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Aerospace Blog

The Aerospace Blog is the place for conversation and discussion about aeronautics, astronautics, fixed-wing aircraft, future space travel, satellites, NASA, and much more.

Testing for the Next Generation of People in Space

Posted June 23, 2015 12:00 AM by IHS Engineering360 eNewsletter

If the U.S. plans to send any humans into space in the foreseeable future, it will have to rely on private companies like SpaceX. That eventuality took another step forward recently. As part of the NASA certification requirement, the company tested the fail-safe mechanism that will allow astronauts to abort their mission and descend safely to earth if a malfunction occurs on the launch pad or anywhere else before the ship reaches orbit. The abort engines, embedded into the sides of the vehicle, will also provide propulsion for an on-land landing. The company plans to launch its first astronauts into space in 2017.

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Lasers Lock on to Cosmic Debris

Posted June 18, 2015 12:00 AM by IHS Engineering360 eNewsletter

In the grand scheme of things, 3,000 tons of solid waste isn't a big deal - until you consider that's the amount of junk in orbit, posing problems and hazards for satellites and other space development activities. Cleanup proposals have mostly focused on debris retrieval, but international researchers led by the University of Riken, Japan, are advancing another option to test on the International Space Station. A powerful telescope with wide field-of-view will detect 1 cm-diameter fragments, deemed the most dangerous. A highly-efficient fiber optic-based laser then activates, vaporizing debris and causing orbital decay, followed by burnup in Earth's atmosphere.

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2 comments; last comment on 06/27/2015
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Can an Aircraft ‘Disappear’ in Flight?

Posted June 02, 2015 8:31 AM by CR4 Guest Author

This is a topic that has been widely discussed especially after the 'disappearance' of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. Many aircraft passengers have always flown in confidence knowing that they are using one of the safest and most sophisticated forms of transport, which even if not 100% safe, has some excellent safety measures. The disappearance of the aircraft was therefore a shocker, not because it is the first flight ever to go missing, but because it's not expected to happen in this modern era.

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Prior to MH370's disappearance, several other aircraft had gone missing. In most cases there was some explanation. Most of the disappearances happened long ago--before most of the sophisticated technology in use today. Other occurrences happened in the in famous Bermuda Triangle, a region that claims a number of disappearances without a trace and whose mystery has never been solved. Save for those instances, most of the other aircraft which were reported missing were found, save for cases like Varig's B707 and Angola Airline's B727, which are both linked to theft.

It's incredibly rare for an aircraft to disappear in the 21st century. To make this happen I think it would require expertise and planning; it could not happen by accident. To make an aircraft disappear in front of thousands of eyes is a fete that can only be achieved with some training.

To achieve this, one has to bypass a number of redundant systems. To get past the Air Traffic Control you first have to switch off the aircraft transponders, which requires some technical know-how, then plan a route that will take you through the blind spots of the primary radar. The primary radar has a limited coverage of 240km from land which makes avoiding them a possibility.

Eventually the aircraft must land and that is where the problem comes in. These are not the only systems that you must try very hard to evade, we also have the ACARS, Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System, whose main role is to send data to ground stations for analysis of the aircraft's systems giving an indication of any problem that appears in flight including tampering with the aircraft's electrical systems vis-a-vis the transponders. The ADS-B, Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast, is another location system which you must plan on how to evade. Although this is a futuristic technology that is expected to replace the radar, it is already in play in online flight-tracking sites.

The disappearance of the MH370 has so far proved that most of these systems can be bypassed leaving no traces. Although many disappeared aircraft are usually found crashed after a period of time, the MH370 is still a mystery to aviation experts and until it is solved, this remains to be the most successful disappearance of all time.

20 comments; last comment on 06/07/2015
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Aerospace Industry's Balancing Act: Maintaining a Modernized Fleet

Posted May 27, 2015 12:00 AM by IHS Engineering360 eNewsletter

Upgrade or replace? For many airlines, the dilemma of keeping the fleet as up-to-date as possible comes down to this question. A modernized fleet brings superior economics, technological advancements, and reduced emissions. But how much capital should be spent retrofitting new technology to aging aircraft? When does it make economic sense to "go all in" on a new fleet? Avionics Today examines critical influencers impacting these decisions.

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1 comments; last comment on 06/01/2015
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Implications of the Hacked Airliner

Posted May 20, 2015 9:54 AM by HUSH

I'm not sure if anyone around CR4 is a fan of the HBO comedy Silicon Valley, but it might be worth your time. The show has occasionally run afoul of true tech industry insiders because of programming inaccuracies (for example, 9 times F in hexadecimal is 87, not fleventy-five). However, the show is definitely funny and offers humorous insight into the Palo Alto-sunshine, granola-eating, tech-driven lifestyles that stereotypically pervade the Silicon Valley workforce.

Especially pertinent for this week's blog is a season 1 narrative where Jared, the operations manager, is offered a ride home in an autonomous car. Mid-transit, the car overrides his destination to a man-made island in the Pacific and, well…see for yourself in the clip attached at right. (Copyright HBO via YouTube, of course.)

Most media coverage on autonomous cars also includes mention of their work-in-progress flaws, especially how unproven the technology is. Of course that leads to the hacking narrative, which I feel was well-captured by an Engineering360 feature article from March. However, few articles have touched on the ability for other vehicles to be hacked. Trains have been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately; did you know they've been hacked too? Last year, a team hacked into a defunct spacecraft with NASA's permission.

And not only has a passenger airline's cyber security been penetrated, but a hacker was even able to control the plane. The individual, reported as Chris Roberts, is a security analyst One World Lab in Denver. On April 15, he posted to Twitter saying he had commandeered an engine on the plane he was flying in and took control of one of the engines. FBI agents met him when his plane touched down in Syracuse, N.Y., and agents found evidence he had tampered with the electronic seat box (found under many airplane seats) from a plane he had been on earlier in the day.

Apparently Roberts told the FBI he had hacked into airplanes 15-20 times previously, but never took him seriously enough. So on his flight in April, he caused just enough of a disturbance to highlight this huge security threat. Roberts said he was able to access the in-flight entertainment systems via hard-linking to the electronic seat box. With some default passwords and coding, he was able to monitor communications from the cockpit to the engines, and was also able to engage one of the engines in climb mode, which ultimately banked to plane to the side as it flew.

More than anything, this speaks to the immense negligence on several parties that led to this. Plane manufacturers need to institute better network architecture and hardware failsafes. Plane operators need to change passwords from defaults. Police agencies need to heed the caution of white hat hackers whenever their expertise is available. These are the lessons learned from more than 25 years of internet connectivity, and the fact they haven't been applied beyond the realm of computing is ridiculous.

I suppose the situation is similar to plane crashes vs. auto crashes. You're immensely more likely to get in the latter, but it seems most people worry about the former much more. Perhaps this incident will jumpstart awareness about universal cyber threats, not those for just computers and cars.

Roberts has been forbidden from doing press or providing more definitive details about how he hacked a plane. (That's never a good sign.) With any hope white hat hackers will become as prevalent as programmers, in Silicon Valley and in the skies.

30 comments; last comment on 05/24/2015
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Circling the Globe on Solar Power

Posted April 23, 2015 12:00 AM by IHS Engineering360 eNewsletter

Watching a night landing may not be very exciting, until one realizes the plane is solar-powered. The Solar Impulse 2 departed United Arab Emirates for Muscat, Oman, on March 9, 2015 to start its round-the-world journey. The successor to the smaller original Swiss-made Solar Impulse which logged a 26-hour flight in 2010, the new carbon-fiber aircraft travels at 50-100 km/hour (30-60 mph). The 72-m (236 ft) wings are fitted with more than 17,000 solar cells; lithium polymer batteries and four brushless motors round out the energy system. Follow the status of the flight, batteries, and solar cells in real time at Solar Impulse Cockpit.

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3 comments; last comment on 05/21/2015
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