Category Archives: Technology

SpaceX Encrypts Falcon 9 Telemetry After Amateur Radio Operators Download Data

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SpaceX doesn’t operate like a traditional aerospace company. For one, the CEO is usually hamming it up on Twitter during launches and providing details that would usually go in a press release. SpaceX also live streams almost all of its launches, even the prototypes that have an unfortunate tendency to blow up lately. It wasn’t even encrypting the Falcon 9 telemetry feed… until now. Unfortunately, some digging by amateur radio tinkerers seems to have convinced SpaceX to step up its security

It all started a few weeks ago when several Redditors managed to lock onto the 2232.5 MHz telemetry downlink from a Falcon 9 upper stage. Right away, they were able to pull out a few interesting plaintext snippets from the unencrypted feed. With a little more work, the radio enthusiasts were able to capture some amazing images from the spacecraft’s cameras.

After that discovery was public, other SpaceX fans tried to grab some data from the Starship during its prototype tests. However, SpaceX had chosen to encrypt that data. Even with the right wireless equipment, the decoded signal was just noise. Now, it appears the same thing is happening with the Falcon 9. When attempting to pull data from the most recent Falcon 9 launch, the original signal snoopers discovered it had also been encrypted. A series of tweets from SpaceX engineers suggest the decoding of the telemetry signal was the reason for the change. 

Images from the unencrypted feed, via Redditor /u/derekcz.

Naturally, the amateur radio community is upset about the move. The general feeling among these groups is that SpaceX didn’t need to encrypt the signal because they weren’t doing anything wrong. This is true, but even the original decoders have to admit there could be bad actors who intend to misuse the rocket’s telemetry. I’d also wager someone at SpaceX panicked about the possibility sensitive proprietary data could leak out through its telemetry feed. SpaceX has national security contracts as well, and the government most likely wouldn’t appreciate seeing its secret assets on a decoded telemetry feed. 

There’s a growing sentiment among amateur radio operators that the new generation of spacecraft and satellites will be off-limits to civilians. Many of those involved in analyzing the telemetry signal have expressed disappointment that SpaceX would lock them out, but this could be par for the course going forward.

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Fermilab Experiment Hints at New Fundamental Force of Nature

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Scientists working at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois have made some of the most important discoveries in physics over the years, including the existence of the top quark and characterizing the neutrino. Now, the team working on Fermilab’s Muon g−2 experiment has reported a tantalizing hint of a new type of physics, according to the BBC. If confirmed, this would become the fifth known fundamental force in the universe. 

Our current understanding of particle physics is called the Standard Model, which we know is an incomplete picture of the universe. Concepts like the Higgs boson and dark energy don’t fully integrate with the Standard Model, and the Muon g−2 might eventually help us understand why. The key to that breakthrough could be the behavior of the muon, a subatomic particle similar to an electron. The muon has a negative charge, but it’s much more massive. So, it spins like a magnet, which is what points to a possible new branch of physics. 

The roots of the Muon g−2 experiment go back to work done at CERN in the late 1950s. However, the instruments available at the time were too imprecise to accurately measure the “g-factor” of the muon, which describes its rate of gyration. The Standard Model predicts that muons wobble in a certain way, but the 14-meter magnetic accelerator at the heart of Muon g−2 shows that muons have a different g-factor. That might not sound significant, but even a tiny “anomalous magnetic dipole moment,” as scientists call it, could indicate something mysterious has affected the particles. 

The 600-ton g-2 magnet before installation.

We currently know of four fundamental forces: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force (nuclear cohesion), and the weak force (radioactive decay). Whatever is causing muons to misbehave in Muon g−2 could be a fifth force, but we don’t know what it is. Even if the team can confirm the result, we won’t necessarily know what this new force of nature does aside from perturbing muons. That part will take much more work. Theoretical physicists have speculated that the new force could be associated with an undiscovered subatomic particle like the Z-prime boson or leptoquark. 

The current focus is on improving the precision of the experiment. The new result was reported with a statistical confidence of 4.1 sigma, which works out to a 1 in 40,000 chance that the results are just statistical noise. Traditionally, scientists want to see a 5 sigma confidence (about 1 in 3.5 million) before calling something confirmed. This is something physicists are going to be talking about a lot in the coming months.

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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Completes Last Asteroid Flyby Before Heading Home

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NASA’s ambitious Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) has been in orbit of the asteroid Bennu since 2018, but it’s getting ready to call it a day and head home. NASA reports that OSIRIS-REx has completed a last-minute addition to its mission profile: one final flyby of Bennu to see how its activities changed the surface of the object. 

OSIRIS-REx arrived at Bennu in late 2018, but NASA spent almost two years studying the space rock before OSIRIS-REx got down to business. The spacecraft’s Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) allowed it to drift down and tap the asteroid, discharging a burst of compressed nitrogen. OSIRIS-REx did just that in late 2020, scooping up what could be more than two pounds of regolith. NASA would have considered the mission a success at just 2.1 ounces (60 grams). 

NASA says OSIRIS-REx will depart Bennu on May 10th. The long wait is mostly thanks to orbital mechanics — if the spacecraft waits until May to leave orbit, it will use less fuel to get back to Earth. This also gave the team time to plan the now-complete final tour, which happened early on April 7th. 

OSIRIS-REx spent almost six hours taking images of Bennu during the pre-programmed maneuver. It covered more than a full rotation of the asteroid, but the area around the “Nightingale” sample site will be the most interesting. “By surveying the distribution of the excavated material around the TAG site, we will learn more about the nature of the surface and subsurface materials along with the mechanical properties of the asteroid,” said Dr. Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona. 

With the flyby done, all NASA has to do now is download the data. That’s easier said than done, though. At a distance of 185 million miles (297 million kilometers), the Deep Space Network can only manage a data rate of 412 kilobits per second. Plus, OSIRIS-REx has to share time on the network with NASA’s other space missions. With just a few hours of downloading per day, NASA expects it will take another week to get the multiple gigabytes of data OSIRIS-REx collected. 

After getting underway on May 10th, it will take OSIRIS-REx two years to return home. The sample container with pristine samples of an ancient asteroid should land in the Utah Test and Training Range on September 24, 2023.

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ISS Astronauts Move Crew Dragon to a New Docking Port

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Having multiple spacecraft going to and from the International Space Station (ISS) is great for scientific progress, but it can cause the occasional traffic jam. Astronauts have executed the first-ever Dragon port relocation maneuver at the ISS, moving one Dragon to a new port, leaving space for the next few capsules to dock at the station. 

It’s common practice on the ISS to keep at least one human-rated spacecraft docked at all times. This provides a means of escape for astronauts in the event of a system failure on the ISS or a high risk of impact with space debris. The current escape pod is Resilience, the Dragon capsule that went up to the ISS in November, carrying the first crew members on a regular rotation. 

Resilience remained docked at the forward port on the station’s Harmony module, until 6:30 AM Eastern time on Monday. Four astronauts boarded the vessel and backed it 60 meters away from the station. 38 minutes later, the crew Dragon was docked with the module’s zenith port. This frees up the forward docking port for the next Crew Dragon, which will arrive later this month. 

In late April, Resilience will leave the zenith port behind, making its way back to Earth. That will make way for the upcoming cargo Dragon, which will dock at the zenith port in June. Cargo missions need to dock at this location so the station’s robotic arm can unload materials from the trunk compartment on the vehicle. 

The Crew-2 launch later this month will bring NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, and JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide to the station. This mission will use the Dragon capsule known as Endeavor, the same one that flew the successful Demo-2 mission in 2020. Crew-1 will splash down on April 28, returning NASA’s Michael Hopkins, Shannon Walker, and Victor Glover, as well as JAXA’s Soichi Noguchi.

The ISS will probably only get busier as time goes on. SpaceX is the only commercial spaceflight company with a human-certified vehicle, but Boeing is still plugging away at the CST-100 Starliner. After a flunked uncrewed orbital test in late 2019, Boeing and NASA have decided to re-launch the orbital test this summer. After that, Boeing hopes to have a regular flight to the ISS before the end of the year.

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Musk Blames Starship SN11 Failure on Methane Fuel Leak

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We’ve been treated to a series of spectacular rocket tests lately, courtesy of SpaceX and the Starship development process. Of course, most of these rockets are exploding, but that only makes the tests more dramatic for outside observers. The most recent Starship rocket blew up in mid-air while beginning its landing burn. Now, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has announced a cause: a leaky pipe. We’ve all been there. 

The Starship SN11 prototype took off from the company’s Boca Chica launch facility on March 30th, heading for a high-altitude test and soft landing. After reaching 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) high, it flipped and prepared for descent. The live video feed, to which we’ve become accustomed in SpaceX launches, froze as one of the engines fired. Minutes later, debris from the Starship booster rained down on the landing zone. As Musk quipped at the time, “At least the crater is in the right place.”

The company has been examining telemetry data and the wreckage to find out what happened, and Musk now blames a leak from the fuel system. Apparently, a small amount of methane escaped and started a fire on engine 2. The rocket had three total engines, and it would have been able to reach the ground with two. However, the fire fried some avionics hardware, causing a “hard start” in the engine’s methane turbopump. A hard start means there’s too much fuel in the combustion chamber, and therefore the pressure is too high, and the engine goes boom. 

Musk says this flaw has been corrected by SpaceX engineers, and future versions of the Starship booster will be “fixed 6 ways from Sunday.” So, if anything destroys SN12 or later, it’ll be something else. 

SpaceX is unusual among aerospace companies in that it puts its development on display for everyone to see. That’s worked out well when the company has advanced so quickly. A few years ago, landing the Falcon 9 for reuse seemed like a crazy fantasy, but the technology to do that exists now. Getting the Starship to do the same thing could take a bit longer than Elon Musk would like everyone to believe, but SpaceX isn’t giving up. 

In addition to working to perfect the Starship, the company has also started work on Super Heavy, the first stage with 28 Raptor engines that will help the Starship break free of Earth’s gravity. Currently, SpaceX plans to use the Starship to fly Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa around the moon and back in 2023. It’s got some work to do before that can happen.

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‘Impossible’ EmDrive Actually Is Impossible, Comprehensive Test Shows

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Humanity has come a long way in understanding the universe. We’ve got a physical framework that mostly matches our observations, and new technologies have allowed us to analyze the Big Bang and take photos of black holes. But the hypothetical EmDrive rocket engine threatened to upend what we knew about physics… if it worked. After the latest round of testing, we can say with a high degree of certainty that it doesn’t

If you have memories from the 90s, you probably remember the interest in cold fusion, a supposed chemical process that could produce energy from fusion at room temperature instead of millions of degrees (pick your favorite scale, the numbers are all huge). The EmDrive is basically cold fusion for the 21st century. First proposed in 2001, the EmDrive uses an asymmetrical resonator cavity inside which electromagnetic energy can bounce around. There’s no exhaust, but proponents claim the EmDrive generates thrust. 

The idea behind the EmDrive is that the tapered shape of the cavity would reflect radiation in such a way that there was a larger net force exerted on the resonator at one end. Thus, an object could use this “engine” for hyper-efficient propulsion. That would be a direct violation of the conservation of momentum. Interest in the EmDrive was scattered until 2016 when NASA’s Eagelworks lab built a prototype and tested it. According to the team, they detected a small but measurable net force, and that got people interested. 

There was plenty of skepticism about the Eagelworks results, and other teams haven’t been able to duplicate the results. A team from the Dresden University of Technology has completed a comprehensive new test, attempting to replicate the results from Eagelworks. And they found nothing — zero thrust was generated by the Dresden EmDrive as electromagnetic radiation bounced around inside the resonator. 

The Dresden EmDrive is an exact copy of the NASA Eagelworks setup.

The team also sought to explain the Eagelworks results, which they did by varying the experimental design. The Dresden researchers used better measurement techniques to show that the EmDrive doesn’t produce thrust, but by tweaking the measurement scale and changing resonator suspension points, they got the same small apparent thrust as NASA. That confirms the Eagelworks thrust was actually just a thermal effect. The researchers also speculate Eagelworks cherry-picked the data by reporting random fluctuations in a way that didn’t represent the full data set. 

This really does feel like the end of the road for the EmDrive. Unless someone can identify some huge element of physics we have missed, there’s no way this engine can function as described. EmDrive proponents will have to pack it in unless they want to end up like cold fusion cranks from the 90s. That’s just science in action, but it’s also a bit of a bummer because the EmDrive would have changed the world if it wasn’t a fantasy.

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NASA’s InSight Lander Detects Major Marsquakes

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Mars is shaking, and we’d never know were it not for the trailblazing InSight lander. This mission touched down on the red planet in 2018, making history by deploying the first and only seismometer on another planet. NASA has been listening for rumbles ever since, and it just heard some big ones

NASA reports that InSight detected two strong quakes, originating in a region with enormous surface fissures called Cerberus Fossae. The quakes had magnitudes of 3.3 and 3.1, similar to a pair of previous quakes from the same area of the planet that clocked in at 3.6 and 3.5. InSight has recorded hundreds of seismic events on Mars with its Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) package, but these are the most significant.

Scientists hope that by studying the way seismic waves reverberate through Mars, they’ll be able to characterize its interior. So far, the mission has identified quakes that are like those detected on the Moon, which are gentler and more frequent than the other, more Earth-like kind. The newly detected events, as well as the previous Cerberus Fossae shaking, are the latter type. 

The InSight team predicted this time of year would be ideal for listening for quakes because it’s summer in the northern hemisphere, and that means less wind to interfere with readings. However, temperature extremes on the surface have complicated matters — it can get as cold as -148 degrees Fahrenheit (-100 degrees Celsius) at night and then skyrocket to 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius) during the day. NASA believes the temperature swings are causing the SEIS cable to expand and contract, causing anomalous data spikes. 

Currently, InSight is attempting to mitigate this effect by using its arm to dump soil on the Wind and Thermal Shield that covers the SEIS. It cascades down to cover the base of the shield where it connects to the cable, hopefully adding some insulation against temperature changes. Eventually, the probe may be able to bury the entire tether to further insulate it. 

NASA has extended InSight’s mission for a least two more years, but the probe is about to go into a hibernation phase. Its solar panels are drawing less power as we move toward another Martian winter. The team will have to begin shutting down systems, including SEIS, in the coming months. When it awakens next spring, NASA will be able to continue studying the planet’s seismic activity. Its temperature, not so much.

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MIT Robot Sees Hidden Objects with Radio Waves

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Creating robots that see the world like humans has been a challenge for scientists. While computer vision has come a long way, these systems are still easy to fool. So, why not give robots superhuman perception to compensate? MIT’s Fadel Adib created a robot that uses radar waves to find its target, allowing it to see through walls

The robot, known as RF-Grasp, has traditional cameras for object recognition. The camera is mounted to the bot’s mechanical grasper, giving it a good view of anything the hand might be trying to pick up. However, what if the target is in a box or under something else? Radio waves can pass through the obstacle, and RF-Grasp can use the reflected signal to spot its target. 

To accomplish this, Adib and his team used radio frequency tags, not unlike the ones used to identify pets or open secure doors. The reader sends out RF pings, which power and modulate the tag’s circuits. The reflected signal can provide data, but in this case, it’s being used to track the physical location of the tag. 

For the purposes of testing RF-Grasp, the team deployed a small, focused RF reader next to the robot. The reader scans for RF tags in its field of view, and then feeds that data into the robot’s computer vision algorithm. So, when told to pick up an object it cannot see, RF-Grasp relies on the RF pings to seek out the target. When it’s uncovered the object, the robot is smart enough to give more weight to the camera feed in its algorithms. The team says merging data from the camera and RF reader into the bot’s decision-making was the most challenging part. 

Compared with robots that only have visual data, RF-Grasp was much more efficient in laboratory tests involving picking and sorting objects. It has the ability to remove clutter from the environment to find its target, guided by RF data that tells it where to dig. For example, it can remove packing material from a box to find something at the bottom. Other robots just don’t have this extra layer of guidance. 

This technology could lead to robots that can find objects no matter where they’re hidden. Lost your keys? Just fire up the RF-Grasp Mk V and it’ll figure out which pocket of which coat they’re in. A more realistic application is in the warehouse industry. Robots like Boston Dynamics’ Stretch can pick up and move heavy boxes, but only if they’re visible and regularly shaped. A robot with RF sensing could sort through a messy shelf to find specific objects, not unlike a human. We could be one step closer to eliminating human labor in these environments. 

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NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover Beams Back Stunning Selfie

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NASA’s shiny new Perseverance rover has been stealing the spotlight lately, but Curiosity is still on Mars, too. This aging robot is still young and hip enough to take a selfie — hell, Curiosity pioneered the rover selfie. The latest snapshot features the rover posing in front of a large rock outcrop the team has dubbed “Mont Mercou,” after a French mountain. 

Mont Mercou is far from a mountain, but the Curiosity team felt it was geologically interesting enough to get a name. It’s about 20 feet (six meters) tall and fully visible behind the rover. That’s not all you can see in this photo — there’s a tiny drill hole just in front of Curiosity. NASA has dubbed this site “Nontron” after a village located near the real Mont Mercou in France. The team decided on the French nicknames for this region because Mars orbiters previously detected a clay mineral called nontronite, which is found in large quantities in the Nontron region. 

The Nontron sample has been loaded into the rover’s science instruments, making it the 30th sample analyzed by the rover during its more than 3,000 sols (over eight Earth years) on the red planet. That’s something Perseverance will be doing a lot of as it roams the red planet and stores samples for a later mission to return to Earth. 

Curiosity produced this selfie with a surprisingly large number of images taken on two different days. The background consists of 11 images taken with the Mastcam on sol 3,060, which you probably know as the rover’s “head.” The selfie portion of the image comes from 60 individual frames captured with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on sol 3,070. This camera is on the robotic arm, allowing it to move and capture images from different angles. When processing the frames into a single enormous photo, NASA can clip out the arm to make the image look like it was taken by someone standing next to the robot. There’s no one on Mars to take such photos, as far as we know. 

NASA also used the Mastcam to capture 32 images of Mont Mercou. The team processed that into a stereoscopic view — you can use the above anaglyph to see the outcropping in 3D, with appropriate eyewear. 

Curiosity is still setting records on Mars, and it shows no signs of stopping. The rover has been climbing Mount Sharp since 2014, examining the planet’s stratification as it goes. Currently, Curiosity is in a region that transitions from clay-bearing geology to the sulfate-bearing unit. The mission has been extended indefinitely, so Curiosity will keep climbing as long as it’s able.

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Microsoft Wins $21.9 Billion Contract to Supply AR Headsets to the US Army

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Microsoft has won a contract with the US Army to provide augmented reality headsets suitable for battlefield conditions. The Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) will be derived from Microsoft’s HoloLens technology and augmented by a backend built on Microsoft Azure.

This deal builds on a previous $ 480M agreement between Microsoft and the Army, and the $ 21.9 billion figure represents a best-case result if Microsoft delivers all its relevant objectives and the Army decides to renew. The IVAS program will be reviewed five years from now to determine whether to continue the project.

The Army’s announcement earlier this week contains more details on what IVAS is intended to accomplish:

The IVAS aggregates multiple technologies into an architecture that allows the Soldier to Fight, Rehearse, and Train using a single platform. The suite of capabilities leverages existing high-resolution night, thermal, and Soldier-borne sensors integrated into a unified Heads Up Display to provide the improved situational awareness, target engagement, and informed decision-making necessary to achieve overmatch against current and future adversaries. The system also leverages augmented reality and machine learning to enable a life-like mixed reality training environment so the CCF can rehearse before engaging any adversaries.

You can see the camera array in our feature image above. The contract is for 120,000 IVAS headsets over a decade. It’s not clear how much of that $ 21.9B is actually for the IVAS hardware; Microsoft’s previous agreement with the Army delivered 50,000 prototype headsets and was valued at $ 480M. The prototype hardware looked fragile, whereas the helmet-mounted system appears far more robust.

Image by Microsoft

Neither Microsoft nor the Army is saying much about what the IVAS can do, but the company spoke more freely back in 2018. At the time, IVAS’s stated mission was to “increase lethality by enhancing the ability to detect, decide, and engage before the enemy.” There was an internal protest by some Microsoft employees calling on the company to step back from the project, but CEO Satya Nadella overruled such concerns, saying: “We made a principled decision that we’re not going to withhold technology from institutions that we have elected in democracies to protect the freedoms we enjoy.” The Army announcement today references training environments but makes no mention of field deployment.

The idea of a helmet with baked-in multi-spectral imaging sounds more like science fiction than reality, but the models Microsoft is showing off today look far more capable than what the company was building in 2015.

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