Postcards from the Bleeding Edge
Saturday, August 02, 2008

  Falcon 1 launch soon with the Trailblazer sat

The last major software project I worked on was Spacedev's Trailblazer satellite bus. It wasn't called that then, it was a part of the much more elaborate DSE, and later, broken out and renamed/refocused as the MMB-100, and now, renamed and refocused once again, to be Trailblazer.

Although I spent over a year (part time) supporting the Spacedev team, I never bothered putting the project on my resume as Trailblazer was first canceled about a year ago, and I left to go around the world at about the same time.

I am also under a pair of non-disclosure agreements... but, today, I can't help but write a little about the project... Imagine my surprise when I learned early last month that they'd pulled it out of mothballs and it was actually going to fly!??

Trailblazer had a long and twisted development history, filled with interesting things that I can't talk about due to those pesky NDAs. I can only recap what's in the public domain already: it's got one of the most powerful computers ever flown on board - the principal processor runs Linux - it has all sorts of standard busses for the connection of peripherals, like RS-422, USB and ethernet - and it costs an estimated 10 m dollars - cheap as such things go.

Trailblazer is NOT a satellite except in the broader senses of the term. More correctly, Trailblazer is an in-orbit test of a satellite bus - a smart interconnect for a wide range of potential USB, RS-422, and ethernet based peripherals - on a communications platform that can talk to earth. What happens when these designed-for-earth interfaces are exposed to vacuum, g forces, and radiation is what is under test.

Just as Spacex is trying to cut costs for access to space with their Falcon series of rockets, a standard set of busses like those in Spacedev's Trailblazer could cut costs for satellite development by a huge factor, opening up many new possibilities for smaller organizations to be able to loft new instruments and spacecraft, cheaper.

There's all sorts of geeky details to this enabling concept that I hope Spacedev will reveal with some upcoming papers. A paper about their use of TCP/ip in the system was published in the 2006 smallsat conference and another in the 2008 IEEE Aerospace but I haven't been able to find copies online (yet).

Me, I went to bed every night with the refrain of an old filk song in my head - "You can build a spaceship from the things you find at home", because you could attach any of zillions of devices that talk over USB or ethernet and send them into space with a minimal amount of testing. Need a camera? An old webcam will do... heck, plug in 3 if you want - need GPS? go for garmin... etc.

So theoretically the Falcon 1 rocket that Trailblazer is on launches Saturday. (webcast here) If it achieves orbit, and Trailblazer achieves start and separation... it's cleared by the FCC for operations for the next 6 months, and will hopefully be in orbit for over 18 months before it falls back to earth.

I have a much larger article on my musings about all that it takes to put a satellite in orbit - all the people involved - etc - that I just can't put any love into until after a successful launch. I tried to write, once upon a time, about what a launch feels like, here.

Update: Spacex has officially announced that they are shooting for today, August 2nd, for the launch. More details here. Also onboard is Nanosail-D.

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David Täht writes about politics, space, copyright, the internet, audio software, operating systems and surfing.


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