Category Archives: space

Roamy roundup

There’s a lot going on.

First, the X-37B landed at Vandenberg AFB after a 674-day mission.

Next, the photos are starting to trickle in from Comet Siding Spring’s close encounter with Mars. This is my favorite one from Earth. Comet is in the lower left.
Siding spring
Looks like the Opportunity rover and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured some good images.

Nichelle Nichols, Uhura from Star Trek, talks about the Orion manned spacecraft in this video.

China is launching another probe to the Moon on Thursday.

Also on Thursday is a partial solar eclipse, visible for most of the U.S. (Warning: autoplay video)

And I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the notion that the MESSENGER spacecraft has found water ice near Mercury’s north pole.

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iSAT

The local chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics hosted a luncheon today with John Dankanich, the iSAT program manager as speaker. iSAT stands for Iodine Satellite, and it is a Cubesat program to test iodine instead of xenon in a Hall thruster engine. Right now, there aren’t a lot of options for small satellite propulsion. Solid motors are one use only, liquid engines take a lot of weight and space, and hypergols will try to kill you. By letting the iodine sublimate, i.e. go directly from solid to gas, all you need is a little heat to turn on your engine.

This isn’t the kind of engine that will lift a payload from Earth to orbit, but it will allow orbit change, even inclination change. Dankanich spoke about the military uses, being able to put communication relays or observation satellites into the right orbit quickly, perhaps even a constellation. You could have a constellation of small, cheap satellites around the moon or Mars or Venus. As for myself, I was interested in the end-of-life uses for small satellites, to deorbit a spacecraft before it becomes space debris.

Another point in favor of iodine was the much lower pressure than the current xenon Hall thruster engines. It opens up the possibility of rapid-prototyping your tank and even a conformal design to fit in the available space. Iodine presents some challenges in terms of what materials it’s compatible with, but we ought to be able to handle that.

Busek thruster proposed for iSAT.  Photo courtesy of NASA/iSAT's Facebook page.

Busek thruster proposed for iSAT. Photo courtesy of NASA/iSAT’s Facebook page.

It was an interesting talk, and it sounds like they have hit the ground running with a lot of hardware ready to go or easily modified for this mission. I wish them a lot of success in the future.

If you’d like to follow iSAT’s progress, they are on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/NASAisat .

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RIP, Steven Nagel

I’ve been swamped at work (so many projects that I currently have 13 different charge codes) and at home (sending Rocketboy off to college), so it took me getting the “your mailbox is over its size limit” to wade through my news and announcement emails. I was saddened to see the news that astronaut Steven Nagel had passed away after a long battle with cancer.
nagel
Nagel had the distinction of flying twice in the same year – 1985 – first as a mission specialist on STS-51G, then as a pilot on STS-61A. I do not know of any other astronaut that has done this. He was commander of STS-37 in 1991 and STS-55 in 1993. He flew on Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis, missing only Endeavour for the set.
I met him after STS-37, which launched the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. STS-61A and STS-55 were the German Spacelab missions. STS-51G was before I started working for NASA, but it was an international crew with a French astronaut and a Saudi prince.
Nagel had a long and successful career. After leaving NASA, he taught aerospace engineering at the University of Missouri at Columbia. He is survived by his wife and fellow astronaut Linda Godwin and their two daughters.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

— John Gillespie Magee, Jr

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SLS reaches milestone

The Space Launch System, the latest NASA rocket, reached what’s called KDP-C, or Key Decision Point-C. This means that the powers that be gave it the green light, which is a step farther than Ares or Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle or any of the rocket programs of the last 20 years have made. Components such as the core stage and the five-segment rocket booster have passed their critical design reviews, and Michoud has been producing barrel segments for the core stage.
sls barrels
So what’s next? ATK is getting ready for the first qualification motor test of the five-segment rocket booster. Sixteen R-25 engines are at Stennis, with one being readied for testing this fall. Orion’s first flight, Exploration Flight Test-1 is set to fly in December.

Onward and upward.

NASA press release here.

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Curiosity wheel damage: The problem and solutions | The Planetary Society

There are holes in Curiosity wheels. There have always been holes — the rover landed with twelve holes deliberately machined in each wheel to aid in rover navigation. But there are new holes now: punctures, fissures, and ghastly tears. The holes in Curiosity’s wheels have become a major concern to the mission, affecting every day of mission operations and the choice of path to Mount Sharp.

via Curiosity wheel damage: The problem and solutions | The Planetary Society.

One of the Saturn program greybeards would always talk about designing for the unknown unknowns. In this case, the Curiosity team designed the wheels to counteract some of the problems encountered by the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. What they didn’t know is how much damage would be done by fatigue and punctures. They didn’t know the rover would encounter ventifacts (wind-eroded pyramidal rocks) that are embedded in bedrock, so they don’t move as the wheels roll over them.

The good thing is that they’ve been checking the condition of the rover, they understand the cause, and they can adjust the drive path or drive backwards to minimize further damage. The designers for the next rover, Mars 2020 should take note.

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Innovative Hydrogen Leak Detection Tape Earns Prestigious Award | NASA

[Principal investigator Dr. Luke] Roberson explained that, from time to time, during the Space Shuttle Program tracking down the precise location of a hydrogen leak was a difficult challenge. Liquid hydrogen is a lightweight and extremely powerful rocket propellant used extensively by NASA. Its characteristics also make it highly flammable and explosive, requiring close attention to avoid leaks…NASA enlisted the assistance of University of Central Florida in developing a pigment that would change color when exposed to hydrogen. Chemochromic materials respond to the exposure to different chemicals with a change in color due to a chemical reaction within the substance.
“After two years of research, the team at UCF came up with a pigment that could be added to a silicon caulk,” Roberson said. “While it worked well, the caulk eventually dried out. We were then successful in adding the pigment to an air-tight Teflon tape.”
The end result was the development of the innovative “Color Changing Materials for Hydrogen Detection…One of the first applications took place as the space shuttle Endeavour was being prepared for the STS-118 mission in the summer of 2007.
“There was a hydrogen leak on the OMBUU and Launch Pad 39A,” said Roberson. “It proved to be elusive and we thought the tape could help.” The OMBUU was the Orbiter Midbody Umbilical Unit, a horizontal access arm for servicing the mid-fuselage portion of the space shuttle at the launch pad. It was used for loading liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen into the spacecraft’s fuel cells.
“Sensors were successful in identifying that there was a leak,” Roberson said. “The tape helped pinpoint the exact location.”The tape works by changing color from beige to high-contrast black in less than three minutes when concentrations as low as 0.1 percent are detected. This is well before reaching the explosive combustion threshold of about four percent. The pigment is completely passive requiring no power and is highly resistive to environmental factors including ultraviolet exposure, salt spray and humidity.

via Innovative Hydrogen Leak Detection Tape Earns Prestigious Award | NASA.

The article points out the potential uses for the chemical manufacturing and oil and gas industries. Nice to see more spinoffs from the Shuttle program.

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A Lesson in Information Humiliation

Seems the vaunted cyber-warriors at US CYBERCOM were matched up recently against some US military reservists whose civilian jobs centered around IT security.   The outcome, the UK’s Register reports, was decidedly grim for the DoD’s concept of a “cyber” command.

“The active-duty team didn’t even know how they’d been attacked. They were pretty much obliterated,” said one Capitol Hill staffer who attended, Navy Times reports.

Bear in mind that the opposing force to CYBERCOM did not consist of true hackers, but IT security people.  The best of those IT security professionals will readily admit that the bad guys, the black hats and hackers, are way ahead of them in the ability to penetrate networks, exploit operating systems, and do so with very little chance of detection and virtually none of attribution.

DoD and the respective services are quick to point to someone or some group and label them “cyber experts”, when in reality those people may merely have some insights into network operations or limited experience with network security.  In actuality, while those people may know considerably more than the average person, their depth and breadth of knowledge is woefully inadequate for even the very basics of what DoD claims it can do in what it euphemistically calls the “cyber domain”.

Retired Marine General Arnie Punaro, commenting as a member of the Reserve Policy Board, had a salient observation:

“It defies common sense to think that industry, in particular our high-tech industries, are not moving at light speed compared to the way government works.”

While Punaro was commenting about the 80/20 active duty/reserve mix in these “cyber” units, he is also seemingly laboring under some illusions about the ability of the US Military to recruit “cyber warriors”.  The kinds of people who will stay up all night eating pizza and smoking grass, pulling apart this or that operating code just for the fun of it, are largely not the types of people whose sense of patriotic duty will put them on the yellow footprints at Parris Island, or have them running PT with a shaved head at 0600 while drawing meager pay and having to field day the barracks every Thursday.  They are a free-spirited counterculture which often operates on both sides of the line of legality.

And those are just the “script kiddies”, whose motivations are often driven by some sense of social cause and are far less sinister than some.  From those groups come those who are hired by some very bad people, nation-state and non-state actors, who mix the technical knowledge of the kiddies they hire (or develop indigenously) with a considerable knowledge of the targeted network(s) and their importance to critical infrastructure which is central to America’s industrialized and automated society. It is  among that latter mix from which our most serious security threats emerge.

The concept of “information dominance”, so cavalierly and arrogantly thrown about, is a thoroughly bankrupt one.  The whispered assurances that “Fort Meade knows all” when it comes to network security and the ability to conduct what we used to call “offensive cyber” are so much wishful thinking.  The adversaries, the dangerous ones, are way ahead of them.   Read any report written by McAfee or other security firm in the last five years and the tale is always the same.  Network exploits and the hemorrhaging of sensitive information have often been ongoing for YEARS before a breach is even detected.  And, without exception, attribution in any meaningful way has proven impossible.

DoD is way behind the eight-ball in all things “cyber”, including a realistic understanding of the problem set.  Some F-16 pilot does not become a “cyber expert” in a ten-month IT course.  He becomes just dangerous enough to overplay his hand.  The depth of technical knowledge required for such expertise is years and decades in the making.  We would be off to a good start in recognizing such.

I will finish with a football analogy.  When you have just scrimmaged a freshman team and lost 63-0, you have a very long way to go before you are ready to play your conference schedule.

Oh, and you FOGOs who might vehemently disagree with what I wrote above?   You may be doing so on a computer that is jump number 384,262 in a 600,000-machine bot-net that will shortly be bombarding the US State Department with hostile packets, or displaying “Free Julian Assange” on a Pentagon website.

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