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Old 04 February 2020, 22:04   #1
E-Penguin
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Let's go to space - less than a week until launch

As some of you already know, my day job is flying interplanetary spacecraft for the European Space Agency. Specifically at the moment, Solar Orbiter, which launches next Monday at 5am German time.

I imagine a few people here will have interests in space / technology, so I thought I'd start a thread. I don't know whether I can promise to answer all questions (I have to follow the rules when it comes to communications) but I'll do what I can.

To start off with, the spacecraft platform is roughly as powerful as a mildly accelerated A1200 with 8Mb RAM. This is a leap over the previous generation of probes like Mars Express, which is more like a stock A500. The instruments are generally more powerful though, especially ones doing on-board data reduction. We get through a lot of FPGAs
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Old 04 February 2020, 23:05   #2
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Originally Posted by E-Penguin View Post
To start off with, the spacecraft platform is roughly as powerful as a mildly accelerated A1200 with 8Mb RAM. This is a leap over the previous generation of probes like Mars Express, which is more like a stock A500. The instruments are generally more powerful though, especially ones doing on-board data reduction. We get through a lot of FPGAs
Cool. What CPU does it run? ARM, 68060? What about the OS? BSD, MINIX?

Good luck next week and will I be able to see anything from New Zealand?
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Old 04 February 2020, 23:34   #3
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Platform processor is an ERC32, which is a space qualified SPARC V7 basically. The instruments have a variety of things but LEON IP cores running on FPGAs are the most common.

We use RTEMS as the basis for the platform software, lord only knows what the instruments use - depends on the heritage. Most are updates of things flown previously on other missions. We’re like a flying retro computing museum in some ways

Launch is from Florida straight into an inwards escape trajectory, you’ll not see much without a radio telescope.
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Old 05 February 2020, 14:34   #4
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Pics of it being hoisted on top of the rocket. Tomorrow we have the "dress rehearsal" for launch, the last time we'll talk to the spacecraft before launch day.

https://images.nasa.gov/search-resul...0&yearEnd=2020
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Old 05 February 2020, 15:47   #5
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the previous probes like Mars Express
I watched a 4''30' long video crafted with the huge amount of HQ pictures that orbiting satellite took of Mars' surface since winter 2003, pretty amazing . Here it is :


[ Show youtube player ]

Last edited by SquawkBox; 05 February 2020 at 17:36.
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Old 05 February 2020, 17:03   #6
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Mars Express, my previous mission. That's the HRSC camera, the first 3d camera on a Mars orbiter. The pictures look a bit computer-generated due to the processing they do but they are actually real.

There's another camera on that orbiter, originally to watch the release of Beagle2, but now the guys use it to capture little shots and videos of the planet when opportunities arise. We put the photos straight up onto the web, probably the closest thing there is to a live video feed of Mars. I wrote some of the picture-processing toolchain. The guy who took over that role from me also owns an Amiga 500 and uses a C64 as a keyboard, funnily enough.

Cool "swooping over the Martain surface" video here:
https://sci.esa.int/web/mars-express...-mars-with-vmc
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Old 05 February 2020, 20:05   #7
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That is really interesting... thank you for sharing.

Wonder what reason are there to run museum in space...
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Old 05 February 2020, 20:45   #8
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Why do we use old tech? Two reasons - it takes time to space-qualify hardware (materials act differently in space so special processes and materials need to be developed), and flight heritage. Nobody wants to be the first to try, in case it doesn't work, so reusing or evolving a previously flow solution reduces risk. Solar Orbiter is costing €1.5 billion, it would be unfortunate if it didn't work.

"new space" companies doing Nanosats, cheap to build and launch, are leading the way in proving new technologies because they have a rapid turnaround. Things move much more slowly in scientific missions.
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Old 05 February 2020, 22:26   #9
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materials act differently in space
I'd interested if you can provide a few examples. No need to get too technical (unless you want to). Are the differences marginal (ie slower or faster than on Earth) or major (stuff not working at all or completely differently).
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Old 05 February 2020, 23:12   #10
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There are several things to consider, mostly significant are radiation and environmental extremes.

Radiation affects things either by flipping bits at random or basically shredding delicate electronics. We deal with this by having error correction bits in memory and "scrubbing", constantly reading, correcting and writing back the data. Also we have redundancy on anything critical. As a spacecraft operator, we have to plan to expect "single event upsets" and deal with the consequences. This is my area.

In terms of materials, space is both very hot and very cold. Only radiative cooling, no convection (no air) and negligible conduction (again, vacuum). We put a lot of effort into making sure heaters heat the cold things and radiators cool the hot things. Spacecraft attitude, coatings (paint), covering (blankets) all play a part. With solar orbiter in particular we will have a very hot front on the heat shield (600°c) and a very cold instrument boom (-200°c), within a couple of metres. That puts a lot of stress on the structure, especially important to optical units (focal lengths change). So we take things slowly to let things stabilise, then do our best to stay that way.

Lastly, sometimes things just go weird in space. Lasers darken, as the optical surfaces are blasted off and no atmosphere to clear them. Tin grows whiskers and shorts out connections. Whole spacecraft have been lost that way
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galaxy_IV
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Old 05 February 2020, 23:17   #11
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Damn, can you have a more awesome job? I don't think so.
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Old 05 February 2020, 23:18   #12
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Thanks for the detailed answer .
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Old 05 February 2020, 23:42   #13
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Damn, can you have a more awesome job? I don't think so.
I'm lucky enough to get paid for doing something I really enjoy.
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Old 06 February 2020, 17:54   #14
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Halfway through the launch dress rehearsal. So far, I've done a binary diff between software images and found exactly nothing interesting. Another 4 hours to go. Sometimes space isn't that glamorous
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Old 06 February 2020, 20:07   #15
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Any time now?

Thank you for updates!
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Old 09 February 2020, 16:40   #16
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Today is the big day. I go on shift a few hours before launch. The cataclysmic storm of Doom currently thrashing Germany is meant to peak just around lift-off. Should be dramatic! (weather in Florida is fine though)
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Old 10 February 2020, 17:57   #17
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We're in Spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace! I've just sent my first commands to it in flight. Very pleased with how it's all going. Did anybody watch the launch on the news?
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Old 19 February 2020, 17:44   #18
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So do you play any space-y videogames at home? Buzz Aldrin, Elite, No Man's Sky, Kerbal etc?

I don't suppose somebody like me, who's not too bad at Gravitar and Lunar Lander + clones could apply for a job there?
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Old 19 February 2020, 20:59   #19
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I certainly learnt a lot from kerbal space program, about orbits and stuff (that's not my area so I found it enlightening). I don't often get time to play games at the moment but I have a soft spot for Frontier: Elite 2.

We don't (can't!) control spacecraft manually, especially in interplanetary. The distance is too great and the time delay is too long. It's something like 15s already (one way) and we're at +4m km. Which is nothing compared to Voyager 2 (17 hours one way!) but is still irritating. We'll get up to 16 minutes one-way delay, at furthest distance.

I've often thought about writing a game based on how we really fly spacecraft but it would be a bit dull. Lots of screens of numbers.
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Old 19 February 2020, 22:48   #20
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I didn't watch it but I was reading about it on the day, excellent stuff, congratulations!

And just to add to the advantages of using old tech in space, a couple of things I read over the years. Correct me if I'm wrong though

- Older (or rather, less dense) ICs are manufactured with larger fab processes. Larger conductors and components within a chip are less susceptible to corruption from cosmic rays than smaller parts are. So while random bit-flipping is to be expected, it will happen more often per byte in a 1GB RAM chip than a 1MB one for example.

- You simply don't need new tech. There might be a lot of data flowing here and there, but it's not like you need to render 5 million textured polygons/second, decode 4K video on the fly or do fancy web page rendering. So why have more processing power and storage that would never get used, when older, more mature tech will do it just fine?
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