Crowdfunded spacecraft LightSail 2 prepares to go sailing on sunlight

Posted by | falcon heavy, Gadgets, hardware, lightsail, science, Space, SpaceX, TC | No Comments

Among the many spacecraft and satellites ascending to space on Monday’s Falcon Heavy launch, the Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 may be the most interesting. If all goes well, a week from launch it will be moving through space — slowly, but surely — on nothing more than the force exerted on it by sunlight.

LightSail 2 doesn’t have solar-powered engines, or use solar energy or heat for some secondary purpose; it will literally be propelled by the physical force of photons hitting its immense shiny sail. Not solar wind, mind you — that’s a different thing altogether.

It’s an idea, explained Planetary Society CEO and acknowledged Science Guy Bill Nye said in a press call ahead of the launch, that goes back centuries.

“It really goes back to the 1600s,” he said; Kepler deduced that a force from the sun must cause comet tails and other effects, and “he speculated that brave people would one day sail the void.”

So they might, as more recent astronomers and engineers have pondered the possibility more seriously.

“I was introduced to this in the 1970s, in the disco era. I was in Carl Sagan’s astronomy class… wow, 42 years ago, and he talked about solar sailing,” Nye recalled. “I joined the Planetary Society when it was formed in 1980, and we’ve been talking about solar sails around here ever since then. It’s really a romantic notion that has tremendous practical applications; there are just a few missions that solar sails are absolutely ideal for.”

Those would primarily be long-term, medium-orbit missions where a craft needs to stay in an Earth-like orbit, but still get a little distance away from the home planet — or, in the future, long-distance missions where slow and steady acceleration from the sun or a laser would be more practical than another propulsion method.

Mission profile

The eagle-eyed among you may have spotted the “2” in the name of the mission. LightSail 2 is indeed the second of its type; the first launched in 2015, but was not planned to be anything more than a test deployment that would burn up after a week or so.

That mission had some hiccups, with the sail not deploying to its full extent and a computer glitch compromising communications with the craft. It was not meant to fly via solar sailing, and did not.

“We sent the CubeSat up, we checked out the radio, the communications, the overall electronics, and we deployed the sail and we got a picture of that deployed sail in space,” said COO Jennifer Vaughn. “That was purely a deployment test; no solar sailing took place.”

The spacecraft itself, minus the sail, of course.

But it paved the way for its successor, which will attempt this fantastical form of transportation. Other craft have done so, most notably JAXA’s IKAROS mission to Venus, which was quite a bit larger — though as LightSail 2’s creators pointed out, not nearly as efficient as their craft — and had a very different mission.

The brand new spacecraft, loaded into a 3U CubeSat enclosure — that’s about the size of a loaf of bread — is piggybacking on an Air Force payload going up to an altitude of about 720 kilometers. There it will detach and float freely for a week to get away from the rest of the payloads being released.

Once it’s safely on its own, it will fire out from its carrier craft and begin to unfurl the sail. From that loaf-sized package will emerge an expanse of reflective Mylar with an area of 32 square meters — about the size of a boxing ring.

Inside the spacecraft’s body is also what’s called a reaction wheel, which can be spun up or slowed down in order to impart the opposite force on the craft, causing it to change its attitude in space. By this method LightSail 2 will continually orient itself so that the photons striking it propel it in the desired direction, nudging it into the desired orbit.

1 HP (housefly power) engine

The thrust produced, the team explained, is very small — as you might expect. Photons have no mass, but they do (somehow) have momentum. Not a lot, to be sure, but it’s greater than zero, and that’s what counts.

“In terms of the amount of force that solar pressure is going to exert on us, it’s on the micronewton level,” said LightSail project manager Dave Spencer. “It’s very tiny compared to chemical propulsion, very small even compared to electric propulsion. But the key for solar sailing is that it’s always there.”

“I have many numbers that I love,” cut in Nye, and detailed one of them: “It’s nine micronewtons per square meter. So if you have 32 square meters you get about a hundred micronewtons. It doesn’t sound like much, but as Dave points out, it’s continuous. Once a rocket engine stops, when it runs out of fuel, it’s done. But a solar sail gets a continuous push day and night. Wait…” (He then argued with himself about whether it would experience night — it will, as you see in the image below.)

Bruce Betts, chief scientist for LightSail, chimed in as well, to make the numbers a bit more relatable: “The total force on the sail is approximately equal to the weight of a house fly on your hand on Earth.”

Yet if you added another fly every second for hours at a time, pretty soon you’ve got a really considerable amount of acceleration going on. This mission is meant to find out whether we can capture that force.

“We’re very excited about this launch,” said Nye, “because we’re going to get to a high enough altitude to get away from the atmosphere, far enough that we’ll really gonna be able to build orbital energy and take some, I hope, inspiring pictures.”

Second craft, same (mostly) as the last

The LightSail going up this week has some improvements over the last one, though overall it’s largely the same — and a relatively simple, inexpensive craft at that, the team noted. Crowdfunding and donations over the last decade have provided quite a bit of cash to pursue this project, but it still is only a small fraction of what NASA might have spent on a similar mission, Spencer pointed out.

“This mission is going to be much more robust than the previous LightSail 1, but as we said previously, it’s done by a small team,” he said. “We’ve had a very small budget relative to our NASA counterparts, probably 1/20th of the budget that a similar NASA mission would have. It’s a low-cost spacecraft.”

Annotated image of LightSail 2, courtesy of Planetary Society.

But the improvements are specifically meant to address the main problems encountered by LightSail 2’s predecessor.

Firstly, the computer inside has been upgraded to be more robust (though not radiation-hardened) and given the ability to sense faults and reboot if necessary — they won’t have to wait, as they did for LightSail 1, for a random cosmic ray to strike the computer and cause a “natural reboot.” (Yes, really.)

The deployment of the sail itself has also improved. The previous one only extended to about 90% of its full width and couldn’t be adjusted after the fact. Subsequently tests have been done, Betts told me, to exactly determine how many revolutions the motor must make to extend the sail to 100%. Not only that, but they have put markings on the extending booms or rods that will help double check how deployment has gone.

“We also have the capability on orbit, if it looks like it’s not fully extended, we can extend it a little bit more,” he said.

Once it’s all out there, it’s uncharted territory. No one has attempted to do this kind of mission, even IKAROS, which had a totally different flight profile. The team is hoping their sensors and software are up to the task — and it should be clear whether that’s the case within a few hours of unfurling the sail.

It’s still mainly an experiment, of course, and what the team learns from this they will put into any future LightSail mission they attempt, but also share it with the spaceflight community and others attempting to sail on sunlight.

“We all know each other and we all share information,” said Nye. “And it really is — I’ve said it as much as I can — it’s really exciting to be flying this thing at last. It’s almost 2020 and we’ve been talking about it for, well, for 40 years. It’s very, very cool.”

LightSail 2 will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy no sooner than June 24th. Keep an eye on the site for the latest news and a link to the live stream when it’s almost time for takeoff.

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NASA’s X-59 supersonic jet will have a 4K TV instead of a forward window

Posted by | Gadgets, Government, hardware, Lockheed Martin, NASA, science, Space, supersonic, supersonic flight, Transportation, x-59 | No Comments

NASA’s X-59 QueSST experimental quiet supersonic aircraft will have a cockpit like no other — featuring a big 4K screen where you’d normally have a front window. Why? Because this is one weird-looking plane.

The X-59, which is being developed by Lockheed Martin on a $247 million budget, is meant to go significantly faster than sound without producing a sonic boom, or indeed any noise “louder than a car door closing,” at least to observers on the ground.

Naturally in order to do this the craft has to be as aerodynamic as possible, which precludes the cockpit bump often found in fighter jets. In fact, the design can’t even have the pilot up front with a big window, because it would likely be far too narrow. Check out these lines:

The cockpit is more like a section taken out of the plane just over the leading edge of the rather small and exotically shaped wings. So while the view out the sides will be lovely, the view forward would be nothing but nose.

To fix that, the plane will be equipped with several displays, the lower ones just like you might expect on a modern aircraft, but the top one is a 4K monitor that’s part of what’s called the eXternal Visibility System, or XVS. It shows imagery stitched together from two cameras on the craft’s exterior, combined with high-definition terrain data loaded up ahead of time.

It’s not quite the real thing, but pilots spend a lot of time in simulators (as you can see here), so they’ll be used to it. And the real world is right outside the other windows if they need a reality check.

Lockheed and NASA’s plane is currently in the construction phase, though no doubt some parts are still being designed, as well. The program has committed to a 2021 flight date, an ambitious goal considering this is the first such experimental, or X-plane, the agency has developed in some 30 years. If successful, it could be the precursor to other quiet supersonic craft and could bring back supersonic overland flight in the future.

That’s if Boom doesn’t beat them to it.

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KickSat-2 project launches 105 cracker-sized satellites

Posted by | femtosats, Gadgets, hardware, kicksat, science, Space, stanford, Stanford University | No Comments

Move over, Starlink. SpaceX’s global internet play might have caught the world’s attention with its 60-satellite launch last month, but little did we know that it had already been upstaged — at least in terms of sheer numbers. The KickSat-2 project put 105 tiny “femtosats” into space at once months earlier, the culmination of a years-long project begun by a grad student.

KickSat-2 was the second attempt by Zac Manchester, now a professor at Stanford, to test what he believes is an important piece of the coming new space economy: ultra-tiny satellites.

Sure, the four-inch CubeSat standard is small… and craft like Swarm Technologies’ SpaceBEEs are even smaller. But the satellites tested by Manchester are tiny. We’re talking Triscuit size here — perhaps Wheat Thin, or even Cheez-It.

The KickSat project started back in 2011, when Manchester and his colleagues did a Kickstarter to raise funds for about 300 “Sprite” satellites that would be launched to space and deployed on behalf of backers. It was a success, but unfortunately once launched a glitch caused the satellites to burn up before being deployed. Manchester was undeterred and the project continued.

He worked with Cornell University and NASA Ames to redesign the setup, and as part of that he and collaborator Andy Filo collected a prize for their clever 3D-printed deployment mechanism. The Sprites themselves are relatively simple things: essentially an unshielded bit of PCB with a solar panel, antennas and electronics on board to send and receive signals.

The “mothership” launched in November to the ISS, where it sat for several months awaiting an opportunity to be deployed. That opportunity came on March 17: all 105 Sprites were sprung out into low Earth orbit, where they began communicating with each other and (just barely) to ground stations.

Deployment would have looked like this… kind of. Probably a little slower.

This isn’t the start of a semi-permanent thousands-strong constellation, though — the satellites all burned up a few days later, as planned.

“This was mostly a test of deployment and communication systems for the Sprites,” Manchester explained in an email to TechCrunch. The satellites were testing two different signals: “Specially designed CDMA signals that enable hundreds of Sprites to simultaneously communicate with a single ground station at very long range and with very low power,” and “simpler signals for short-range networking between Sprites in orbit.”

The Cygnus spacecraft with the KickSat-2 CubeSat attached — it’s the little gold thing right by where the docking arm is attached.

This proof of concept is an important one — it seems logical and practical to pack dozens or hundreds of these things into future missions, where they can be released into controlled trajectories providing sensing or communications relay capabilities to other spacecraft. And, of course, as we’ve already seen, the smaller and cheaper the spacecraft, the easier it is for people to access space for any reason: scientific, economic or just for the heck of it.

“We’ve shown that it’s possible for swarms of cheap, tiny satellites to one day carry out tasks now done by larger, costlier satellites, making it affordable for just about anyone to put instruments or experiments into orbit,” Manchester said in a Stanford news release. With launch costs dropping, it might not be long before you’ll be able to take ownership of a Sprite of your own.

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SpaceX reveals more Starlink info after launch of first 60 satellites

Posted by | Gadgets, hardware, orbital debris, satellite communications, Space, space internet, SpaceX, starlink, TC | No Comments

Last night’s successful Starlink launch was a big one for SpaceX — its heaviest payload ever, weighed down by 60 communications satellites that will eventually be part of a single constellation providing internet to the globe. That’s the plan, anyway — and the company pulled the curtain back a bit more after launch, revealing a few more details about the birds it just put in the air.

SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk have been extremely tight-lipped about the Starlink satellites, only dropping a few hints here and there before the launch. We know, for instance, that each satellite weighs about 500 pounds, and are a flat-panel design that maximized the amount that can fit in each payload. The launch media kit also described a “Startracker” navigation system that would allow the satellites to locate themselves and orbital debris with precision.

At the fresh new Starlink website, however, a few new details have appeared, alongside some images that provide the clearest look yet (renders, not photographs, but still) of the satellites that will soon number thousands in our skies.

In the CG representation of how the satellites will work, you get a general sense of it:

Thousands of satellites will move along their orbits simultaneously, each beaming internet to and from the surface in a given area. It’s still not clear exactly how big an area each satellite will cover, or how much redundancy will be required. But the image gives you the general idea.

The signal comes from and goes to a set of four “phased array” radio antennas. This compact, flat type of antenna can transmit in multiple directions and frequencies without moving like you see big radar dishes do. There are costs as well, but it’s a no-brainer for satellites that need to be small and only need to transmit in one general direction — down.

There’s only a single solar array, which unfolds upwards like a map (and looks pretty much like you’d expect — hence no image here). The merits of having only one are mainly related to simplicity and cost — having two gives you more power and redundancy if one fails. But if you’re going to make a few thousand of these things and replace them every couple of years, it probably doesn’t matter too much. Solar arrays are reliable standard parts now.

The krypton-powered ion thruster sounds like science fiction, but ion thrusters have actually been around for decades. They use a charge difference to shoot ions — charged molecules — out in a specific direction, imparting force in the opposite direction. Kind of like a tiny electric pea shooter that, in microgravity, pushes the person back with the momentum of the pea.

To do this it needs propellant — usually xenon, which has several (rather difficult to explain) properties that make it useful for these purposes. Krypton is the next Noble gas up the list in the table, and is similar in some ways but easier to get. Again, if you’re deploying thousands of ion engines — so far only a handful have actually flown — you want to minimize costs and exotic materials.

Lastly there is the star tracker and collision avoidance system. This isn’t very well explained by SpaceX, so we can only surmise based on what we see. The star tracker tells each satellite its attitude, or orientation in space — presumably by looking at the stars and comparing that with known variables like time of day on Earth and so on. This ties in with collision avoidance, which uses the government’s database of known space debris and can adjust course to avoid it.

How? The image on the Starlink site shows four discs at perpendicular orientations. This suggests they’re reaction wheels, which store kinetic energy and can be spun up or slowed down to impart that force on the craft, turning it as desired. Very clever little devices actually, and quite common in satellites. These would control the attitude and the thruster would give a little impulse, and the debris is avoided. The satellite can return to normal orbit shortly thereafter.

A SpaceX representative told me that the debris tracker hooks into the Air Force’s Combined Space Operations Center, where trajectories of all known space debris are tracked. These trajectories are checked against those of the satellites, and if a possible collision is detected the course changes are made, well ahead of time. This isn’t a matter of seeing a rock and dodging it, more like air traffic control.

We still don’t know a lot about the Starlink system. For instance, what do its ground stations look like? Unlike Ubiquitilink, you can’t receive a Starlink signal directly on your phone. So you’ll need a receiver, which Musk has said in the past is about the size of a pizza box. But small, large, or extra large? Where can it be mounted, and how much does it cost?

In a media briefing last week Musk described it in slightly more specific terms: “It’s like a flat disc, but unlike a, say, a DirecTV satellite dish which has to point in a specific direction, has to point very precisely at the geostationary satellite.  In the case of a Starlink dish, you can basically kind of put it at almost any angle that is reasonably pointed at the sky.”

The questions of interconnection are also a mystery. Say a Starlink user wants to visit a website hosted in Croatia. Does the signal go up to Starlink, between satellites, and down to the nearest base station? Does it go down at a big interconnect point on the backbone serving that region? Does it go up and then come down 20 miles from your house at the place where fiber connects to the local backbone? It may not matter much to ordinary users, but for big services — think Netflix — it could be very important.

And lastly, how much does it cost? SpaceX wants to make this competitive with terrestrial broadband, which is a little hard to believe considering the growth of fiber, but also not that hard to believe because of telecoms dragging their heels getting to rural areas still using DSL. Out there, Starlink might be a godsend, while in big cities it might be superfluous.

Chances are we won’t know for a long time. The 60 satellites up there right now are only the very first wave, and don’t comprise anything more than a test bed for future services. Starlink will have to prove these things work as planned, and then send up several hundred more before it can offer even the most rudimentary service. Of course, that is the plan, and might even be accomplished by the end of the year.

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SpaceX kicks off its space-based internet service tomorrow with 60-satellite Starlink launch

Posted by | Gadgets, hardware, Space, SpaceX | No Comments

As wild as it sounds, the race is on to build a functioning space internet — and SpaceX is taking its biggest step yet with the launch of 60 (!) satellites tomorrow that will form the first wave of its Starlink constellation. It’s a hugely important and incredibly complex launch for the company — and should be well worth launching.

A Falcon 9 loaded to the gills with the flat Starlink test satellites (they’re “production design” but not final hardware) is vertical at launchpad 40 in Cape Canaveral. It has completed its static fire test and should have a window for launch tomorrow, weather permitting.

Building satellite constellations hundreds or thousands strong is seen by several major companies and investors as the next major phase of connectivity — though it will take years and billions of dollars to do so.

OneWeb, perhaps SpaceX’s biggest competitor in this area, just secured $1.25 billion in funding after launching the first six satellites in March (of a planned 650). Jeff Bezos has announced that Amazon will join the fray with the proposed 3,236-satellite Project Kuiper. Ubiquitilink has a totally different approach. And plenty of others are taking on smaller segments, like lower-cost or domain-specific networks.

Needless to say it’s an exciting sector, but today’s launch is a particularly interesting one because it is so consequential for SpaceX. If this doesn’t go well, it could set Starlink’s plans back long enough to give competitors an edge.

The satellites stacked inside the Falcon 9 payload fairing. “Tight fit,” pointed out CEO Elon Musk.

SpaceX hasn’t explained exactly how the 60 satellites will be distributed to their respective orbits, but founder and CEO Elon Musk did note on Twitter that there’s “no dispenser.” Of course there must be some kind of dispenser — these things aren’t going to just jump off of their own accord. They’re stuffed in there like kernels on a corncob, and likely each have a little spring that sends them out at a set velocity.

A pair of prototype satellites, Tintin-A and B, have been in orbit since early last year, and have no doubt furnished a great deal of useful information to the Starlink program. But the 60 aboard tomorrow’s launch aren’t quite final hardware. Although Musk noted that they are “production design,” COO Gwynne Shotwell has said that they are still test models.

“This next batch of satellites will really be a demonstration set for us to see the deployment scheme and start putting our network together,” she said at the Satellite 2019 conference in Washington, D.C. — they reportedly lack inter-satellite links but are otherwise functional. I’ve asked SpaceX for more information on this.

It makes sense: If you’re planning to put thousands (perhaps as many as 12,000 eventually) of satellites into orbit, you’ll need to test at scale and with production hardware.

And for those worried about the possibility of overpopulation in orbit — it’s absolutely something to consider, but many of these satellites will be flying at extremely low altitudes; at 550 kilometers up, these tiny satellites will naturally de-orbit in a handful of years. Even OneWeb’s, at 1,100 km, aren’t that high up — geosynchronous satellites are above 35,000 km. That doesn’t mean there’s no risk at all, but it does mean failed or abandoned satellites won’t stick around for long.

Just don’t expect to boot up your Starlink connection any time soon. It would take a minimum of six more launches like this one — a total of 420, a happy coincidence for Musk — to provide “minor” coverage. This would likely only be for testing as well, not commercial service. That would need 12 more launches, and dozens more to bring it to the point where it can compete with terrestrial broadband.

Even if it will take years to pull off, that is the plan. And by that time others will have spun up their operations as well. It’s an exciting time for space and for connectivity.

No launch time has been set as of this writing, so takeoff is just planned for Wednesday the 15th at present. As there’s no need to synchronize the launch with the movement of any particular celestial body, T-0 should be fairly flexible and SpaceX will likely just wait for the best weather and visibility. Delays are always a possibility, though, so don’t be surprised if this is pushed out to later in the week.

As always you’ll be able to watch the launch at the SpaceX website, but I’ll update this post with the live video link as soon as it’s available.

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Blue Origin lofts NASA and student experiments in New Shepard tomorrow morning

Posted by | Blue Origin, Gadgets, hardware, launches, new shepard, science, Space | No Comments

The 11th mission for Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital launch vehicle is slated for takeoff Thursday morning. The craft will be carrying 38 (!) experimental payloads from NASA, students and research organizations around the world. You’ll be able to watch the launch live tomorrow at about 6 AM Pacific time.

New Shepard, though a very different beast from the Falcon 9 and Heavy launch vehicles created by its rival SpaceX, is arguably a better platform for short-duration experiments that need to be exposed to launch stresses and microgravity. Launching satellites — that’s a job for Falcons and Deltas, or perhaps Blue Origin’s impending New Glenn, and they’re welcome to it. But researchers around the country are clamoring for spots on suborbital flights and Blue Origin is happy to provide them.

We are targeting the next launch of #NewShepard tomorrow May 2nd at 8:30 am CDT / 13:30 UTC. The mission will take 38 microgravity research payloads to space. Watch the launch live at #NS11

— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) May 1, 2019

Tomorrow’s launch will be carrying several dozen payloads, some of which have been waiting years for their chance to board a rocket. Here are a few examples of what will be tested during the short flight:

  • Evolved Medical Microgravity Suction Device: As more people go into space, we have to be prepared for more and graver injuries. Lots of standard medical tools won’t work properly in microgravity, so it’s necessary to redesign and test them under those conditions. This one is about providing suction, as you might guess, which can be used for lung injuries, drawing blood and other situations that call for negative air pressure.

This little guy will be doing microgravity test prints using metal

  • 3D printing with metal in microgravity: Simply everyone knows we can 3D-print stuff in space. But just as on Earth, you can’t always make your spare parts out of thermoplastic. Down here we use metal-based 3D printers, and this experiment aims to find out if a modified design will allow for metal printing in space, as well.
  • Suborbital centrifuge: It sounds like something the Enterprise would deploy in Star Trek, but it’s just a test bed for a new type of centrifuge that could help simulate other gravities, such as that of the Moon or Mars, for purposes of experiments. They do this on the ISS already, but this would make it more compact and easier to automate, saving time and space aboard any craft it flies on.

The suborbital centrifuge, looking as cool as it sounds

  • BioChip SubOrbitalLab: The largest ever study of space-based health and the effects of microgravity on the human body was just concluded, but there’s much, much more to know. Part of that requires monitoring cells in real time — which, like most things, is easier to do on the surface. This lab-on-a-chip will test out a new technique for containing individual cells or masses and tracking changes to them in a microgravity environment.

It’s all made possible through NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, which is specifically all about putting small experiments aboard commercial spacecraft. The rest of the many gadgets and experiments awaiting launch are listed here.

The launch itself should be very similar to previous New Shepards, just like one commercial jet takeoff is like another. The booster fires up and ascends to just short of the Karman line at 100 kilometers, which (somewhat arbitrarily) marks the start of “space.”

At that point the capsule will detach and fly upwards with its own momentum, exposing the payloads within to several minutes of microgravity; after it tops out, it will descend and deploy its parachutes, after which it will drift leisurely to the ground. Meanwhile the rocket will have descended as well, and made a soft landing on its deployable struts.

The launch is scheduled for 6:30 AM Pacific time — 8:30 AM Central in Texas, at Blue Origin’s launch site. You’ll be able to watch it live at the company’s site.

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David Copperfield’s secret magic techniques crash-landed on the Moon

Posted by | beresheet, Gadgets, Israel, Space, spaceIL, TC | No Comments

The loss of Israel’s Beresheet lander during its descent to the lunar surface was unfortunate, but the mission was still largely a success — and has certainly created an interesting cultural artifact on the Moon where it impacted. Perhaps more interesting than we could have known: It turns out David Copperfield stashed the secrets to his illusions onboard, and they may have survived the crash.

The data was kept on one of the Arch Mission Foundation’s tiny, high-capacity, high-endurance archival devices, meant to act as libraries or time capsules in a variety of sci-fi-sounding scenarios, like extraterrestrial visits or the near-extinction of humans. They’re “nearly indestructible,” and one was on Beresheet.

In a plot twist no one could have seen coming, among the data encoded on the DVD-sized (but much more sophisticated) storage medium are the famous magician’s “secret technological innovations.” Yes, David Copperfield shot his tricks to the Moon, and no, it doesn’t sound like it’s just some old ones or previously published information (I asked).


“When I was introduced to the Arch Mission Foundation, I was immediately enamored with the mission to preserve our civilization, and the possibilities of what we might do together,” Copperfield said in a press release. “One of my heroes is George Méliès, one of the fathers of modern cinema and also a great magician. His most famous movie was ‘A Trip to the Moon,’ which in 1902 visualized people landing on the Moon. It inspired a generation of scientists to actually achieve it, and 70 years later we actually landed on the Moon. Now 50 years later, we’re landing magic on the Moon. We’re bringing it full circle and I find that kind of poetic.”

There you have it. Quite absurd, but why not?

As for the device, AMF has put together a small team (including Stephen Wolfram) to look into what may have happened to it on impact.

“We have either installed the first library on the moon, or we have installed the first archaeological ruins of early human attempts to build a library on the moon,” read a preliminary document by the team containing various figures relating the crash and potential survival of the device.

Although AMF co-founder Nova Spivack said in the press release that “every indication thus far suggests that the Lunar Library is intact on the Moon,” the truth is there aren’t that many positive indications just yet.

Mission control lost contact with Beresheet when it was only 150 meters from the surface; it would have impacted about a second later with about 956 m/s of horizontal velocity, which translates to more than 2,000 miles per hour. So this thing was going faster than a bullet and was considerably less durable. The wreckage is likely strewn over kilometers of the lunar surface.

“We think it is highly unlikely that the Lunar Library was atomized in the impact,” writes the team. “Without knowing the impact energy directed at the library, it’s hard to know how the stack fared. But taking the construction of the Lunar Library into account, we believe it has a high chance of being intact.”

It isn’t just an archival-quality disc or something. It’s a special 25-layer sandwich of nickel and epoxy, the bottom 21 layers of which are filled with digital data. This is the information most at risk, since, like snapping a DVD in half, you can’t just put the pieces back together and hope the 0s and 1s align again.

But the top four layers are essentially a form of high-durability microfiche, etched with tiny letters that could be read with a basic microscope. These you really could just piece back together. The 60,000 pages of analog data include “the Arch Mission Primer, selections from Wikipedia, The Wearable Rosetta, The Israeli Time Capsule, a selection of books — and potentially all or some of the not-yet-announced secret Vaults of content.”

Among those “not-yet-announced secret Vaults” in the analog layers is in fact the collection of Copperfield’s illusions. Lucky, that!

Unfortunately, even if the device does theoretically survive, it may never be found: at those speeds the debris from the landing would have spread over a large area and perhaps buried itself in dust and regolith. So even if it were completely intact, it might be invisible even to the high-resolution cameras on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which AMF has requested to take a few images of the crash site (it was probably already going to, given the interest in the Beresheet mission).

“We think it is highly unlikely that the Lunar Library was atomized in the impact, given what we currently know. Therefore either the Lunar library remains entirely intact or it remains in a partially intact state — somewhere within a few kilometers of the landing zone,” writes the team. However, “This may not be verifiable without investigating the scene firsthand, on the ground at the crash site.”

So a trip to the Moon, Méliès-style, might be necessary after all.

The idea of a treasure hunt for a famous magician’s secrets in a Moon landing gone wrong really sounds more like science fiction than everyday news, but the two things have been growing closer and closer to one another for a while now, so I guess none of us should be surprised.

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Israel’s Beresheet spacecraft is lost during historic lunar landing attempt

Posted by | beresheet, Gadgets, Israel, lunar landing, science, Space, SpaceX | No Comments

Israel’s SpaceIL almost made history today as its Beresheet spacecraft came within an ace of landing on the surface of the Moon, but suffered a last-minute failure during descent. Israel missed out on the chance to be the fourth country to make a controlled lunar landing, but getting 99 percent of the way there is still an extraordinary achievement for private spaceflight.

Beresheet (“Genesis”) launched in February as secondary payload aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and after a month and a half spiraling outward, entered lunar orbit a week ago. Today’s final maneuver was an engine burn meant to bring down its relative velocity to the Moon, then brake to a soft landing in the Mare Serenitatis, or Sea of Serenity.

Everything was working fine up until the final moments, as is often the case in space. The craft, having made it perfectly to its intended point of descent, determined that all systems were ready and the landing process would go ahead as planned.

They lost telemetry for a bit, and had to reset the craft to get the main engine back online… and then communication dropped while only a handful of kilometers from the surface. The “selfie” image above was taken from 22 km above the surface, just a few minutes before that. The spacecraft was announced as lost shortly afterwards.

Clearly disappointed but also exhilarated, the team quickly recovered its composure, saying “the achievement of getting to where we got is tremendous and we can be proud,” and of course, “if at first you don’t succeed… try, try again.”

The project began as an attempt to claim the Google Lunar Xprize, announced more than a decade ago, but which proved too difficult for teams to attempt in the time frame specified. Although the challenge and its prize money lapsed, Israel’s SpaceIL team continued its work, bolstered by the support of Israel Aerospace Industries, the state-owned aviation concern there.

It’s worth noting that although Beresheet did enjoy considerable government support in this way, it’s a far cry from any other large-scale government-run mission, and can safely be considered “private” for all intents and purposes. The ~50-person team and $200 million budget are laughably small compared to practically any serious mission, let alone a lunar landing.

I spoke with Xprize’s founder and CEO, Peter Diamandis and Anousheh Ansari, respectively, just before the landing attempt. Both were extremely excited and made it clear that the mission was already considered a huge success.

“What I’m seeing here is an incredible ‘Who’s Who’ from science, education and government who have gathered to watch this miracle take place,” Diamandis said. “We launched this competition now 11 years ago to inspire and educate engineers, and despite the fact that it ran out of time it has achieved 100 percent of its goal. Even if it doesn’t make it onto the ground fully intact it has ignited a level of electricity and excitement that reminds me of the Ansari Xprize 15 years ago.”

He’s not the only one. Ansari, who funded the famous spaceflight Xprize that bore her name, and who has herself visited space as one of the first tourist-astronauts above the International Space Station, felt a similar vibe.

“It’s an amazing moment, bringing so many great memories up,” she told me. “It reminds me of when we were all out in the Mojave waiting for the launch of Spaceship One.”

Ansari emphasized the feeling the landing evoked of moving forward as a people.

“Imagine, over the last 50 years only 500 people out of seven billion have been to space — that number will be thousands soon,” she said. “We believe there’s so much more that can be done in this area of technology, a lot of real business opportunities that benefit civilization but also humanity.”

Congratulations to the SpaceIL team for their achievement, and here’s hoping the next attempt makes it all the way down.

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Mars helicopter bound for the Red Planet takes to the air for the first time

Posted by | drones, Gadgets, Government, hardware, jpl, mars 2020, NASA, robotics, science, Space, TC, UAVs | No Comments

The Mars 2020 mission is on track for launch next year, and nesting inside the high-tech new rover heading that direction is a high-tech helicopter designed to fly in the planet’s nearly non-existent atmosphere. The actual aircraft that will fly on the Martian surface just took its first flight and its engineers are over the moon.

“The next time we fly, we fly on Mars,” said MiMi Aung, who manages the project at JPL, in a news release. An engineering model that was very close to final has over an hour of time in the air, but these two brief test flights were the first and last time the tiny craft will take flight until it does so on the distant planet (not counting its “flight” during launch).

“Watching our helicopter go through its paces in the chamber, I couldn’t help but think about the historic vehicles that have been in there in the past,” she continued. “The chamber hosted missions from the Ranger Moon probes to the Voyagers to Cassini, and every Mars rover ever flown. To see our helicopter in there reminded me we are on our way to making a little chunk of space history as well.”

Artist’s impression of how the helicopter will look when it’s flying on Mars

A helicopter flying on Mars is much like a helicopter flying on Earth, except of course for the slight differences that the other planet has a third less gravity and 99 percent less air. It’s more like flying at 100,000 feet, Aung suggested.

It has its own solar panel so it can explore more or less on its own

The test rig they set up not only produces a near-vacuum, replacing the air with a thin, Mars-esque CO2 mix, but a “gravity offload” system simulates lower gravity by giving the helicopter a slight lift via a cable.

It flew at a whopping two inches of altitude for a total of a minute in two tests, which was enough to show the team that the craft (with all its 1,500 parts and four pounds) was ready to package up and send to the Red Planet.

“It was a heck of a first flight,” said tester Teddy Tzanetos. “The gravity offload system performed perfectly, just like our helicopter. We only required a 2-inch hover to obtain all the data sets needed to confirm that our Mars helicopter flies autonomously as designed in a thin Mars-like atmosphere; there was no need to go higher.”

A few months after the Mars 2020 rover has landed, the helicopter will detach and do a few test flights of up to 90 seconds. Those will be the first heavier-than-air flights on another planet — powered flight, in other words, rather than, say, a balloon filled with gaseous hydrogen.

The craft will operate mostly autonomously, since the half-hour round trip for commands would be far too long for an Earth-based pilot to operate it. It has its own solar cells and batteries, plus little landing feet, and will attempt flights of increasing distance from the rover over a 30-day period. It should go about three meters in the air and may eventually get hundreds of meters away from its partner.

Mars 2020 is estimated to be ready to launch next summer, arriving at its destination early in 2021. Of course, in the meantime, we’ve still got Curiosity and Insight up there, so if you want the latest from Mars, you’ve got plenty of options to choose from.

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Opportunity’s last Mars panorama is a showstopper

Posted by | Gadgets, Government, hardware, jpl, mars, mars rover, mars rovers, NASA, Opportunity, science, Space, TC | No Comments

The Opportunity Mars Rover may be officially offline for good, but its legacy of science and imagery is ongoing — and NASA just shared the last (nearly) complete panorama the robot sent back before it was blanketed in dust.

After more than 5,000 days (or rather sols) on the Martian surface, Opportunity found itself in Endeavour Crater, specifically in Perseverance Valley on the western rim. For the last month of its active life, it systematically imaged its surroundings to create another of its many impressive panoramas.

Using the Pancam, which shoots sequentially through blue, green and deep red (near-infrared) filters, it snapped 354 images of the area, capturing a broad variety of terrain as well as bits of itself and its tracks into the valley. You can click the image below for the full annotated version.

It’s as perfect and diverse an example of the Martian landscape as one could hope for, and the false-color image (the flatter true-color version is here) has a special otherworldly beauty to it, which is only added to by the poignancy of this being the rover’s last shot. In fact, it didn’t even finish — a monochrome region in the lower left shows where it needed to add color next.

This isn’t technically the last image the rover sent, though. As the fatal dust storm closed in, Opportunity sent one last thumbnail for an image that never went out: its last glimpse of the sun.

After this the dust cloud so completely covered the sun that Opportunity was enveloped in pitch darkness, as its true last transmission showed:

All the sparkles and dots are just noise from the image sensor. It would have been complete dark — and for weeks on end, considering the planetary scale of the storm.

Opportunity had a hell of a good run, lasting and traveling many times what it was expected to and exceeding even the wildest hopes of the team. That right up until its final day it was capturing beautiful and valuable data is testament to the robustness and care with which it was engineered.

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