SpaceX ‘getting ready’ to fly orbital Starship design with new FCC filing – gpgmail


SpaceX is taking the steps necessary to begin test flying the orbital-class version of its Starship spacecraft, with new documents filed by the company (via Teslarati) with the FCC seeking necessary permissions for it to communicate with the prototype while it’s in flight.

The company filed documents with the U.S. regulatory agency this week in advance of the flight, which lists a max altitude of 74,000 feet, which is a far cry from Earth orbit but still a much greater distance vs. the 500 or so feet achieved by the squat ‘Starhopper’ demonstration and test vehicle that SpaceX has been actively operating in preparation for Starship .

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk confirmed that prep was underway via tweet. Musk has previously said that he hoped to follow the Starhopper’s most recent and final successful test quickly with tests of the full-scale vehicle. Like with that low-altitude test, SpaceX will aim to launch and land the Starhopper, with touch down planned just a short distance away.

Assembly and construction of the Starship prototype looks to be well underway, and Musk recently teased a Starship update event for September 28, which is likely when we’ll see this prototype assembled and ready to go ahead of its planned October first test flight window.

Starship is the next generation of SpaceX spacecraft, designed for maximum reusability, and with the aim of creating one vehicle that can serve the needs of current and future customers, eventually replacing both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. Starship is also a key ingredient in Musk’s ambitious plan to reach and establish a continuing human presence on Mars.


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Near miss between science craft and Starlink satellite shows need to improve orbital coordination – gpgmail


A European satellite that measures the Earth’s winds using lasers had a close encounter with one of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation yesterday in a situation that illustrates the growing inadequacy of existing systems for global coordination of orbital issues. It’s getting crowded up there, and email and phone calls between HQs soon won’t cut it.

The near miss was announced yesterday on Twitter by the European Space Administration’s Operations team on Twitter. It explained, perhaps a mite sensationally, that “for the first time ever, ESA has performed a ‘collision avoidance manoeuvre’ to protect one of its satellites from colliding with a ‘mega constellation’ .”

To be clear, and as ESA explained, these maneuvers are actually very common — but they’re almost always to avoid debris and dead satellites, not currently active ones. These days when you launch a satellite, you’re generally very careful to put it in an orbit that has been carefully calculated to not intersect with that of any other satellite. Pretty straightforward, right?

But things happen, for instance a thruster misfires or another maneuver goes wrong, and suddenly a satellite that was going to pass within a safe distance of another one is actually going to get much, much closer. That’s what seems to have happened here: the Starlink satellite, one of 60 launched earlier this year, somehow found itself on a potential collision course.

SpaceX and ESA exchanged emails on August 28, when the chance of the two craft colliding was around 1 in 50,000; they determined no action was necessary. But a subsequent update from the U.S. Air Force’s tracking infrastructure changed that estimate to about 1 in 600. That’s well below the 1 in 10,000 chance standard for taking measures. (This isn’t just guesswork but allowing for jitter in measurements and other noise that enter tracking of fast-moving orbital objects.)

Here’s where the hiccup happened. With the new and scary probability of a collision, either ESA or SpaceX had to change orbit — again, something that happens a lot, but in this case needs to be coordinated clearly with the other. What if they both adjusted their orbit the same way and increased the chance of disaster?

Unfortunately, SpaceX was not aware of the new probability estimate from the Air Force, and as such persevered in its decision not to adjust its satellite’s trajectory. As a result, the ESA had to make its own maneuver — not fun when the craft in question is performing extremely sensitive measurements using a high-powered lidar system.

Why would SpaceX not want to do anything? Apparently they weren’t in possession of the new, higher estimate.

“A bug in our on-call paging system prevented the Starlink operator from seeing the follow on correspondence on this probability increase,” SpaceX said in a statement. “Had the Starlink operator seen the correspondence, we would have coordinated with ESA to determine best approach with their continuing with their maneuver or our performing a maneuver.”

Ultimately there was no collision and both satellites are happily orbiting the Earth, though Aeolus does have a touch less fuel than before. The problem is not that a satellite had to swerve a bit, because that happens all the time. The problem is that it was an encounter with an active satellite and communications between the two operators was inadequate.

“Nobody did anything wrong. Space is there for everybody to use,” ESA’s Holger Krag told Forbes. “Basically on every orbit you can encounter other objects. Space is not organized. And so we believe we need technology to manage this traffic.”

Visualization of space debris around Earth.

With plans by SpaceX, Amazon, OneWeb and others to launch constellations of hundreds or thousands of satellites over the years, the possibility of another such encounter is very likely. And a system that worked when there were vanishingly few encounters between active satellites likely won’t work when those encounters are a daily or hourly occurrence.

“This example shows that in the absence of traffic rules and communication protocols, collision avoidance depends entirely on the pragmatism of the operators involved. Today, this negotiation is done through exchanging emails – an archaic process that is no longer viable as increasing numbers of satellites in space mean more space traffic,” said Krag in an ESA news post.

“No one was at fault here, but this example does show the urgent need for proper space traffic management, with clear communication protocols and more automation. This is how air traffic control has worked for many decades, and now space operators need to get together to define automated maneuver coordination,” he continued.

Naturally AI is being brought into the discussion, but also other common-sense rules and improvements to an aging system that is no longer able to be ignored. It plans to make these proposals more solid later this year and hopefully put them into action.




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Experimental U.S. Air Force space plane breaks previous record for orbital spaceflight – gpgmail


The Boeing-built X-37B space plane commissioned and operated by the U.S. Air Force has now broken its own record for time spent in space. Its latest mission has lasted 719 days as of today, which is one day longer than its last mission which ended in 2017, as noted by Space.com. It’s not an overall record, since geocommunications satellites typically have life spans of five years or more, but it’s nonetheless an impressive milestone for this secretive Air Force vehicle, which is all about testing and developing U.S. technologies related to reusable spaceflight and more.

The X-37B began its current mission in September 2018, when it launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The specific details of the spacecraft’s missions are classified, but in addition to apparently spending ever increasing amounts of time up in space (each successive mission of the space plane has lasted longer), it’s also “operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.” These tests involve tech related to guidance, navigation, thermal protection, high-temperature materials and durability, flight and propulsion systems and more, which is basically not saying much since that’s just everything involved in space flight.

There’s no crew on board operating X-37-B, but the vehicle can autonomously descend back through Earth’s atmosphere and land horizontally on a runway, just like the NASA Space Shuttle used to do when it was in operation.

The X-37 program got kicked off in 1997, originally began by NASA, and it was then transferred to DARPA and the U.S. Air Force after that. The X-37B has flown four times, and in total, the first four missions added up to 2,085 days spent in space.


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NASA’s Space Launch System May Have Set Back Orbital Refueling by a Decade


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NASA has been working on the Space Launch System (SLS) as a replacement for the Space Shuttle for a decade, and the project has already consumed $14 billion in funding. It’s not exactly a secret that pure political will has kept the SLS going, but there may have been some casualties along the way. A former United Launch Alliance (ULA) engineer has chimed in on Twitter to tell an anecdote about how the SLS smothered the development of orbital refueling. 

Ars Technica reporter Eric Berger had just posted a string of tweets about opposition to refueling depots in congress back when the SLS program picked up steam. Then, former ULA manager George Sowers replied with his perspective. According to Sowers, his ULA advanced programs group had published several papers on the use of orbital refueling depots. He claims his team demonstrated that pre-existing commercial rockets could do the job of something like the SLS. The key was a platform being developed at ULA called the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage, or ACES. 

In 2011, ULA wanted to test ACES in space to show that it could serve as a refueling depot to get rockets to more distant locations. Sowers said Boeing (which operates ULA along with Lockheed Martin) was incensed by his team’s push for refueling depots. Boeing was, and still is, the primary contractor on the SLS launch vehicle. A shift toward cheaper refueling technology could cost it a juicy government contract.

Sowers says Boeing executives tried to get him fired, but his direct managers held the line. However, ACES was quietly shelved. Around the same time, Berger reports that Alabama Senator Richard Shelby told NASA, “No more f—ing depots.” His home state is home to Marshall Space Flight Center and stood to benefit greatly from SLS development. 

ULA says ACES is still on its roadmap, but that could mean any number of things. We do know that NASA is taking another look at orbital refueling. As part of its new lunar push, the agency has partnered with multiple firms on new technology. Among them is SpaceX and its orbital refueling ambitions. SpaceX needs to develop advanced technology to transfer fuel in orbit for future Starship missions, and NASA wants a piece of that. 

Meanwhile, the SLS could launch on an uncrewed test mission as soon as next year. The launch has been pushed back a few times already, so it’s just as likely the rocket won’t fly until 2021.

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Cryptographic ICE Cube tests orbital cybersecurity protocols aboard the ISS – gpgmail


Encryption in space can be tricky. Even if you do everything right, a cosmic ray might come along and flip a bit, sabotaging the whole secure protocol. So if you can’t radiation-harden the computer, what can you do? European Space Agency researchers are testing solutions right now in an experiment running on board the ISS.

Cosmic radiation flipping bits may sound like a rare occurrence, and in a way it is. But satellites and spacecraft are out there for a long time and it only takes one such incident to potentially scuttle a whole mission. What can you do if you’re locked out of your own satellite? At that point it’s pretty much space junk. Just wait for it to burn up.

Larger, more expensive missions like GPS satellites and interplanetary craft use special hardened computers that are carefully proofed against cosmic rays and other things that go bump in the endless night out there. But these bespoke solutions are expensive and often bulky and heavy; if you’re trying to minimize costs and space to launch a constellation or student project, hardening isn’t always an option.

“We’re testing two related approaches to the encryption problem for non rad-hardened systems,” explained ESA’s Lukas Armborst in a news release. To keep costs down and hardware recognizable, the team is using a Raspberry Pi Zero board, one of the simplest and lowest-cost full-fledged computers you can buy these days. It’s mostly unmodified, just coated to meet ISS safety requirements.

It’s the heart of the Cryptography International Commercial Experiments Cube, or Cryptographic ICE Cube, or CryptIC. The first option they’re pursuing is a relatively traditional software one: hard-coded backup keys. If a bit gets flipped and the current encryption key is no longer valid, they can switch to one of those.

“This needs to be done in a secure and reliable way, to restore the secure link very quickly,” said Armborst. It relies on “a secondary fall-back base key, which is wired into the hardware so it cannot be compromised. However, this hardware solution can only be done for a limited number of keys, reducing flexibility.”

If you’re expecting one failure per year and a five-year mission, you could put 20 keys and be done with it. But for longer missions or higher exposures, you might want something more robust. That’s the other option, an “experimental hardware reconfiguration approach.”

“A number of microprocessor cores are inside CryptIC as customizable, field-programmable gate arrays, rather than fixed computer chips,” Armborst explained. “These cores are redundant copies of the same functionality. Accordingly, if one core fails then another can step in, while the faulty core reloads its configuration, thereby repairing itself.”

In other words, the encryption software would be running in parallel with itself and one part would be ready to take over and serve as a template for repairs should another core fail due to radiation interference.

A CERN-developed radiation dosimeter is flying inside the enclosure as well, measuring the exposure the device has over the next year of operation. And a set of flash memory units are sitting inside to see which is the most reliable in orbital conditions. Like many experiments on the ISS, this one has many purposes. The encryption tests are set to begin shortly and we’ll know next summer how the two methods fared.


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