Tag Archives: SpaceX

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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SpaceX Starship SN11 Blows Itself Apart During High-Altitude Test

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The in-development Starship rocket is key to SpaceX’s future plans, from lunar missions to Mars colonization. Elon Musk’s spaceflight company has been open with its Starship testing, even with the results haven’t been flattering. In the most recent test, the Starship SN11 reached an altitude of about eight kilometers, and then something went wrong. We don’t know exactly what happened yet, but the vessel came down in pieces. Musk quipped on Twitter that at least the crater was in the right place. Say what you will about Elon Musk, he’s pretty unflappable, even when his most ambitious aerospace project struggles to get off the ground. 

The Starship is being developed with reusability in mind like the Falcon 9. SpaceX envisions a fleet of reusable Starships that can take off, land, and then fly again after refueling. While it shares this property with the Falcon 9, the two devices don’t share hardware. The Starship is larger, made of different materials, and has new engines. 

SpaceX has thus far only succeeded in landing the rocket after a low altitude test. In the last flight, featuring SN10, the rocket flew high into the atmosphere, and then landed on the launch pad. It looked like everything would work out, but damage to the fuel system from the harder-than-expected landing led to an explosion several minutes later. The new SN11 flight looks like a step backward as it didn’t even reach the ground in one piece. 

The final image from the Starship (see above) live stream featured one of the craft’s three Raptor engines reigniting for the descent sequence. Contact with the vehicle was lost moments later. Musk said following the incident that the issue appeared to be with the number 2 engine, which didn’t reach operating pressure, but it shouldn’t have been needed to get the rocket on the ground safely. Something else, possibly related to the engine, occurred after the landing burn was supposed to start. However, SpaceX can’t begin to piece together the specifics until it can examine the debris later today. 

This failed test is one more potential setback for SpaceX’s aggressive timeline. Musk has said he hopes to fly a group of passengers, including Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, around the moon and back in 2023. He’s also pushed the idea that Starships could begin transporting Mars colonists in less than a decade, a timeline that most scientists consider unreasonable. Musk might not have a chance to convince everyone his vision is possible if the rocket doesn’t stop exploding.

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SpaceX, NASA Sign Agreement to Avoid Space Collisions

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SpaceX is one of several companies that want to launch megaconstallations of communication satellites into Earth orbit, and that has NASA and other space agencies a little spooked. With that many new objects up there, the chances of a collision skyrocket. SpaceX now has more than 1,000 Starlink nodes around Earth, and NASA has announced an agreement that will ensure those satellites (and future ones) don’t get in the way of any of its missions. 

The accord, which has just been released by NASA (PDF), is what’s known as a “nonreimbursable agreement.” That means no money changes hands, but both parties are getting something they want. The document explains that SpaceX is in a unique position right now, and that gives NASA authority under the Space Act to negotiate an agreement that ensures it can fulfill its mission. 

SpaceX is the largest satellite operator in the world, and its access to cheap Falcon 9 launches essentially guarantees its network will grow quicker than the ones planned by Amazon and others. In addition, all of its satellites are maneuverable. So, SpaceX will commit to reorienting its constellation to avoid any possible “conjunctions” with NASA assets. It will also tell NASA about upcoming “cut-outs” when Starlink satellites are unable to maneuver to avoid a collision. This is mostly the time between the deployment of satellites and when they reach their assigned orbit. SpaceX will also make some changes to its launches to ensure Starlink satellites never get too close to the International Space Station. 

On the other side, NASA says it will provide detailed data about where all its spacecraft will be, allowing SpaceX to steer clear. It will also contribute expertise to making Starlink satellites less reflective, something that has irked astronomers and astrophotographers ever since SpaceX started launching the constellation. Although, SpaceX is expected to share data with NASA on the effectiveness of its ongoing satellite dimming work. 

This is more than a theoretical risk — in 2019, the ESA called for more stringent rules about how megaconstallations share the skies after it had to redirect its Aeolus satellite to avoid colliding with a Starlink node. There was no effective way to tell SpaceX what was happening, and the danger will only become more serious as the industry scales up to thousands of satellites.

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SpaceX Starship Prototype Explodes Following Perfect Landing

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SpaceX is running through Starship prototypes like they’re growing on trees. Just a few weeks after its last rocket exploded following a hard landing, the company succeeded in landing a Starship rocket after its test flight. Sadly, the vessel exploded several minutes later. SpaceX hasn’t talked about the cause of the incident, but it does seem to consider the SN10 flight an overall success despite what transpired after. 

All of SpaceX’s current launch operations are based on the Falcon 9, which is certified to carry even astronauts into space. It’s also the basis for the company’s Falcon Heavy launch platform. Elon Musk’s future plans require something a bit more powerful, which is the Starship. This megarocket will have enough power to send large payloads to Mars, an essential tool in Musk’s plan to colonize the red planet. 

First, the Starship has to show it can lift off and land like the Falcon 9. This is essential to SpaceX’s plans for reusability. The latest test features SN10, the tenth piece of Starship prototype hardware. The goal was to reach an altitude of about six miles (10 kilometers) before dropping back down for a soft (non-explosive) landing. 

At first, everything went perfectly. The Rocket completed its “flip sequence” when the rocket ignites its engines and rotates to point them downward. In the last test, the rocket overcompensated and crashed into the ground. This time, the maneuver went off without a hitch. There’s even an amazing telephoto shot of the vessel from below as it swung around (see above).

It was several minutes later when the vessel suddenly detonated. The source of the blast appeared to be from the bottom of the rocket where the three Raptor engines are. The force launched SN10 back into the air briefly, but there didn’t look to be a secondary explosion when the craft fell back to Earth. So, SpaceX engineers might still be able to learn something from the wreckage. 

While SpaceX would no doubt have preferred SN10 didn’t blow up, its Starship testing is still moving in the right direction. Each one does a little better, and the company says that SN11 is already under construction. After working out the kinks in the Starship, SpaceX still has to get the Heavy Lift first stage operational. This will be necessary for long-range missions like going to Mars and the Moon.

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NASA Picks SpaceX to Launch SPHEREx Space Telescope

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SpaceX already has a number of lucrative contracts with NASA thanks to its reusable Falcon 9 rocket, not least of which is the recently realized Commercial Crew Program. NASA isn’t just using SpaceX for crewed flights, though. The agency has just awarded SpaceX another cargo contract, this one to deploy the upcoming SPHEREx space telescope. This instrument will scan the entire sky over two years, but it won’t start the work until 2024 at the earliest. 

SPHEREx is part of NASA’s Medium-Class Explorers (MIDEX) program along with the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and almost a dozen other missions stretching back to the early 90s. SPHEREx is a particularly tortured acronym that stands for Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization, and Ices Explorer. That means SHPEREx will map the sky in near-infrared, which is beyond the limit of human vision. 

The total cost of SPHEREx launch services from SpaceX is $ 98.8 million, a sizable chunk of the expected $ 395 to $ 427 million NASA has allocated for the project. TESS is designed to observe objects up to several hundred light-years away, but SPHEREx should be able to scan more than 300 million galaxies and 100 million stars in the Milky Way using its spectrophotometer. 

The Falcon 9 is NASA’s choice to send SPHEREx into space in 2024.

SPHEREx could help scientists better understand how galaxies form and evolve. Every six months, SPHEREx will use its 20cm telescope to create a map of the entire sky in 96 different color bands. NASA believes SHPEREx will be able to gather important data on the presence of water molecules and organics in distant star-forming regions. This will help NASA identify targets for future study with more powerful instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope. In particular, NASA is interested in gathering data that will clarify the “epoch of ionization,” a period in the early universe when the first stars and galaxies formed and reionized the neutral hydrogen that dominated space at the time. SPHEREx will also look farther back at the very beginning in search of evidence for a theorized property of the Big Bang called inflation. 

Although, even the chronically delayed Webb should beat SPEREx to space. NASA has yet to begin construction of SPHEREx, which will be a joint effort of NASA JPL and Caltech. The launch is currently scheduled for June 2024 at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

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SpaceX Plans First All-Civilian Spaceflight This Year

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The history of civilian human spaceflight is brief, but SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is going to have to change that if he’s ever going to realize his dream of colonizing Mars. We’re not there yet, but SpaceX is taking a step in that direction announcing the first all-civilian spaceflight. Musk is partnering with Shift4 Payments CEO Jared Isaacman, who will ride the Dragon spacecraft along with three others for the “Inspiration4” flight. This isn’t only another rich person buying his way into space — Inspiration4 could also benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to the tune of a few hundred million dollars. 

SpaceX succeeded last year in its quest to deliver a human-rated spacecraft to NASA. The Falcon 9 and Dragon passed all the necessary tests and are now the primary way astronauts reach the International Space Station (ISS). However, the Dragon is a commercial spacecraft, so SpaceX can do whatever it wants with the seats on its own flights. Previously, and space tourism required deals with governments like Russia that were willing to sell access. 

The orbital flight, which will last between two and four days, will launch in late 2021, but the companies are wasting no time promoting it. Shift4Payments plans to ramp up the campaign with a Super Bowl ad. Isaacman has committed to donating $ 100 million to St. Jude as part of the project, and he hopes to use the remaining three seats to raise $ 200 million more. One of the four is also reserved for an entrepreneur who uses Isaacman’s Shift4Shop e-commerce platform. The rest of the crew will be announced later this year. 

Isaacman in a Dragon capsule.

Musk says the flight will use a Dragon capsule dubbed “Resilience,” which is currently docked at the ISS. That’s no problem because the Dragon, like the Falcon 9 that launches it, is a reusable vehicle. SpaceX can just ferry it down to Earth, clean it up, and mount it on a Falcon 9 for launch. 

SpaceX has long pushed the idea that the public should have access to space, and this isn’t the first demonstration. Inspiration4 sounds like a more restrained version of Yusaku Maezawa’s deal to fly around the moon in a SpaceX Starship. The timeline for that mission is still up in the air, but Maezawa had to cancel his proposed “girlfriend contest” last year after it was pointed out the whole thing was very creepy. He’s still going to the moon at some point, but it won’t be a dating opportunity. 

While access to space is expanding, you still need to have a few million lying around to guarantee a trip to the stars. If you’re short on cash, keep an eye on the Inspiration4 announcement. Maybe you’ll have a shot at claiming one of those seats.

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SpaceX Launches Record-Setting 143 Satellites in First Rideshare Mission

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It’s undeniable that SpaceX has become the most innovative company in aerospace when you realize how often we have to say the following: SpaceX has set another record. This time, the company founded by Elon Musk has shattered the record for most satellites delivered to space in a single launch. On Sunday (Jan. 24), SpaceX launched the Transporter-1 mission with an incredible 143 satellites. Not everyone is celebrating, though. 

Transporter-1 is the culmination of a program SpaceX announced in 2019 to provide space access to smaller companies at lower costs. As a result, the Falcon 9 that lifted off from Cape Canaveral carried a mishmash of satellites into space. The largest single beneficiary was Planet, which launched 48 new SuperDove Earth-imaging satellites. Next up is SpaceX itself with 10 new Starlink nodes. The almost 100 remaining satellites came from a wide variety of customers. The previous record-holder was India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, which carried 104 satellites into space in 2017. 

SpaceX plans to continue offering this service, and why not? SpaceX has perfected the landing system for its Falcon 9 vehicle — after deploying the 143 satellites in the second stage, the Falcon 9 booster came back to Earth and landed on one of the company’s drone ships. It will be refurbished to fly again, vastly lowering the costs compared with expendable systems like the Atlas V. In fact, this Falcon 9 core stage (B1058) was previously used to launch NASA DM-2, the first crewed flight of the Dragon-Falcon 9 combo in May 2020. 

Currently, SpaceX offers companies scheduled payload launches in the rideshare program for as little as $ 1 million. That gets you up to 200 kilograms of launch mass, but the price goes up quickly beyond that. SpaceX also charges for extras such as port adapters, separation systems, insurance, and fuel. In the tweet above, you can see several different spacecraft attached to the second-stage ports. 

With SpaceX making it so easy for companies to get to space, many are worried about the impact it could have on the space environment. Already, SpaceX’s Starlink network has caused headaches for astronomers as the 1,000+ satellites interfere with observations. Placing more objects in orbit also increases the likelihood of a collision, which could produce orbiting shrapnel that goes on to damage or destroy other satellites. There’s no “traffic control” system to prevent this from happening, but that might become a necessity as SpaceX keeps lowering the financial barrier to entry.

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Russia Might Issue Fines for Using SpaceX Starlink Internet Service

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SpaceX is busy ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station these days, but that’s not all Elon Musk’s aerospace firm is doing. It’s also gearing up for a Mars colonization effort and deploying a satellite internet constellation called Starlink. You can get Starlink internet in a few places, but Russia doesn’t want any of its citizens going through the SpaceX system as it expands. In fact, the country has floated the idea of fining people for using Starlink or other foreign satellite internet services. 

Starlink relies on the same basic premise as traditional satellite internet — the subscriber on the ground has an antenna which they point upward to communicate with the space-based network. Services like Hughes and ViaSat have been around for years, offering mediocre speeds for an exorbitant amount of money. You can’t blame them too much — launching satellites is expensive unless you’re SpaceX. 

The company is constantly launching batches of 60 Starlink satellites aboard its Falcon 9 rockets, which are much easier and cheaper to launch thanks to SpaceX’s reusable design. There are currently almost 1,000 nodes in the Starlink network, but the company is approved for 12,000 total satellites to provide faster speeds and cable-like latency. As it approaches that number, Starlink should be available globally, but Russian citizens might find their government discourages using Starlink. 

Russia is strongly invested in monitoring and controlling internet traffic among its people. In the Russian edition of Popular Mechanics, a report claims the government is looking at fines for anyone who uses Starlink or a similar “western” satellite internet service. The fines could range from 10,000 to 30,000 rubles ($ 135-$ 405) for individuals who use Starlink. Businesses could see fines of 500,000 to 1 million rubles ($ 6,750 to $ 13,500).

What a SpaceX Starlink satellite looks like in orbit.

Any traffic going through a satellite internet service will bypass any controls or monitoring programs active within Russia. Russia’s spaceflight chief, Dmitry Rogozin has also criticized the US government’s support of SpaceX, which he considers “predatory” and geared toward projecting American power across the globe. However, satellite internet might be inevitable as even those in rural areas have started expecting reliable connectivity. A recent survey found that more than half of Americans were at least willing to consider switching to Starlink when it’s available in their area — that’s how much we all hate our ISPs. 

Russia has started making plans for a national satellite internet platform called Sphere that could begin launching as soon as 2024. However, the cost of deploying such a system with Russia’s current launch assets could be prohibitively high.

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SpaceX Plans to ‘Catch’ Super Heavy Rockets With Launch Tower

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Up until now, SpaceX rockets have always landed by deploying legs around the rocket as it returned to earth. If new remarks from Elon Musk are accurate, the company wants to get rid of that method to save weight. Future spacecraft may not sport legs at all.

The Super Heavy launch vehicle is the first-stage launcher for the second-stage craft known as Starship. Super Heavy will still use its engines to control its descent, similar to the current Falcon 9, but it will use its grid fins to control orientation in flight.

According to Musk, SpaceX believes it doesn’t need legs to land the rocket safely. After a reader asked Elon if a user-created video captured the Super Heavy descent profile accurately, the founder of SpaceX dropped this announcement:

“We’re going to try to catch the Super Heavy Booster with the launch tower arm, using the grid fins to take the load” doesn’t sound like the kind of statement that gets people hot and bothered, but context is everything, and an awful lot of SpaceX fans are excited about the idea. An equally large group of them, including the author, are a bit puzzled by it. It isn’t clear what it means to have the launch tower “catch” the Super Heavy. Launch towers don’t exactly fall down if you breathe on them, but I’ve never heard of using one directly to catch a rocket (even a depleted, first-stage rocket).

The implication seems to be that the rocket bears its own weight directly on the grid fins and that the “catch” is more about lining up the rocket with the launch arm in a way that allows them to interlink again, as opposed to using the launch arm to somehow brake or control the Super Heavy as it descends.

According to Elon, the goal is to enable the reuse of the same rocket in under an hour. This is rocket re-usability of the sort envisioned by sci-fi writers who predicted Earth-Moon or Earth-Mars shuttles leaving every hour on the other, with little more than a refueling required before the next journey.

It’ll be a long time before we reach anything like that speed, if ever. The first Super Heavy boosters to land successfully will be carefully analyzed before being allowed to launch again. Currently, the world-record holder for the most-reused rocket is B1049, a SpaceX booster that has launched and been recovered successfully six times.

But Super Heavy doesn’t need to refly in under an hour to revolutionize space travel. NASA’s best record for putting the same Shuttle into orbit is 55 days, and most of the refreshes took considerably longer.

A reusable rocket that could launch once per month would be a dramatic leap ahead of anything NASA achieved with the Shuttle (and with the benefit of a few more decades of R&D in computing and material engineering). A reusable rocket that could launch every week would revolutionize the cost of space transport. It goes without saying that “under an hour,” if it were possible, would shake things up a bit.

Feature image is the Starship, the Super Heavy’s second stage. 

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SpaceX Starship Performs Amazing Flip Maneuver, Explodes on Hard Landing

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SpaceX was forced to delay its recent Starship rocket launch, but the issue with the Raptor engines was sorted out in time for the second launch window yesterday (December 9th) afternoon. The launch itself went off without a hitch, sending the vessel up to 41,000 feet. That’s a major milestone for the Starship, but the landing… well, that was more of a crash. SpaceX is still calling this one a win, though. 

Previous versions of the in-development Starship have only managed very short hops at no more than a few hundred feet above the ground. The SN8 prototype that flew yesterday had three Raptor engines for the first time, allowing it to get much higher. That part of the mission was no problem — in fact, everything was just fine until the very end of the flight. 

There are precious few reusable rockets in the world, and none of them are as large as the Starship. Still, the plan is to land Starship cores in the same way as the Falcon 9, and that was part of the test flight. As the SN8 Starship came down, it performed a flip maneuver to get its engines pointed at the ground. The 160-foot rocket is by far the largest spacecraft to ever perform such a maneuver. Even though the flip is followed almost immediately by an explosion, SpaceX still took the opportunity to show off that flip. 

As for the crash, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says the rocket experienced low fuel header tank pressure. That caused it to come down faster than expected. The hard landing was enough to rupture the tanks and blow the Starship SN8 to smithereens. There’s no doubt SpaceX would prefer the rocket didn’t blow up, but everyone seems to be taking this one in stride. After all, SpaceX builds these prototypes with the expectation they’ll all fail at some point, and it’s letting us watch. Musk says SpaceX gathered all the data it needed from the test, and it will continue testing with the SN9 prototype in the near future. 

Eventually, SpaceX hopes to transition all its launch operations to the Starship, previously known as the BFR or Big Falcon Rocket. It will be able to fly to even the most challenging Earth orbits, as well as the moon, Mars, and beyond. In fact, Musk hopes to use the Starship to colonize Mars starting as little as four years from now. That’s maybe looking a bit less plausible following the explosive end of yesterday’s test, but the Starship is still an incredible piece of engineering even at this stage.

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