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Engineering

The Future of Space Hacking

Published in Space


Photo _last one_ by shlomi yoav.pngToday is Yuri’s night where the world celebrates the first human spaceflight on April 12, 1961. Over the past 50 years we have had varied successes and advancements in our space technology. I believe that today we are on the brink of a new space revolution.

The 1960′s was the birth of modern computing. The transistor radically changed the size and cost of building digital computers. At the time, there were only a few computers in the world, they were extremely large, complicated, and you were fortunate if you could get any time on a machine. It was difficult for people to imagine the broad availability of computing. They were for precise calculations of unique problems.

Eniac Computer“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
-Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

Clearly that has dramatically altered from room-sized, multi-ton hand built machines to ubiquitous, handheld devices with more power and connectivity than was ever imagined. This access to nearly unlimited computing power revolutionized commerce, communications, and inspired entrepreneurship from garage hackers to multi-billion dollar companies that are built on ideas and code.

NASA PhoneSat

I believe that we will see the same trajectory of the space industry. Satellites have been large, expensive, and limited to a few institutions that could fund, operate and utilize them for unique problems. But that’s changing.

We’re beginning to see the advent of hobby space engineering. Startup companies inspired by the X-Prize foundation brought the attention to the public. But the revolution is quietly and methodically moving forward as the components and capability for rapidly developing and deploying satellites dramatically decreases.

NASA is testing launching off the shelf commercial Android mobile phones into orbit called Phonesat. You can now buy books on how to build your own satellite platforms from O’Reilly. UpdateAnd the government and agencies are hosting open events for the technology and science communities to collaborate on fast paced, iterative solutions such as the SpaceAppChallenge.

DIY Satellite Platforms Book Cover.jpgThere are still physical boundaries that make access to space difficult and expensive. When you need to throw something at 7.8 km per second, it is not going to be easy. Fortunately with the increase in commercial satellite activity there are opportunities to piggy back on other payloads. At $10-12k it is still expensive for a hobby. But consider that the first Apple Lisa computer cost $9,995, in 1985. That’s $22,600 in 2012 dollars.

There is a lot of childhood excitement and vision captured in our goals for the future of space. One day we will again walk on the Moon and likely on Mars and hopefully other bodies. In the meantime, I’m excited to see the new advent of an open and innovative space engineering culture.


Endeavor Shuttle Launch STS-134

Published in Space


STS-134 Flight patchI was fortunate enough to be selected to attend the #NASATweetup to see the last launch of Space Shuttle Endeavor – STS-134. Along with 150 other lucky selected people including even @dens, the Obamas, Gabi Giffords, Seth Green, Levar Burton and numerous inspiring astronauts we’ll be at the countdown clock with a front row seat the second to last launch of the entire shuttle program.

Endeavor is carrying the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the International Space Station that will perform some inspiring science on measuring dark matter radiation. There’s also a host of spiders, aggressive bacteria and other science experiments that will be run on the iSS. I’ll have more photos and stories up soon.


GOCE – the hidden life of a satellite

Published in Space


GOCE SpacecraftA number of years ago I worked for Astrium Space, a member of the ESA and EADS developing models and simulations of spacecraft attitude sensing and dynamics. “Attitude” meaning the orientation: roll, pitch, yaw, rates, sensors, and control algorithms.

Specifically, I worked on a revolutionary new Drag-Free and Attitude Control Subsystem, DFACS, that performs autonomous determination and control of the spacecraft’s attitude pointing, angular movements and linear and angular accelerations. You can download an article describing the system that was used for HYPER .

It was at this time, living and traveling extensively through Europe on short trips, constantly connected with a mobile phone, a cheap GPS receiver, and blogging and photo sharing that you could see the convergence and emergence of Where2.0. Fortunately the Wayback machine has my old blog “An American Engineer in Germany” recorded for posterity.

In addition, I was quite frustrated with the satellite industry. The politics and budgets that inexplicably cancel projects years, and millions of dollars/euros – or even when physics gives you a swift kick and dooms your satellite to a 30-minute flight before immediately de-orbiting. Not a rewarding way to end 10 years of hard work.

At Astrium, I was a member of the GOCE satellite team. The goal of GOCE, Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer, was to utilize a very high precision gradiometer in order to measure the magnetic characteristics of the Earth. The benefit is a highly detailed gravitational model of the Earth’s geoide which can then inform ocean circulation and sea-level models, orbital predictions, space-time drag, and more. Since the force of gravity falls off at a cubic rate inverse square from the distance to the mass, GOCE must fly at a relatively very low altitude. It therefore uses continuous ion thrusters to compensate for atmospheric drag, and another reason the DFACS is so important.

About 6 months after leaving Astrium, I had been told that the project was shelved, and never wondered about it.

Then surprisingly, while at the UNGIWG workshop in Rome last February, a director of UNOSAT told me that GOCE was in fact completed and being boxed up for shipment to the launch site! Again I didn’t track it until a couple of weeks ago, twitter showed it’s power again and Astronautics pointed out that GOCE was launching!

On March 17, GOCE launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Northern Russia. GOCE is the first of ESA’s Core Missions of the Earth Explorer programme – others including atmospheric dynamics, ice sheet thickness measurement, radiative balance, and ocean salinity.

Gravitational Constituents of g

So while the space industry can be quite frustrating, it is undeniably exciting to see something you helped build hurtling around the Earth at approximately 7,700 meters per second just 170 miles above us. GOCE is even using GPS to track its own position in space.


Happy Space Race Day!

Published in Space


In deference to the title of this blog, my consulting company, and my profession – Happy Space Race Day! Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik launch – proving that we could achieve at least Low-Earth Orbit (and that it wasn’t full of scary space monsters)

Of course, besides very brief forays to nearby celestial bodies we have relegated ourselves to primary the same orbit we reached 50 years ago.

Here’s to hoping we have the vision and execution to go back to deeper space – both for knowledge and to spread ourselves into more than one basket. :)


How high?

Published in Engineering, Neogeography


Ever need to know the altitude at a given location on the Earth?

Well, there are several free resources to the rescue:

EarthTools has a webservice that covers the US and Europe using the SRTM data. Given a latitude/longitude it returns the height above sea-level in feet and meters. (found from Quakr Viewr)

Geonames offers two services using the SRTM data, and also the GTOPO30 from the USGS. Geonames gets bonus points for also returning the results in JSON. Geonames also uses a larger dataset – lands within 60 degrees north and 56 degrees south.

As “points” become rather ubiquitous among neogeographers/web-mappers, they’re moving into more complex geometries and especially 3D space. Having access to data means it is very easy to tie into services and applications. For example, making a hiking profile given just 2-d ground waypoints.

You can download the data yourself to do whatever you want with it. Perhaps make yourself a very cool, high-res 3D model of the earth.

It’s not clear how accurate the data is. The reports seem to say within 9m vertical accuracy. But I assume this is measuring the “surface” that the Shuttle saw – so that would include roof tops. But with smoothing/filtering, would this be washed out to represent an average ‘ground height’?