather than capturing images from polar satellites that pass overhead a few times a day, this article looks at capturing images from GOES-17, a geostationary satellite that looks down on the Pacific Ocean. The fact that it is a geostationary satellite means that it captures the same view all the time, so you can capture awesome time-lapse videos of the weather.  Continue reading “Full Earth Disc Images From GOES-17 Harvested By SDR”

Hackaday Podcast Ep15: Going Low Frequency, Robotic Machines, Disk Usage For Budgets, And Cellphones Versus Weather

Hackaday Editors Mike Szczys and Elliot Williams discuss the highlights of the great hacks from the past week. On this episode we discuss wireless charging from scratch, Etch-A-Sketch selfies, the robot arm you really should build yourself, bicycle tires and steel nuts for anti-slip footwear, and bending the piezo-electric effect to act as a VLF antenna. Plus we delve into articles you can’t miss about 5G and robot firefighting.

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!

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!

Direct download (60 MB or so.)

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