Space Technology – #36

Space requires new technologies. Much like the space race of the 1950s, engineers are feverishly working to gain a competitive advantage. Mark Lombardi sits down to explore rad hardening, thermal vacuum chambers, space mining, CubeSats, and battery technology.

Hosted by Daniel Bogdanoff and Mike Hoffman, EEs Talk Tech is a twice-monthly engineering podcast discussing tech trends and industry news from an electrical engineer’s perspective.

Space requires new technologies. Much like the space race of the 1950s, engineers are feverishly working to gain a competitive advantage. Mark Lombardi sits down to explore rad hardening, thermal vacuum chambers, space mining, CubeSats, and battery technology.


Mark Lombardi – 25 years at HP/Agilent/Keysight. He worked for RT logic for a few years, where he got into space.

2:00 – Your odds of survival getting to space are better than getting to the top of Everest.

2:30 – Space mining from the Asteroid belt has the potential to create the worlds first trillionaire.

3:20 – We need to establish manufacturing in space. For example, what if you manufactured satellites on the moon instead of on earth?

4:00 – The main driver is price-per-pound

6:10 – The Space Force – it sounds a little silly at first but is very reasonable when you take a closer look.

7:45 – How do you test objects bound for space?

8:30 – Space is transitioning from government-only to commercial. Businesses are starting to explore how to add value to society and make a profit from space.

9:15 – Phased arrays, reusable rockets, LEO satellites are all changing space technology.

10:00 – Low earth orbit satellites have much lower delay. Geosynchronous satellites have a 250 ms propagation delay.

This has interesting implications for 5G – that 250 ms latency is too long for 5G requirements. So, LEO satellites are what will be used.

12:00 – Using LEO satellites will be deployed in force instead of as singles, as mentioned in the Weather Cubesat podcast.

13:45 – Ghana launched their own satellite, which is a huge step. They eventually won’t be dependent on others for their space access. And, they can do specialized things for reasonable prices.

15:00 – Announcements – we haven’t podcasted in a long time, sorry! We are switching to 1x per month

16:45 – Radiation hardening for electronics, sometimes called electronics hardening. Historically, you had to plan for a long life in a satellite. Now, you don’t have to.

17:30 – It’s also hard to get a rad hardened cutting-edge technology.

18:00 – LEO satellites get less radiation, so it’s less of a problem. And, since they are cheaper, you can build in an expected mortality rate.

19:00 – You can also rev hardware faster, allowing you to use newer technology. Think about imagers, the technology has moved a long way in seven years.

19:55 – Space is cold. Space is a vacuum. So, to test our gear you have to reproduce that on earth. To do that, we use special chambers.

20:50 – Thermal vacuum chambers (T vac) are used to test space objects. Automotive parts are actually very resilient to temperature changes and can be leveraged into space designs.

21:30 – What happens to electronics in space? The vacuum is a bigger challenge than the temperature changes.

23:30 – To get more bandwidth, we have to increase frequency. This leads to attenuation in the air and in cables. Some designers are switching to waveguides.

25:00 – With modular test equipment, you could potentially have test gear that can survive in space.

27:00 – What is the current and projected size of the space industry?

28:10 – What batteries are used in space? What factors into battery decisions? – Lithium ion batteries work well in space, and are used when we can charge them with solar energy.

28:40 – Deep space exploration uses all sorts of obscure battery technology.

29:10 – Electronic propulsion

30:05 – Over 150V, things get interesting. The breakdown voltage is different in space than it is on earth. So, designers have to be very careful.

Weather CubeSats – #30

We have surprisingly little knowledge of weather. When specifically does a cloud rain? How do these clouds form? We don’t have good answers to these questions. Getting those answers is an electrical engineering problem – one that a handful of professors and NASA are solving with CubeSats.

Historically, we’ve used large satellites and ground-based systems to track weather patterns, but CubeSat arrays are becoming a viable option. In this episode, Daniel Bogdanoff sits down with the leading researchers in this area to hear about the challenges and advancements being made in this area.

We have surprisingly little knowledge of weather. When specifically does a cloud rain? How do these clouds form? We don’t have good answers to these questions. Getting those answers is an electrical engineering problem – one that a handful of professors and NASA are solving with CubeSats.

Historically, we’ve used large satellites and ground-based systems to track weather patterns, but CubeSat arrays are becoming a viable option. In this episode, Daniel Bogdanoff sits down with the leading researchers in this area to hear about the challenges and advancements being made in this area.


Charles Norton – JPL Engineering and Science Directorate POC
Joel T Johnson – ECE Department Chair and Professor at The Ohio State University
Christopher Ball – Research Scientist at The Ohio State University
Dr. V. Chandrasekar (Chandra) – ECE Professor at Colorado State University
Eva Peral – Radar Digital Systems Group Supervisor at JPL



Space is changing. Big, expensive satellites used to be our only option. But, as you’ve probably heard on this podcast, when it comes to technology the world is always shrinking – and satellites are no exception. And that’s what we’re exploring today, specifically, the way cubesats (miniature satellites) are revolutionizing the way we look at earth’s weather.

Hi, my name is Daniel Bogdanoff, and welcome to EEs Talk Tech. In our last episode, I brought you all along with me to Wallops flight facility in Virginia for a rocket launch. It was an eye-opening experience for me, and I wanted to cover more than was reasonable for a single episode. So today, we’re blending the style of last episode and our standard interview-style podcast. I sat down with some EE professors from Ohio State University and Colorado State University to talk about their cube sat projects – all of which monitor weather using radiometers or radar and are pretty high tech.

I also apologize in advance for the background noise during the interviews, I’ve done the best I can to minimize the noise and voiceover parts I feel are hard to hear. I’ve also used clips from their NASA TV presentations wherever possible.

Let’s get started, and hear a little bit about the advantages of CubeSats from Charles Norton.

Advantages of CubeSats [1:05]

Cubesats are nice not just because they’re cheaper and smaller. Thanks to the miniaturization of new technologies in both their physical size and their power consumption, we can deploy more systems, more rapidly, and at a lower cost. They also require smaller teams to develop and operate, and can even have higher measurement accuracy than existing assets.

CubeRRT [3:51]

At its core, CubeRRT is all about making radiometry measurements better by processing out man made emissions – leaving only the earth’s natural emissions.

From NASA: “Microwave radiometers provide important data for Earth science investigations, such as soil moisture, atmospheric water vapor, sea surface temperature and sea surface winds. Man-made radiofrequency interference (RFI) reduces the accuracy of microwave radiometer data, thus the CubeSat Radiometer Radio Frequency Interference Technology Validation (CubeRRT) mission demonstrates technologies to detect and remove these unwanted RFI signals. Successful completion of the CubeRRT mission demonstrates that RFI processing is feasible in space, high volumes of data may be processed aboard a satellite, and that future satellite-based radiometers may utilize RFI mitigation.”

TEMPEST-D [8:00]

Instead of having a big satellite sitting in geosynchronous orbit, an array of CubeSats can be put in orbit such that they each pass over the same spot at set intervals. With some careful calibration, differences in the measurement equipment gets normalized out and they get good weather data.

From JPL: “TEMPEST-D is a technology demonstration mission to enable millimeter wave radiometer technologies on a low-cost, short development schedule. The mission … reduces the risk, cost, and development duration for a future TEMPEST mission, which would provide the first ever temporal observations of cloud and precipitation processes on a global scale.  For TEMPEST-D, JPL developed a mm-wave radiometer payload that operates at five channels from 89 to 182 GHz and fits in a 4U volume within the 6U CubeSat.”

RainCube [11:47] & the Origami Antenna

From JPL: “RainCube (Radar in a CubeSat) is a technology demonstration mission to enable Ka-band precipitation radar technologies on a low-cost, quick-turnaround platform. RainCube developed a 35.75 GHz radar payload to operate within the 6U CubeSat form factor. This mission will validate a new architecture for Ka-band radars and an ultra-compact lightweight deployable Ka-band antenna in a space environment to raise the technology readiness level (TRL) of the radar and antenna from 4 to 7 within the three year life of the program. RainCube will also demonstrate the feasibility of a radar payload on a CubeSat platform.”

Foldable Antenna [12:20]

1.5U volume, Ka-band 35.75 GHz RADAR antenna.

Why Measure Weather from Space? [15:00]

These are just a few of the cubesat projects that went up on the OA9 rocket launch. To hear more about that, check out EEs Talk Tech electrical engineering podcast episode #29 – The Long Road to Space.


The Long Road to Space – #29

I went for a rocket launch, and stayed for the science. Have you ever wondered what it actually takes to get a rocket into space? And why we go there at all?

I went for a rocket launch, and stayed for the science. Have you ever wondered what it actually takes to get a rocket into space? And why we go there at all? I hadn’t. Come with me on a behind the scenes tour of Wallops Flight Facility. Space balloons, sounding rockets, and a bonafide rocket launch!


Thank you again to Laurie Bonneau, John Mitchell, and John Huntington, NASA, and Orbital ATK/Northrup Grumman for letting me use your amazing photos!

Check out Laurie B’s Flickr page here

John M’s Flickr page here

and John Huntington’s coverage of the launch.

Keysight oscilloscope probe promotion here.


0:00 – Getting to Wallops Flight Facility
4:40 – “What’s on Board” Science Briefings
8:03 – CubeSats
9:32 – Concrete in Space?
11:10 – Cold Atom Laboratory and Bose Einstein Condensates

15:09 – Launch Pad 0A Visit

15:50 – Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF)

19:29 – Range Control Center

21:23 – Space Balloons

24:25 – Sounding Rocket Machine Shop and Test Lab

28:53 – Astronaut Kay Hire

31:04 – OA9 rocket launch day!


On the Virginia coast, hours away from any major airport, you’ll find what appears to be a sleepy little town. It’s not a tourist town or a beach town, that’s further down the road. Driving through, you’ll see an abandoned roller rink and billboards for opioid abuse programs, a retro country radio station, and the seafood restaurant in the next town over. There’s a single diner is nestled in a gas station, right across the street from a house with a half dozen American flags and a huge “support our troops” sign in the front yard.

But when you drive a little further, you might start to wonder if there’s more to this town than meets the eye. Down the road from the diner is the smallest Lockheed Martin building I’ve ever seen. Drive a minute longer, and the forest clears.

Immediately, you know there’s more to this town.

Your eyes are first drawn to giant satellite communication antennas, and then to radar installations and what look to be airplane hangers emblazoned with the NASA logo. Of course, all of this is surrounded by fences with stern warnings for trespassers and loiterers – keeping gawkers at bay, leaving them to wonder what’s going on in there.

Thanks to you, who follow us on YouTube and the EEs Talk Tech podcast, I wasn’t left to wonder. And now, neither are you.

NASA granted me and select others special access to tour the facilities.

So, what is this place?

Turns out, it’s a lot of things.

The most exciting role of this place, for me anyways, is that it’s the site of Antares rocket launches.

Twice per year, this sleepy, backwoods town wakes up with a start. The world’s top engineers, scientists, and researchers flock to the town. Wide-eyed high school students working the counter at the lone diner try desperately to feed a line of people that stretches out the door. The hotels in the area are completely booked.

Because this weekend, we’re going to space.

Have you ever wondered what makes a place like this tick? There’s an entire economy and ecosystem dedicated to keeping it afloat.

I always thought the rocketry aspect was the main attraction, but never gave much thought to the actual point of it all. Space is pretty cool, but what does humanity actually gain by getting there?

That’s what we’re going to look at today. We’re going to explore the science. Go past those warning-ridden fences. Take a look at some of the projects that get a lot of press, and some that are less glamorous. Then we’re going to look at how those projects get deployed. And yes, that includes a rocket launch. Here we go.

Day 1. It’s Friday, May 18th. For me, it means travel day. One of the reasons Wallops Flight Facility is a great location is that there’s, quote “virtually unimpeded airspace.” For visitors, this means you have to drive from your major airport of choice for at least a couple hours. So, it’s gonna be a long day. I figure I’ll leave home around 7 AM and arrive at my hotel roughly 16 hours later.

It’s a long day for domestic travel, but what’s a guy to do? As the plane doors close at the gate in Denver, I find out the launch has been delayed 24 hours for additional spacecraft inspections. It’s too late to get off the plane, so I shrug, text my wife that I’m going to be another day on the road, and mentally score one point for fate. Fate 1, Daniel 0. From what I hear, though, delayed launches are just part of the process. No one wants a failed launch.

When I land in DC it’s raining pretty hard, and I decide I don’t really want to cram in a few hours of driving. So I scramble to re-arrange lodging, and catch a movie before bed. Take that, fate.

Day 2. Saturday. I drive from DC to the coast, and start to wonder if I’m really in the right place. I check my phone map, and it says I’m on track. Once the woods clear and I see the com arrays and the hangers with the NASA logo, I know I’m in the right place. After showing a couple forms of ID to an armed federal agent, I get my pass and am ushered into the day’s event – the “what’s on board” mission briefing.

This is when I start to think about more than just the rocketry. Scientists from around the country show off their experiments, which have been loaded into the Cygnus spacecraft, attached to the Antares rocket, and are about to be delivered to the ISS. They’re being delivered on the OA-9 cargo mission, which is why I’m in town. OA9 is completely run by Orbital ATK. Orbital ATK is one of the two commercial companies with NASA launch contracts. The other is SpaceX. But, don’t compare them to Space X, it’s a bit of a touchy subject around here.

Back to the experiments – which NASA likes to call “investigations.” Technically, an experiment’s goal is to prove or disprove a hypothesis, and an investigation is more about gathering data. Potayto potahto.

There are over a thousand kilograms of investigations headed to the ISS this weekend. Access to space gives scientists and engineers the ability to test things that simply aren’t possible on earth. There’s the height advantage – we can look at more of the earth at once without the curvature getting in the way. There’s the obstruction advantage – we can see things without the earth’s atmosphere getting in the way. And there’s the gravity advantage – namely, we can sustain a microgravity environment for more than a dozen seconds.

The investigations being presented also showed me the breadth and diversity of investigations taking place in space. To give you a taste, here are my personal favorites that are a part of this mission. Full disclosure, I’ll likely be too casual with some of these terms, so feel free to correct me in the YouTube comments or at EEs Talk

There’s a DNA/RNA sequencing kit designed to find unknown microbes on the international space station. It’s called “Biomolecule Extraction and Sequencing Technology” investigation, or “BEST” for short. In my opinion, this is the best acronym.

They can find most of the bugs on the ISS with their current, culture-based processes, but this kit will allow them to find other microbes. It will also let them track mutations of known microbes – apparently spaceflight causes genetic, epigenetic, and transcriptomic changes.

There’s also a sextant for navigation practice, and some medical tools to monitor astronaut’s eyesight. Apparently long term spaceflight messes with people’s eyes. You know, they’ve seen things…

There’s a liquid separation tool that uses capillary forces to separate flowing liquids. Normally, you’d have to let liquids settle (think oil – vinegar salad dressing), but this does it while liquids flow. Speaking of salad dressing, there’s an enhanced vegetable grower on board, too.

Astronauts will record the flavor and texture of the plants, and their results will be compared to a control sample in Houston. Apparently, even salad is an investigation in space.

Another interesting part of the payload is an array of CubeSats – dubbed “CubeRRT”-  aimed at measuring the earth’s RF emissions to mitigate environmental noise.  Microwave Radiometers, a tool used to gather environmental data like seawater salinity, temperature, and humidity are extremely sensitive to the emissions. Because of earth noise and increased spectrum use, the radiometer measurements are becoming noisier and noisier – and will possibly become unusable in the not-to-distant future. The goal of these cubesats is to monitor these environmental factors and create a system to remove noise in real-time. When I sat down with the professors responsible for the program, they mentioned that the emissivity of water was a deciding factor in earth noise. Sensitivity to water vapor peaks around 24 GHz, which is right in the middle of the allocated spectrum for these tools. Vegetation and soil moisture also play a role. So, CubeRRT will be able to measure earth-noise from 6 GHz to 40 GHz. If you want to hear more about this topic, I sat down for an interview with this team that will be a future podcast – assuming my recording worked out.

There was also a concrete project – concrete formation is a pretty well defined terrestrial science, but it’s not well defined in a microgravity environment. Astronauts will mix concrete, let it set, and send it earthward for analysis. The findings of this project are the first stages of exploring construction options for the moon and mars. Can you use Martian soil to make concrete? We’ll see.

Finally, the coldest known spot in the universe will soon be the ISS. Led by Jet Propulsion Laboratories, five different research teams will share time on this project – the Cold Atom Laboratory which is designed to cool gas particles to “like one-tenth of a billion of a degree above absolute zero.” (Robert Shotwell). One team, led by Nobel prize winning physicist Eric Cornell, will study Bose Einstein condensates.

This was a new thing to me, so I did a little digging. A Bose Einstein condensate is a quantum state theorized by Bose and Einstein, and realized in 1995 by the same Dr. Eric Cornell we were just speaking of. Essentially, if you super cool a gas – like super-duper cool it – the atoms start to increase in size and behave as waves. Eventually, the size of these wave-atoms becomes larger than the average distance between wave-particles – meaning they’ll begin to interact. At a certain point, all of the wave-particles (known as Bosons) settle in the same quantum state and form one big, happy quantum wave, known as a Bose-Einstein condensate.

The problem with this, is that they’re really, really hard to create. One of the reasons for this is gravity. Hence, the Cold Atom Lab. The micro-gravity environment of the space station will allow Dr. Cornell and his associates to reach temperatures colder than that of earth. All without needing time from astronauts. Pretty cool!

Sorry, couldn’t resist.

Clearly, there’s a huge breadth of projects invested in this launch.

After the briefing, its back to the hotel to get some work done – it is a workday after all. The day concludes with a dinner with some of the other attendees. Because, what engineer doesn’t love a meal with a bunch of complete strangers?

In a public setting, I almost always feel like the biggest geek in the room. Sometimes that’s fun, most of the time it’s not – I’m sure a lot of you can relate. But this was different. There’s something about being a room full of other self-proclaimed space geeks that really made me feel at home.

After a little too much of the good luck ice cream that Orbital ATK orders from a local shop – it’s chocolate with chili powder and cinnamon, which is surprisingly ok – it’s time to rest up for day 2.

Day 2 starts at 8AM. That’s not bad unless you factor in a couple hour time change for me. I quickly wake up, though, as we all hop on a bus to go out visit the rocket. Naturally, we aren’t able to go right up to it, but we’re pretty darn close. Closer than you’d normally get to a fully-primed rocket, anyways. “Surreal” is a term thrown around a lot by launch 1st timers like me, and though it’s cliché, it’s probably the best word to describe the feeling. It reminds me a bit of my childhood, when I could get a glimpse of the Matterhorn at Disneyland while driving to Grandma’s house on the 5. There’s this academic knowledge of a whole group of people living in their little complex, separated world, and the sight of the monument is just the surface of it.

After 15 minutes of staring, it’s time to head over to what becomes my favorite stop of the tour – the horizontal integration facility, also known as the HIF.

We got to get up close and personal with OA10, the next launch scheduled for a fall launch. Naturally, it’s only partially assembled. The HIF is the place that takes all the pieces and parts from around the world and connects them into one cohesive vehicle. Due to the presence of “active ordinance” and “export controlled technology,” all wireless devices had to be left outside and our picture taking was limited. So, I can’t show you the advanced piping and routing that is the backbone of a rocket engine, but think copper-shiny-jet-engine-plumbing on steroids.

I was surprised by how much coordination was involved in the rocket and assembly.

Again, it was fascinating to me to see so many teams working on so many discrete, but integrated projects. And to watch it all come together in this sleepy backwoods town feels a bit ironic.

A quick pit stop for a press conference, and it’s off to the Range Control Center.

The RCC acts as a sort of mission control for launches and other on-site missions. This is where I start to see the work of yet another set of behind-the-scenes teams. Meteorologists to check winds and weather, radar controls to monitor air & boat traffic (the previous launch got scrubbed by a small boat that came too close), technical teams to handle copious amounts of real-time data and processing, specialists manning custom rocket system monitoring software, and more. The ability to photograph any of this was again limited, but it looked something like the systems you’d see bad guys working on in a James Bond dam-hostage situation.

Each of these teams come together and repeatedly rehearse each launch under varying circumstances and environments so that they’re ready to handle any surprises that could pop up on launch day. It’s humbling to think that each of these workstations essentially represents a mission-critical team.


We hop back on the buses and head over to the space balloon research center.


Space balloons sound a bit counterintuitive, after all, how can a balloon float if there’s no atmosphere? Well, they go up to 120,000 feet – so not really into space which more-or-less starts around 100 km. It’s called near space. These balloons are described by Gabe Garde, Mission Operations Manager for the balloon program, as Football field-sized, ultra-sonically heat-welded trashbags. Really. They’re huge .2-.8 mil thick plastic bags that can stay in the sky for weeks or months. That’s about the thickness of a sandwich bag, but the plastic is a little sturdier. Sometimes referred to as the B-line to space, balloons are the quickest and most cost efficient route to near space.

They can also be launched from nearly anywhere on the globe. Gabe, for example, has spent a collective year living in Antarctica for balloon missions. Why Antarctica?

Remember when we found the giant hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica? Space balloons were the vehicle for those measurement tools. The generally-flat geometry of the universe was also confirmed by a balloon-borne investigation.

These balloons have recently been with a giant gimbal, known as the “Wallops arc second pointer”

We then float out of the balloon research center and file into a giant machine shop – part of the Sounding Rocket Lab, where we meet this fine fellow. [6420]



Nose cone that launches off the rocket to expose scientific equipment, coated with a spray-on silicon as a heat-deterrent

One of the benefits of sounding rockets is the possibility for extremely quick turnaround times. How fast?

9 years! That makes me feel better about the timing of some of my projects.

There are also some electrical test rooms with racks full of equipment and the wrong-colored oscilloscopes, in my opinion anyways. I did a little probing into what electronics they’re using, but didn’t get much info beyond the fact that the sounding rockets use an RS-485 communications bus. I’ll have to bug them a little more next time.

After a couple more technical presentations, we have a little chat with Astronaut Kay Hire. She talks through a lot of the processes, activities, and emotions astronauts go through – they don’t deviate much from what you’ll find in a standard astronaut interview. But, there was a moment that stood out.

This seems like a pretty obvious statement, but being surrounded by the teams of people working on slivers of the rocket & surrounding projects really drives this point home.

She also talked a little bit about navigating around space junk and debris:


After all, the launch already got pushed back a day because they needed to run more tests. So, with our official tour over for the day, we head out to get tacos (which are pretty good by East-coast standards), and worry about Kay’s parting words. There’s also so debate about whether or not it’s worth pulling an all-nighter into day 3.

Why pull an all-nighter? Day 3 starts at 1:30 AM. I’m not in the all-nighter camp – I had my share in college, so, I head back to the hotel for a nap – wake up at 1:30, munch gas station donuts and coffee, and drive to meet our bus – in the pouring rain – not a good sign. I expect a pretty subdued bus crowd, given the time and the weather, but the energy is palpable – you can feel the anticipation. Federal guards escort us and the media to the launch-viewing area. As the crow flies, we’re roughly 2 miles away from the rocket, which is as close as anyone gets to these things. I set up my camera gear alongside some other folks, and glance down the line of media photographers. There’s easily over a million bucks worth of camera gear here. Loudspeakers stream the coms, and we start to get worried. The weather folks over at the Range Control Center don’t like what they are seeing, and move the launch target time to the very end of the 5-minute window. We hear words like “anomaly” and “verifying the authenticity of the fire alarm” and get more nervous. I get more coffee and donuts from the catering tent and wait. Apparently donuts are my nervous food.

Tee minus 12 minutes, and it’s time for the go-no go for launch poll. Everyone goes quiet as the work through the countdown. Over the loudspeakers, we hear

The group collectively releases a sigh of relief, some cheer. We’re launching today. We buckle down for the 12 minute wait.

30 seconds left, and all we can do is fidget and wonder if our camera settings are correct. They say that you shouldn’t try to photograph your first launch – you should just enjoy it and let the million bucks in camera gear handle the pictures. I like a challenge so I take a stab at it, but I recommend that if you go see a launch you let other people do the filming.

10 seconds. The iconic countdown starts…

Here’s what it sounds like when you can see the launch, but before the sound arrives (a good 14 seconds before the sound hits us. The night sky turns to daylight, and the rocket starts to make its way up. I’m struck by how slow it looks at first, and how the 200 ft flame does a weird, glitchy dance. It passes through the clouds.

Then the sound hits us. It’s xdB louder than us talking & cheering. You can feel it, like less bassey fireworks.

The sound slowly fades to a low rumble as the rocket re-appears above the clouds. A few minutes later, the light cuts out. Because stage 2 uses solid-fuel, there’s no throttle. So the Orbital ATK telemetry team calculates the velocity and position of the craft. With this telemetry data, they know how long they have to wait before igniting the second stage. This ensures that they only need minimal adjustments to get sync with the ISS.

Adjustments require fuel, which means weight, which means cost. And, private space is all about cost-per-pound into orbit. That’s why the launch window was only 5 minutes, it was a cost play. Cost was also a big factor in the decision to retire the space shuttle.

Stage two kicks in, the brightest star in the sky. Slowly, it fades out and is gone

It’s now past 5AM and people start to pack up, tired, but happy. The firefighting teams hop in their firetrucks and drive towards the launch pad. I can only imagine the relief of the teams that have spent months and years on these systems. You’d never know, though, as their voices ring out over the loudspeakers, working through their post-launch checklists. They are a little more casual, though, a little bit of pride and relief sneaking past their professional masks. There are some anomalies, though, so it may still be a long day for a few folks.

After this 2 ½ day space bonanza, I say goodbye to my new friends and start the long trip home to Colorado. While driving across the massive Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and flying over the Rocky Mountains, I have some time to think about something Astronaut Kay Hire said in her talk. She said this:

I can’t help but resonate with this in the moment. I’m driving over a 4.3 mile steel bridge – when it was built it was the largest over-water steel structure. I’m flying over half of the USA, a trip would take weeks without technology. Then, I think back to the rocket launch. Months, years, and careers were spent making that launch happen. Even more months and years of time was dedicated to the cargo. Even more time dedicated to having a place in space to put it all. Teams upon teams, collective lifetimes of effort – all boiled down to a single, fiery, loud instant.

I dwell on Kay’s statement. “We’re not   to fly in space. But we’re built to adapt.” Clearly. That’s why we have spacesuits, 4 mile long bridges, airplanes, and sleepy towns that transform into technology centers. So I agree. We’re not built to fly in space. But maybe, maybe we were made for it.

Most of the big white coms arrays belong to the NOAA Command and Data Acquisition Station. NOAA, founded by Nixon, has a suite of environmental monitoring satellites. These satellites need to be nudged periodically to remain in orbit, and they send down an obscene amount of data that needs to be collected and distributed.

The next time your local weather forecast is accurate, the data that enabled it probably came through this site.


Battlebots 2018 & the Hardcore Robotics Team – #27

“I tend to not turn Tombstone on outside of the arena – it scares the crap out of me.” – Ray Billings, Hardcore Robotics team captain. We sit down with BattleBots’ resident bad boy to talk about the engineering behind the world’s meanest fighting robots. We also talk robot carnage. Because we know you’re really here for robot carnage.

“I tend to not turn Tombstone on outside of the arena. It scares the crap out of me…” – Ray Billings, Hardcore Robotics team captain. We sit down with BattleBots’ resident bad boy to talk about the engineering behind the world’s meanest fighting robots. We also talk robot carnage. Because we know you’re really here for robot carnage.


00:03 Ray Billings leads the Hardcore Robotics Battlebots team, and is the “resident villain” on Battlebots.

00:40 Mike went to high school with Ray’s son

01:15 Ray’s robot, “Tombstone” is ranked #1 on the Battlebots circuit. Highlights here.

1:34 The winner trophy for Battlebots is a giant nut.

2:00 Ray doesn’t turn on the robot very often outside of the arena

2:35 Ray’s carnage story: he bent a 1” thick titanium plate

3:20 You have to see combat robots live to get the full experience

4:10 The first match of Battlebots 2018 should be one of the most epic Battlebots fights of all time

4:30 Ray has done over 1,000 combat robot matches in 17 years

5:00 How Ray got into Battlebots

6:25 The main robot is called an offset horizontal spinner. It spins a 70-75 lb bar at 2500 rpm.

7:40 The body is 4130 choromoly tubing. The drive motors were intended for an electric wheelchair, and the weapons motor is from an electric golf cart.

8:20 Normal electrical motors are not designed to work for combat robots. Ray significantly stresses the motors.

8:50 The weapon motor was designed to be used at 48V 300A, but Ray uses it at 60V and 1100A (at spinup). This would overheat and destroy the motor, so it shouldn’t be done long-term.

9:40 – 70-80kW at spinup, and no start capacitor. He just uses a big marine relay.

10:00 Ray’s robot has 1 second to be lethal

10:30 If there’s a motor-stall potential mid match, Ray will turn off the motor to save batteries/electronics

11:00 What’s the weak point of Ray’s robot? One match, the weapon bar snapped in half.

11:40 Ray uses tool-grade steel, so it won’t bend, it’ll just snap.

12:40 The shock loads can break the case. The weapon motor looks like it’s rigidly mounted, but because it’s on a titanium plate it has some shock absorber. There’s also a clutch system in the sprocket to help offset shock.

13:40 Ray’s robot has to take all of the force that the opponent’s robots do (equal and opposite), but if it’s coming in a direction you want vs. one you don’t want you can design-in protection.

14:40 What test challenges were faced during assembly and design?

It’s been highly iterated. There are no shortcuts for designing combat robots. You have to see where something breaks, then adjust.

15:45 When Ray started in 2004, his robot was just a “middle of the pack” robot. With years of iteration, it’s now a class-dominant robot.

16:45 Ray spins up the robot at least once before a competition. It’ll pick up debris from the ground and throw it around.

17:50 Battery technology and batteries for combat robots: Originally they used lead acid batteries for their current ability. Now, almost everyone uses Lithium chemistry. The sport is about power-to-weight ratio, so the lighter batteries have given people much more flexibility.

19:00 Why aren’t there gas powered combat robots? There are some that have flamethrowers, and there are a couple gas powered ones. However, they aren’t as dependable.

20:15 Ray has wrecked arenas. The arena rails are 1/2” steel, and Ray can cut a soda-can sized hole in them. He’s wrecked panels and ceiling lights.

21:20 Combat robot communication systems: today everything runs on 2.4 GHz digitally encoded systems. They often use RC plane controls because they are highly customizable and there are a lot of available channels.

22:00 Drive systems: the wheels & motors come together. They use a hard foam in the tires so you can’t get a flat.

22:45 Centrifugal force – not a huge problem because the blade spins in-plane. But, when he gets bumped up the blade fights gravity before it can self-right.

24:40 The rest of the Hardcore Robotics team is three people.. The team is Ray, his son (Justin), and his friend Rick. Rick used to run his own team, but has more fun fabricating and building robots than he does driving them.

25:30 There will be 6 fights/hour, and the show will be on the Discovery channel and the science channel premiering May 11th.

26:15 The first fight got leaked in some promo footage, Tombstone vs. Minotaur.

26:35 Would Ray rather fight a good robot or a bad one? Ray says “anyone.”

Battlebots 2018 (season 3) will have “fight card” fights, then a playoff of the top 16 robots.

27:50 A given frame only lasts an event or two before needing to be replaced. This many fights is really hard on the robot.

29:20 Combat robot kits are a great way to get into the sport, especially ant-weight and beetle weight kits.

30:00 Stupid questions

31:15 Ray wants to try a new hammer robot, a full-shell spinner, and a vertical spinner.

32:40 Support Ray by getting Hardcore Robotics gear from and the toys from Target, Amazon, hexbugs, etc.

33:15 Ray is also an engineer at Intel.

Radar and Electronic Warfare

Learn about radar basics and get a peek into the world of aerospace electronic warfare. Hosted by Daniel Bogdanoff and Mike Hoffman, EEs Talk Tech is a twice-monthly engineering podcast discussing tech trends and industry news from an electrical engineer’s perspective.

Phil Gresock, Keysight’s Radar Lead, sits down with us to discuss the basics of radar and give us a peek into the world of aerospace electronic warfare.


00:20 Adaptive cruise control for cars works really well.

1:00 the history of radar – the original radar display was an oscilloscope in WWII. (radar test equipment)

1:45 Early warning radar

2:00 The rumor that carrots are good for your eyesight was a British misinformation campaign.

2:58 The British had the “chain home radar system” all along the coast that pointed to their western front. They wanted early warning radar because they had limited defensive forces. By knowing what was coming, they could allocate defenses appropriately.

3:45 Radar originally was a defensive mechanism.

3:50 How does radar work? You send out a pulse that is modulated on a carrier frequency. If that pulse gets reflected back, we can do some math and work out how far away something is.

4:30 Typically, there’s a specific frequency used. For long range radar, like search and early warning radar, a lower frequency is used.

5:15 What does a modern radar system look like?

It depends on the application. Early warning systems are often anchored on old oil rigs. The rigs have a radome installed on them.

6:25 How does radar detect something so small and so far away? A lot of it depends on the frequencies and processing techniques you use.

6:40 There are some radar techniques you can use, for example bouncing off of the sea, the earth, the troposphere.

7:15 Radar also has some navigational benefits. For example, wind shear flying into Breckenridge airport. A change in medium is measurable.

8:10 Radars also get installed on missiles to do some last-minute corrections.

8:35 Ultimately, the goal of radar is to detect something. You’re trying to figure out range, elevation (azimuth), velocity, etc.

Different target sizes and ranges require different pulse widths, different frequencies, etc.

Azimuth is easy to determine because you know what direction your radar is pointing.

To detect velocity with radar you can use doppler shift.

10:30 Radar cross section analysis gives even more information.

11:00 There are spheres in space for radar calibration. You can send pulses to the sphere and measure what you get back.

Radar calibration sphere in low earth orbit: (for full paper, click the “full text” link)

11:40 There are also reflectors on the moon so you can use laser telescopes to measure the reflection.

Mirrors on the moon:

12:30 NASA put reflectors in space.

12:58 So, you send a pulse out and get a return signal, but there was a scattering effect. There are libraries for what a return pulse for different objects looks like so you can identify what you are looking at.

14:00 Radar counter intelligence techniques.

First, you have to know you are being painted by radar. Military jets have a number of antennas all around it. And, you generally know what radars are being used in a theater of operation. So, there will be a warning that will let you know you are being painted by a certain type of radar.

15:30 Get Daniel on a fighter jet

16:05 How do you stop your radar from being detected or interfered with? There are a few techniques.

Radar frequency hopping is changing the frequency used from pulse to pulse.

Radar frequency modulation changes the modulation pulse to pulse – phase shifts, amplitude changes, frequency chirps, etc.

This helps avoid detection, get better performance, or reduce susceptibility to jamming.

If you know how your radar responds to different signals, you have a lot of flexibility in what signal you use.

How do you spoof a radar? You have to know what is incident upon you and know how that will act over time. You can send out pulses advanced or lagging in time or with different Doppler shifts to give misinformation to the receiver.

You can also drown out the pulses so that your pulses get read instead of your reflections.

You have to have an intimate understanding of the radar you’re trying to defeat, a good system to handle that quickly, and good knowledge that something is actually happening.

We need radar profile flash cards.

Radar peak energies are anywhere from kilowatts to Megawatts.

21:10 A recent US Navy ship had a new hull design, and it has to turn on a beacon because it had so little reflections.

22:00 Phil thinks radars are pretty cool, and it shows up in a lot more places than you’d expect.

Radar stands for “radio detection and ranging.”


Intro to RF – EEs Talk Tech Electrical Engineering Podcast #21

Learn about RF designs, radio frequencies, RADAR, GPS, and RF terms you need to know in today’s electrical engineering podcast!

We sit down with Phil Gresock to talk about the basics of RF for “DC plebians.” Learn about RF designs, radio frequencies, RADAR, GPS, and RF terms you need to know in today’s electrical engineering podcast!



RF stands for radio frequency

00:40 Phil Gresock was an RF application engineer

1:15 Everything is time domain, but a lot of RF testing tools end up being frequency domain oriented

2:15 Think about radio, for example. A tall radio tower isn’t actually one big antenna!

3:50 Check out the FCC spectrum allocation chart

4:10 RF communication is useful when we want to communicate and it doesn’t make sense to run a cable to what we’re communicating to.

4:50 When you tune your radio to a frequency, you are tuning to a center frequency. The center frequency is then down converted into a range

6:30 Check out Mike’s blog on how signal modulation works:

7:00 Communication is just one use case. RADAR also is an RF application.

8:10 The principles between RF and DC or digital use models are very similar, but the words we use tend to be different.

Bandwidth for oscilloscopes means DC to a frequency, but for RF it means the analysis bandwidth around a center frequency

9:22 Cellular and FCC allocation chart will talk about different “channels.”

Channel in the RF world refers to frequency ranges, but in the DC domain it typically refers to a specific input.

10:25 Basic RF block diagram:

First, there’s an input from an FPGA or data creating device. Then, the signal gets mixed with a local oscillator (LO). That then connects to a transmission medium, like a fiber optic cable or through the air.

Cable TV is an RF signal that is cabled, not wireless.

Then, the transmitted signal connects to an RF downcoverter, which is basically another mixer, and that gets fed into a processing block.

13:50 Tesla created a remote control boat and pretended it was voice controlled.

15:30 Does the military arena influence consumer electronics, or does the consumer electronics industry influence military technology?

16:00 GPS is a great example of military tech moving to consumer electronics

17:00 IoT (internet of things) is also driving a lot of the technology

18:00 The ISM band is unregulated!

19:15 A router uses a regulated frequency and hops off the frequency when it’s being used for emergency communications

20:50 RADAR, how does it work?

22:22 To learn more about RF, check out App Note 150 here: