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  • Writer's pictureMatt Russell

#178 - Gagarin - Chaos - NanoTugs

This week we shall be looking at the mystery behind the death of the world's most famous man, saying goodbye to a screensaver, finding out if the 3-body system is time-reversible, and find out what Nano-Tugs can really do.

"All this talk about space travel is utter bilge, really. It would cost as much as a major war just to put a man on the moon."

Richard van der Riet Woolley the Astronomer Royal - Speaking to Time in 1956

In a 1995 letter to New Scientist, J.A. Terry and John Rudge said that Woolley was criticising.

"Anyone, who had seen the flamboyant articles about space travel and the imminent colonisation of the moon and planets that were splashed all over the newspapers in 1956, with science fiction-style illustrations, must have been immediately aware of what the new Astronomer Royal was riled about."

However, only 5 years after Woolley's Time rant, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space on April 12, 1961

Well, 7 years later, March 27th, is the day that Yuri Gagarin Died.

Have you ever wondered how and when, who must have been one of the most famous men on earth EVER, died? Well, it turns out the answer is just not that simple, in short Gagarin is the Kennedy assassination or the Lady Di death of Russia.

The one thing that we do know is that, 52 years ago, while on a training flight from Chkalovsky Air Base, Gagarin and flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin died when their MiG-15UTI crashed near a small town called Kirzhach. So how could one of the worlds most famous pilots crash his plane and die, and actually who the hell was good enough to be his instructor?

Gagarin had been living the celebrity lifestyle but yearned for space so, got sober, and started flying again in ‘67 so that he could be part of Soyuz and maybe on to the moon!.

In his retraining to be a fighter pilot that morning was to be one of 3 flights, 2 solo and one with the instructor. Colonel Seryogin was checking Gagarin’s flying technique before letting him loose on the new MIG-17 jet

Oh and if you doubt how good a pilot Gagarin was. Korolev adored Gagarin, and said,

"A good pilot is one who, in one minute of flight, can make enough observations, and draw enough conclusions, to keep an entire institute busy with them for a whole year. A bad pilot can fly for a whole week but only obtain enough information for an hour's work. What pleased us so much about Gagarin was that in 108 minutes he was able to see a great deal and enrich science with valuable information and conclusions."

Gagarin and Seryogin went flying on a windy rainy day, and after completing the exercise, of barrell rolls and vertical loops, they were heading back to base but went out of contact. 10 minutes later rescue was sent out to seek the jet, and they found the burning wreckage in snow-covered trees. Gagarin's body was found the next day, after a glimmer of hope he’d ejected, thrown from the wreckage

Three competing bodies probed the crash site for clues,

  1. The Russian Air Force,

  2. Official Government Commission

  3. The KGB,.... and so the mystery begins.

So here is a timeline

1968 the original crash investigation was considered inconclusive, despite 200 investigators and a 30 volume report, Brezhnev suppressed its findings as it would unsettle a Nation, so decided to roll tanks into Czechoslavakia (the country that had made the plane) to avert attention instead.

1968 - 2003 Conspiracy theories abound, why were the KGB working against the others? .Was Gegarin drunk?, Was the Societ leader Leonid Breshnev a jealous saboteur, was Seryogin leaning out of the window taking potshots at dear with a gun? Was he abducted by Aliens, did he stage his own death?, did the CIA do it? Did he really die in a mental home in 1990?

I believe Seryogin had a heart attack. Perhaps he just fell on one of the control levers, which led to fatal consequences,” Vitaly Zholobov, Soyuz 21 astronaut.

1986 - An inquest put forward the theory that turbulence from a Su-11 interceptor using afterburners may have caused Gagarin's plane to go out of control

2003 - Russian KGB Documents declassified; Neither men had been drunk. The air-traffic control people had given very bad weather information to Gagarin. They had left external tanks on the craft too. The flight was planned for no tanks and good weather. The pilots probably hit a bird or weather ballon avoidance and thinking they were higher than they were unable to pull out of a spin but did not eject. Some people claim Gagarin didn’t eject as he was flying to avoid a school, but not much evidence for that.

2004 - Alexie Leonov, the first man to walk in space, describes in his book Two Sides of the Moon, the day he was flying a helicopter nearby when he hears 2 loud booms. He believes that a Sukhoi SU-15 was flying too low because of the bad weather conditions and while breaking the sound barrier (Bang One) was passing the Plane of Gagarin within 20meters or so, the resulting shockwave would have sent Gagarin tumbling out of the sky and crashing (Bang Two)

2007 - The Kremlin veto another investigation

2010 - A new theory, the pilots discovered a vent had been left open in the cockpit, and the aircraft manual calls for an extreme decent to 6500 feet, Gagarin dove too fast causing them both to loose consciousness and crash. They were just following the manual. This did not sound right to pilots who agreed that it’s unlikely to blackout a pilot, let alone a legendary pilot.

2011- The original commission report is declassified on the 50th anniversary of the first man in space, and its conclusion was that avoiding a weather ballon or cloud cover, they had turned sharply and had stalled in the complex meteorological conditions.

2013 - Alexie Leonov steps forward to tell his story again on Russia Today with some extra details. There was a SU-15 flight that day and that a newly declassified report confirmed that the supersonic jet flew dangerously close to Gagarin's MiG-15. A computer model then revealed that the parameters of the flights pretty much is what played out in the real world. Leonov was allowed to go public with the story, except to tell the Su-15 pilot's name.

"I was asked not to disclose the pilot's name," Leonov explained. "He is a good test pilot... It will fix nothing."

At the end of the day, we will probably never know the exact reason for Gagarin's death, but it does seem that he was pretty unluck that day, that a combination of bad weather, bad prep, and some unknown obstacle or malfunction did him in. You can visit his ashes at the Kremlin Wall Necropolis, which I did in 2001.


Seti@Home has switched of the Server!!!

For over 20 years the Seti@Home has been whirring away home computers, occasionally mine and my one at work!, as a screen saver. Basically a clever little screen saver that downloads chunks of data from Berkeley University and crunches it when your back is turned and uploads it straight back to the Uni.

But as of 31st March, the service will take a breather, the pretty diminished bunch of astronomers who just won’t give up trying to find E.T. need to take stock.

Back in 1999, this was one of the first projects of it’s time, and it grew to have almost 2 million computers around the world whirring away in our houses, when we got up to make our cup of tea when we were fed up of surfing myspace and Altavista. That number, like the scientists themselves, has fallen to about 100,000. Early on in the process, the team used to take the short suspect signals list to the Arecibo to try to pin them down, but now that list has grown to billions of suspects that just haven’t been followed up.

Basically just keeping the server going has meant the team haven’t been able to analyse the data or publish a single paper.

Has the screensaver actually found a signal. We just don’t know!!

“For an astronaut, going outside is a dangerous undertaking that requires days of preparation, so I appreciate that in our current predicament, I can step outside any time I want … (just stay at least six feet away from others).”
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly


In response to the escalating coronavirus pandemic, ESA has decided to further reduce on-site personnel at its mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

Recent developments, including strengthened restrictions by national, regional and local authorities across Europe and the first positive test result for COVID-19 within the workforce at ESOC, have led the Agency to restrict on-site personnel at its mission control centre even further.

Our priority is the health of our workforce, and we will therefore reduce activity on some of our scientific missions, especially on interplanetary spacecraft, which currently require the highest number of personnel on site,” says ESA’s Director of Operations Rolf Densing.

Among the affected missions are:

• Cluster – A four-spacecraft mission launched in 2000, orbiting Earth to investigate our planet’s magnetic environment and how it is forged by the solar wind, the stream of charged particles constantly released by the Sun;

• ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter – Launched in 2016, the spacecraft is in orbit around Mars, where it has been investigating the planet’s atmosphere and providing data relay for landers on the surface;

• Mars Express – Launched in 2003, the workhorse orbiter has been imaging the Martian surface and sampling the planet’s atmosphere for over one and a half decades;

• Solar Orbiter – ESA’s newest science mission, launched in February 2020 and currently en route to its science operations orbit around the Sun.

“It was a difficult decision, but the right one to take. Our greatest responsibility is the safety of people, and I know all of us in the science community understand why this is necessary,” says Günther Hasinger, ESA’s Director of Science. “This is a prudent step to ensure that Europe’s world-class science missions are safe, along with the instruments from European scientists and our international partners flying on our missions. We are talking about some of humankind’s most advanced scientific experiments – and if switching some missions into temporary standby keeps them safe, then this is what we will do.”

The temporary reduction in personnel on site will also allow the ESOC teams to concentrate on maintaining spacecraft safety for all other missions involved, in particular the Mercury explorer BepiColombo, which is on its way to the innermost planet in the Solar System and will require some on-site support around its scheduled Earth flyby on 10 April.

Director General Jan Wörner.

“I am glad to see how professional everyone at ESA is throughout this difficult situation. It shows that the Agency is, first and foremost, an ensemble of humans from all over Europe who care. Humans who care not only about science and space, but even more about the well-being of colleagues, families and fellow citizens all over the planet.”

Gargantuan chaotic gravitational three-body systems and their irreversibility to the Planck length

Tjarda Boekholt et al from University of Coimbra in Portugal

Published on Oxfords Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society back in Feb.

This is a humdinger,

If you have two raisin in the dough and you knead that dough the small difference in the initial position of that raison end up as big differences in position at certain points in the kneading. This principal is a fundamental part of Chaos!

But take another law we take for granted, we believe that most of the basic laws of physics don’t care in which direction they run, the laws will work equally in the universe described when playing a film backwards as the universe int he film paying forwards.

Now of course When you knock over your pint glass and it smashes on the floor, you see a different phenomenon, because there are just many millions more ways to order a broken glass than the ordered unbroken glass, seeing glasses break spontaneously and seeing them reform spontaneously are too entirely different things.

So what we see is that in practice time isn’t reversible, we don’t get to see stuff happen in reverse of the norm, like broken glasses being kicked back up onto the table mended in reality and scientists have put this down to this statistical likely hood of it happening because of the large number of particles and interactions all needing to happen exactly in the right order.

We have talked about the 3 body problem before and how hard it is to solve, it is just full of chaos. Once you have 3 bodies or more this perturbations become some complex that the solution to the laws of motion can’t be solved precisely so you actually can’t tell where the moon will exactly be in 1000 years for example by just doing the maths, because it’s part of an N-Body system, pretty much a 3 body system at it’s simplest, Sun, Earth-Moon. Of course, if you try to run the system back to see where the moon was you never do manage to get back to the correct point. Now is this the chaos in the system or the simulations not being powerful enough.

This latest paper uses just 3 particles to break this practical time symmetry, showing that the system is fundamentally unpredictable.

They got three massive black holes and put them in orbit with one another and it turned out that the perturbations and chaos of the 3 body problem are so huge, that if the object is out by more than a fraction of the Planck length then the system would not be time-reversible.

Boekholt: "The movement of the three black holes can be so enormously chaotic The disturbances the size of the Planck length have an exponential effect and break the time symmetry."

And as it’s impossible to be more accurate than a planck length even theoretically then it is fundamentally un predictable. This happens in 5% of the scenarios and is not a artefact of needing better computers or calculations or more decimal places in the calculation,

Portegies Zwart adds: "So not being able to turn back time is no longer just a statistical argument. It is already hidden in the basic laws of nature. Not a single system of three moving objects, big or small, planets or black holes, can escape the direction of time."

So the bottom line of this study, it seems to suggest that it’s not the limitations of the maths or the simulations, but a genuine fundamental law that an N-body system is unpredictable.


Bringing Massive Derelicts Back to Life JBIS

DARREN MCKNIGHT/ Centauri Corporation

The primary risk to assured operations in space is the lethal nontrackable (LNT) debris population, something too small to see but large enough to smash you to bits.

  • estimated 500,000 to 900,000 lethal nontrackable (LNT) debris particles as small as 5 mm to 10 cm in low Earth orbit (LEO), collision avoidance efforts prevent only a small fraction of the potential mission-terminating collisions from debris. Indeed, what you cannot see, can kill you.

So Currently we only talk about the big stuff which is only really a fraction of the stuff that will destroy your space hardware.

Space operations assurance (SOA).

SOA is the condition which enables space systems to continue to function with reliability consistent with current operations and has three major enabling components:

  • Space Traffic Awareness (STM),

  • Space situational awareness (SSA),

  • Space environment management (SEM).

Emphasis on the first two leads to debris remediation being largely ignored, due to an unclear value proposition for it in the past and the fact that there is no organization that has the charter to deal with this issue going forward.

The accumulated mass of intact derelicts in the upper region of LEO with perigee above 600 km is significant and is not being reduced via atmospheric drag.

  • The growth of the future debris population will be largely driven by collisions between massive derelict objects like abandoned rocket bodies and defunct payload

  • The traditional approach to reducing the possibility of such an event is active debris removal (ADR) whereby a large object is grappled, de-tumbled, and moved into a re-entry trajectory.

  • Due to the enormity of these objects (i.e., 1,000 to 9,000 kg) the ADR operations will be taxing and the re-entry hazard will be significant.

  • As a matter of fact, it is likely that all of the objects with mass greater than 1,000 kg will require controlled reentry which will add even more stringent requirements to the ADR solution.

  • The is also JCA - Just in time Avoidance; Examples

  1. Spacebased laser to nudge you debris to avoid collision

  2. Ballistically-launched clouds of talcum powder or tungsten clouds

  3. Rocket body plumes

This paper proposes an alternative to prevent massive objects from colliding. It is proposed that one or more small (i.e., 3U to 6U CubeSat) satellites, called nano-tugs,

A nano-tug would have

  1. A simple grappling mechanism,

  2. An electric propulsion system,

  3. Embedded accelerometers, and

  4. Global Positioning System (GPS) transceiver.

This combination would, in essence, provide the massive derelict object a rudimentary collision avoidance capability coupled with enhanced position determination capability. In essence, the derelict objects will have been transformed from debris into a part of the space traffic whose safety will be managed through the expanding Space Traffic Management (STM) constructs.

In detail

  • networked propulsive nano-satellites (i.e., “nano-tugs”) adhered to the sides of the rocket body.

  • This is similar in principle to the Smart Dust program developed by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), with the addition of a small electric ion thruster and space-rated components.

  • The grappling stage of this concept is effectively the “sticking” of these nano-satellites to the side of the rocket body.

  • The specific location of each deployed nano-tug does not need to be specified, as long as they are dispersed over a large part of the derelict object.

  • After networking together to identify their relative locations and rotation rate of the derelict, the appropriate nano-tugs can be commanded to fire their ion thrusters to apply a torque and slow the rotation rate.

To transition from a concept to a prototype several difficult engineering

and policy issues must be addressed:

  1. Coupling of nano-tug to derelict – low velocity and operational adhesive

  2. Accelerometers for usage to determine tumble rate that must be nulled

  3. GPS receiver or equivalent for determination of location

  4. Detumbling of derelict – need only one nano-tug or more

  5. Beacon vs node – one-way communication of location or interact with other devices autonomously


Debris mitigation, collision avoidance, and debris remediation are each individually necessary but not sufficient to assure the safety of operational spacecraft. The concept of a nano-tug is introduced as one possible means of debris remediation that

provides an alternative to ADR and JCA.

A nano-tug, in essence, turns a massive derelict object into a marginally operational object able to provide its location to all and perform collision avoidance manoeuvres.

The technical design of a nanotug needs to be refined and coupled with policy advances.

The ongoing research will examine more detailed engineering and policy issues.

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