All posts in “Space”

Rolling, hopping robots explore Earthly analogs of distant planets

Before we send any planet-trotting robot to explore the landscape of Mars or Venus, we need to test it here on Earth. Two such robotic platforms being developed for future missions are undergoing testing at European Space Agency facilities: one that rolls, and one that hops.

The rolling one is actually on the books to head to the Red Planet as part of the ESA’s Mars 2020 program. It’s just wrapped a week of testing in the Spanish desert, just one of many Mars analogs space programs use. It looks nice. The gravity’s a little different, of course, and there’s a bit more atmosphere, but it’s close enough to test a few things.

The team controlling Charlie, which is what they named the prototype, was doing so from hundreds of miles away, in the U.K. — not quite an interplanetary distance, but they did of course think to simulate the delay operators would encounter if the rover were actually on Mars. It would also have a ton more instruments on board.

Exploration and navigation was still done entirely using information collected by the rover via radar and cameras, and the rover’s drill was also put to work. It rained one day, which is extraordinarily unlikely to happen on Mars, but the operators presumably pretended it was a dust storm and rolled with it.

Another Earth-analog test is scheduled for February in Chile’s Atacama desert. You can learn more about the ExoMars rover and the Mars 2020 mission here.

The other robot that the ESA publicized this week isn’t theirs but was developed by ETH Zurich: the SpaceBok —  you know, like springbok. The researchers there think that hopping around like that well-known ungulate could be a good way to get around on other planets.

It’s nice to roll around on stable wheels, sure, but it’s no use when you want to get to the far side of some boulder or descend into a ravine to check out an interesting mineral deposit. SpaceBok is mean to be a highly stable jumping machine that can traverse rough terrain or walk with a normal quadrupedal gait as needed (well, normal for robots).

“This is not particularly useful on Earth,” admits SpaceBok team member Elias Hampp, but “it could reach a height of four meters on the Moon. This would allow for a fast and efficient way of moving forward.”

It was doing some testing at the ESA’s “Mars Yard sandbox,” a little pen filled with Mars-like soil and rocks. The team is looking into improving autonomy with better vision — the better it can see where it lands, the better SpaceBok can stick that landing.

Interplanetary missions are very much in vogue now, and we may soon even see some private trips to the Moon and Mars. So even if NASA or the ESA doesn’t decide to take SpaceBok (or some similarly creative robot) out into the solar system, perhaps a generous sponsor will.

Mars Lander InSight sends the first of many selfies after a successful touchdown

Last night’s 10 minutes of terror as the InSight Mars Lander descended to the Martian surface at 12,300 MPH were a nail-biter for sure, but now the robotic science platform is safe and sound — and has sent pics back to prove it.

The first thing it sent was a couple pictures of its surroundings: Elysium Planitia, a rather boring-looking, featureless plane that is nevertheless perfect for InSight’s drilling and seismic activity work.

The images, taken with its Instrument Context Camera, are hardly exciting on their own merits — a dirty landscape viewed through a dusty tube. But when you consider that it’s of an unexplored territory on a distant planet, and that it’s Martian dust and rubble occluding the lens, it suddenly seems pretty amazing!

Decelerating from interplanetary velocity and making a perfect landing was definitely the hard part, but it was by no means InSight’s last challenge. After touching down, it still needs to set itself up and make sure that none of its many components and instruments were damaged during the long flight and short descent to Mars.

And the first good news arrived shortly after landing, relayed via NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft in orbit: a partial selfie showing that it was intact and ready to roll. The image shows, among other things, the large mobile arm folded up on top of the lander, and a big copper dome covering some other components.

Telemetry data sent around the same time show that InSight has also successfully deployed its solar panels and its collecting power with which to continue operating. These fragile fans are crucial to the lander, of course, and it’s a great relief to hear they’re working properly.

These are just the first of many images the lander will send, though unlike Curiosity and the other rovers, it won’t be traveling around taking snapshots of everything it sees. Its data will be collected from deep inside the planet, offering us insight into the planet’s — and our solar system’s — origins.

11 moments from the International Space Station’s first 20 years

It was November 20, 1998, when an unprecedented international coalition of astronomers, engineers, and rocket scientists saw years of collaboration come to fruition with the launch of the International Space Station’s first component. Since then the largest spacecraft ever built has hosted innumerable astronauts, experiments, and other craft. Here are a few notable moments in the history of this inspiring and decades-spanning mission.

1984: Reagan proposes the ISS — without Russia

The space station was originally going to be a U.S. effort, but soon became a collaboration with Canada, Japan, and Europe, excluding the then-USSR. American-Russian relations were strained then, as you may remember, and although many in the space industry itself would have preferred working together, the political climate did not permit it. Nevertheless, initial work began.

1993: Clinton adds Russia to the bill

The collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent rejuvenation of international relations led President Bush to bring them into the program in a limited fashion, as a supplier and as a guest on a shuttle mission. The next year, however, President Clinton one-upped him with the announcement that Russia would be a full partner. This was both a practical and political decision: Russian involvement would save billions, but it also helped bring Russia on board with other issues, like ICBM de-proliferation efforts. At any rate designs were finally beginning to be built.

1998: The first components, Zarya and Unity, launch to orbit

Endeavour approaches Zarya when the latter was the only component in place.

Though persona non grata at first, Russia had the privilege of launching the first core component of the ISS on November 20, 1998, the anniversary we are celebrating today. The Zarya Functional Cargo Block is still up there, still being used, forming the gateway to the Russian side of the station.

One month later, Space Shuttle Endeavour took off from Launch Complex 39A (we’ve been there) carrying Unity Node 1. This too is up there now, attached since that day to Zarya.

2000: The first of many long-term occupants arrive

From left: Shepherd, Gidzenko, and Krikalev, aboard the station.

Almost exactly a year after Zarya went up, the first astronauts took up residence on the ISS — the first of 230 people so far to call the orbiting structure home. Bill Shepherd was NASA’s first representative, flying with cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev; they would stay for about 141 days.

2003: Columbia disaster delays expansion

The fatal breakup of Space Shuttle Columbia on reentry following its 28th mission was tragedy enough that other shuttle missions were scrubbed for over two years. As these were the primary means of the U.S. adding to and maintaining the ISS, this responsibility passed to Roscosmos until shuttle launches resumed in 2005; crewed launches wouldn’t resume until mid-2006.

2007: Kibo goes up

Numerous modules have been added to the ISS over the years, but Japan’s Kibo is the largest. It took multiple missions to deliver all the pieces, and was only made possible by earlier missions that had expanded the solar power capacity of the station. Kibo contains a ton of reconfigurable space accessible from the pressurized interior, and has been popular for both private and public experiments that must be conducted in space.

2010: Enter the Cupola

If Kibo is the largest component, the Cupola is likely the most famous. The giant 7-window bubble looks like something out of science fiction (specifically, the front end of the Millennium Falcon) and is the location for the station’s most striking photography, both inside and out.

2014: Beautiful timelapses

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With the Cupola in place, capturing imagery of the Earth from this amazing view became easier — especially with the increasingly high quality digital cameras brought aboard by talented astronaut-photographers like Alexander Gerst and Don Pettit. The many, many photos taken out of this aperture have been formed into innumerable beautiful timelapses and desktop backgrounds, as well as witnessing incredible phenomena like aurora and lightning storms from a new and valuable perspective. It’s hard to pick just one, but Don Pettit’s “The World Outside My Window” above is a fabulous example, and Gerst’s 4K compilation is another.

2015: Gennady Padalka sets time in space record

During his fifth flight to space, Gennady Padalka set a world record for most time in space: When he returned to Earth he had logged a total of 878 days and change. That’s well ahead of the competition, which is almost exclusively Russian — though NASA’s Peggy Whitson is right up there with 666 days over three missions.

2016: Chinese station calling ISS, please pick up

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It’s hardly crowded in space, but it can get lonely up there. So it’s nice that those who have the honor to fly reach out to each other. In this case China’s taikonaut Jing Haipeng recorded a heartwarming video message from the Chinese Tiangong-2 space station greeting the incoming ISS crew and praising the community of global cooperation that makes all this possible.

2018: Soyuz accident threatens long-term occupation

A crewed mission to the ISS with astronaut Nick Hague and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin encountered a serious fault during launch, fortunately resulting in no injuries or fatalities but shaking up the space community. The Soyuz rocket and capsule had more than proven themselves over the years but no risks could be taken with human life, and future missions were delayed. It was possible that for the first time since it was first entered, the ISS would be empty as its crew left with no replacements on the way.

Fortunately the investigation has concluded and a new mission is planned for early December, which will prevent such an historic absence.

2019? First commercial crew mission and beyond

Russia has borne sole responsibility for all crewed launches for years, the U.S. has been planning to separate itself from this dependence by fostering a new generation of crew-capable capsules that can meet and exceed the safety and reliability of the Soyuz system. SpaceX and Boeing both plan 2019 flights for their respective Crew Dragon and Starliner capsules — though slipping dates and new regulatory attention may delay those further.

The ISS has a bright future despite its remarkable 20 years of continuous operation. It’s funded more or less through 2025, but there’s talk of new space stations from Russia and China both, while the U.S. eyes lunar orbit for its next big endeavor. It’s hard to imagine space now without an ISS full of people in it, however, and falling launch costs may mean that its life can be extended even further and less cost. Here’s hoping the ISS has another two decades in front of it.

FCC approval of Europe’s Galileo satellite signals may give your phone’s GPS a boost

The FCC’s space-focused meeting today had actions taken on SpaceX satellites and orbital debris reduction, but the decision most likely to affect users has to do with Galileo . No, not the astronomer — the global positioning satellite constellation put in place by the E.U. over the last few years. It’s now legal for U.S. phones to use, and a simple software update could soon give your GPS signal a major bump.

Galileo is one of several successors to the Global Positioning System that’s been in use since the ’90s. But because it is U.S.-managed and was for a long time artificially limited in accuracy to everyone but U.S. military, it should come as no surprise that European, Russian, and Chinese authorities would want their own solutions. Russia’s GLONASS is operational and China is hard at work getting its BeiDou system online.

The E.U.’s answer to GPS was Galileo, and the 26 (out of 30 planned) satellites making up the constellation offer improved accuracy and other services, such as altitude positioning. Test satellites went up as early as 2005, but it wasn’t until 2016 that it began actually offering location services.

A Galileo satellite launch earlier this year.

Devices already existed that would take advantage of Galileo signals — all the way back to the iPhone 6S, the Samsung Galaxy S7, and many others from that era forward. It just depends on the wireless chip inside the phone or navigation unit, and it’s pretty much standard now. (There’s a partial list of smartphones supporting Galileo here.)

When a company sells a new phone, it’s much easier to just make a couple million of the same thing rather than make tiny changes like using a wireless chipset in U.S. models that doesn’t support Galileo. The trade-off in savings versus complexity of manufacturing and distribution just isn’t worthwhile.

The thing is, American phones couldn’t use Galileo because the FCC has regulations against having ground stations being in contact with foreign satellites. Which is exactly what using Galileo positioning is, though of course it’s nothing sinister.

If you’re in the U.S., then, your phone likely has the capability to use Galileo but it has been disabled in software. The FCC decision today lets device makers change that, and the result could be much-improved location services. (One band not very compatible with existing U.S. navigation services has been held back, but two of the three are now available.)

Interestingly enough, however, your phone may already be using Galileo without your or the FCC’s knowledge. Because the capability is behind a software lock, it’s possible that a user could install an app or service bringing it into use. Perhaps you travel to Europe a lot and use a French app store and navigation app designed to work with Galileo and it unlocked the bands. There’d be nothing wrong with that.

Or perhaps you installed a custom ROM that included the ability to check the Galileo signal. That’s technically illegal, but the thing is there’s basically no way for anyone to tell! The way these systems work, all you’d be doing is receiving a signal illegally that your phone already supports and that’s already hitting its antennas every second — so who’s going to report you?

It’s unlikely that phone makers have secretly enabled the Galileo frequencies on U.S. models, but as Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel pointed out in a statement accompanying the FCC action, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening:

If you read the record in this proceeding and others like it, it becomes clear that many devices in the United States are already operating with foreign signals. But nowhere in our record is there a good picture of how many devices in this country are interacting with these foreign satellite systems, what it means for compliance with our rules, and what it means for the security of our systems. We should change that. Technology has gotten ahead of our approval policies and it’s time for a true-up.

She isn’t suggesting a crackdown — this is about regulation lagging behind consumer tech. Still, it is a little worrying that the FCC basically has no idea, and no way to find out, how many devices are illicitly tuning in to Galileo signals.

Expect an update to roll out to your phone sometime soon — Galileo signals will be of serious benefit to any location-based app, and to public services like 911, which are now officially allowed to use the more accurate service to determine location.

EnduroSat CEO to talk about making satellites more affordable at Disrupt Berlin

It has never been easier to launch a satellite into space. But EnduroSat wants to make it even easier by making CubeSats more affordable thanks to a unique platform. That’s why I’m excited to announce that EnduroSat CEO Raycho Raychev is coming to TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin to talk about his platform.

Many industries have gone through a standardization revolution. Decades ago, shipping stuff from one continent to another was costly because it was a manual process. Exporters now put everything into containers so that you can carry them seamlessly from a port to a cargo ship, a train or a truck.

Similarly, it became much easier to create a new data center thanks to standardized server racks. You can fit servers, routers, or disk arrays into a metal frames, and line all the server racks in a warehouse.

The same is happening with satellites. Thanks to CubeSats, you get to choose the list of components that you want to put in your satellite and they’ll all fit nicely in a cubical package.

EnduroSat is working on next-generation CubeSats. You first choose the frame of your CubeSat. You can then buy different modules to build the perfect satellite for your use case.

The company now has over 30 clients and the EnduroSat One is currently flying above our heads. If you want to hear Raychev tell you more about what they’ve been working on, you should come to Disrupt Berlin. The conference will take place on November 29-30 and you can buy your ticket right now.

In addition to fireside chats and panels, like this one, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield Europe to win the highly coveted Battlefield cup.

Raycho Raychev

CEO, EnduroSat

Raycho Raychev works in the field of space science, tech and business.

He founded EnduroSat – a fast-growing satellite company with unique market approach in the space sector. Prior to the company Raycho founded massive space educational platform – Spaceport and practice-oriented space course – Space Challenges.

His education includes Master of Science from International Space University and Innovation and Growth Program from Stanford University and Endeavor.