All posts in “Space”

Deploy the space harpoon

Watch out, starwhales. There’s a new weapon for the interstellar dwellers whom you threaten with your planet-crushing gigaflippers, undergoing testing as we speak. This small-scale version may only be good for removing dangerous orbital debris, but in time it will pierce your hypercarbon hides and irredeemable sun-hearts.

Literally a space harpoon. (Credit: Airbus)

However, it would be irresponsible of me to speculate beyond what is possible today with the technology, so let a summary of the harpoon’s present capabilities suffice.

The space harpoon is part of the RemoveDEBRIS project, a multi-organization European effort to create and test methods of reducing space debris. There are thousands of little pieces of who knows what clogging up our orbital neighborhood, ranging in size from microscopic to potentially catastrophic.

There are as many ways to take down these rogue items as there are sizes and shapes of space junk; perhaps it’s enough to use a laser to edge a small piece down towards orbital decay, but larger items require more hands-on solutions. And seemingly all nautical in origin: RemoveDEBRIS has a net, a sail, and a harpoon. No cannon?

You can see how the three items are meant to operate here:

[embedded content]

The harpoon is meant for larger targets, for example full-size satellites that have malfunctioned and are drifting from their orbit. A simple mass driver could knock them towards the Earth, but capturing them and controlling descent is a more controlled technique.

While an ordinary harpoon would simply be hurled by the likes of Queequeg or Dagoo, in space it’s a bit different. Sadly it’s impractical to suit up a harpooner for EVA missions. So the whole thing has to be automated. Fortunately the organization is also testing computer vision systems that can identify and track targets. From there it’s just a matter of firing the harpoon at it and reeling it in, which is what the satellite demonstrated today.

This Airbus-designed little item is much like a toggling harpoon, which has a piece that flips out once it pierces the target. Obviously it’s a single-use device, but it’s not particularly large and several could be deployed on different interception orbits at once. Once reeled in, a drag sail (seen in the video above) could be deployed to accelerate reentry. The whole thing could be done with little or no propellant, which greatly simplifies operation.

Obviously it’s not yet a threat to the starwhales. But we’ll get there. We’ll get those monsters good one day.

Opportunity Mars Rover goes to its last rest after extraordinary 14-year mission

Opportunity, one of two rovers sent to Mars in 2004, is officially offline for good, NASA and JPL officials announced today at a special press conference. “I declare the Opportunity mission as complete, and with it the Mars Exploration Rover mission as complete,” said NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen.

The cause of Opportunity’s demise was a planet-scale sandstorm that obscured its solar panels too completely, and for too long, for its onboard power supply to survive and keep even its most elementary components running. It last communicated on June 10, 2018, but could easily have lasted a few months more as its batteries ran down — a sad picture to be sure. Even a rover designed for the harsh Martian climate can’t handle being trapped under a cake of dust at -100 degrees celsius for long.

The team has been trying to reach it for months, employing a variety of increasingly desperate techniques to get the rover to at least respond; even if its memory had been wiped clean or instruments knocked out, it could be reprogrammed and refreshed to continue service if only they could set up a bit of radio rapport. But every attempt, from ordinary contact methods to “sweep and beep” ploys, was met with silence. The final transmission from mission control was last night.

Spirit and Opportunity, known together as the Mars Exploration Rovers mission, were launched individually in the summer of 2003 and touched down in January of 2004 — 15 years ago! — in different regions of the planet.

Each was equipped with a panoramic camera, a macro camera, spectrometers for identifying rocks and minerals, and a little drill for taking samples. The goal was to operate for 90 days, traveling about 40 meters each day and ultimately covering about a kilometer. Both exceeded those goals by incredible amounts.

Spirit ended up traveling about 7.7 kilometers and lasting about 7 years. But Opportunity outshone its twin, going some 45 kilometers over 14 years — well over a marathon.

And of course both rovers contributed immensely to our knowledge of the Red Planet. It was experiments by these guys that really established a past when Mars not only had water, but bio-friendly liquid water that might have supported life.

Opportunity did a lot of science but always had time for a selfie, such as this one at the edge of Erebus Crater.

It’s always sad when a hard-working craft or robot finally shuts down for good, especially when it’s one that’s been as successful as “Oppy.” The Cassini probe went out in a blaze of glory, and Kepler has quietly gone to sleep. But ultimately these platforms are instruments of science and we should celebrate their extraordinary success as well as mourn their inevitable final days.

“Spirit and Opportunity may be gone, but they leave us a legacy — a new paradigm for solar system exploration,” said JPL head Michael Watkins. “That legacy continues not just in the Curiosity rover, which is currently operating healthily after about 2,300 days on the surface of Mars. But also in our new 2020 rover, which is under construction here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”

“But Spirit and Opportunity did something more than that,” he continued. “They energized the public about the spirit of robotic Mars exploration. The infectious energy and electricity that this mission created was obvious to the public.”

Mars of course is not suddenly without a tenant. The Insight lander touched down last year and has been meticulously setting up its little laboratory and testing its systems. And the Mars 2020 rover is well on its way to launch. It’s a popular planet.

Perhaps some day we’ll scoop up these faithful servants and put them in a Martian museum. For now let’s look forward to the next mission.

NASA cubecraft WALL-E and EVE sign off after historic Mars flyby

A NASA mission that sent two tiny spacecraft farther out than any like them before appears to have come to an end: Cubesats MarCO-A and B (nicknamed WALL-E and EVE) are no longer communicating from their positions a million and two million miles from Earth respectively.

The briefcase-sized craft rode shotgun on the Insight Mars Lander launch in May, detaching shortly after leaving orbit. Before long they had gone farther than any previous cubesat-sized craft, and after about a million kilometers EVE took a great shot of the Earth receding in its wake (if wake in space were a thing).

They were near Mars when Insight made its descent onto the Red Planet, providing backup observation and connectivity, and having done that, their mission was pretty much over. In fact, the team felt that if they made it that far it would already be a major success.

“This mission was always about pushing the limits of miniaturized technology and seeing just how far it could take us,” said the mission’s chief engineer, JPL’s Andy Klesh, in a news release. “We’ve put a stake in the ground. Future CubeSats might go even farther.”

The two craft together cost less than $20 million to make, a tiny fraction of what traditionally sized orbiters and probes cost, and of course their size makes them much easier to launch as well.

However, in the end these were experimental platforms not designed to last years — or decades, like Voyager 1 and 2. The two craft have ceased communicating with mission control, and although this was expected, the cause is still undetermined:

The mission team has several theories for why they haven’t been able to contact the pair. WALL-E has a leaky thruster. Attitude-control issues could be causing them to wobble and lose the ability to send and receive commands. The brightness sensors that allow the CubeSats to stay pointed at the Sun and recharge their batteries could be another factor. The MarCOs are in orbit around the Sun and will only get farther away as February wears on. The farther they are, the more precisely they need to point their antennas to communicate with Earth.

There’s a slim chance that when WALL-E and EVE’s orbits bring them closer to the sun, they’ll power back on and send a bit more information, and the team will be watching this summer to see if that happens. But it would just be a cherry on top of a cherry at this point.

You can learn more about the MarCO project here, and all the images the craft were able to take and send back are collected here.

Swarm Technologies raises $25M to deploy its own 150-satellite constellation

Swarm Technologies is one of several companies looking to populate low Earth orbit with communications satellites, setting itself apart with the sheer smallness of its devices — and of course with the notoriety of having defied the FCC and earned a fine. But investors are bullish, and the company has just raised a $25 million round A to put 150 of its tiny SpaceBEEs in orbit.

There are many communications markets to be served from space: Starlink wants to do mobile broadband; Ubiquitilink wants to eliminate “no signal”; and Swarm is taking aim at embedded devices, the so-called internet of things.

IoT devices don’t need high speeds or low latency; the data they produce can usually wait a few minutes, or even days. While they very well could be registered on your ordinary wi-fi network or even connect by a cellular connection, it’s easy to see that they would benefit from a separate form of connectivity more suited to their needs.

This is especially true when you consider how areas like farms and wildernesses are being outfitted with sensors to monitor soil, warn of poachers or lost hikers, and otherwise provide some basic data on the huge swathes of land that are more or less off the grid.

Swarm has developed something entirely new: a low-bandwidth, latency-tolerant network that is extremely inexpensive, low-power and very easy to integrate for things that need to be connected anywhere in the world,” said Sky Dayton, EarthLink founder and leading participant in the round alongside Craft Ventures, Social Capital. 4DX Ventures, and NJF Capital.

The focus at Swarm now is on speed and cost reduction. Especially in space, there’s a strong argument to get something, anything in place so you can demonstrate the utility of your service, however limited, while others are still at the drawing board.

That’s what the $25 million will be dedicated to — expansion and in particular the deployment of a 150-satellite constellation over the next 18 months.

Of course the success of the company’s ambitions here depend much upon finalization, regulatory approval, manufacturing, and launch schedules. But Swarm’s satellites really are small — so small that the FCC was leery about allowing them to be launched — so dozens may well be launched at a time.

The company has already launched and tested a few of its satellites, but I’ve asked when they’ll have a finalized design and can begin manufacturing and launching them. I’ll update this article if I hear back.