Update on Tianwen-1 attitude

A month ago I posted about the ADCS telemetry of Tianwen-1 and how it was controlling its attitude on its cruise orbit to Mars. Since then, AMSAT-DL has been collecting telemetry data from Tianwen-1 using the 20m antenna at Bochum observartory almost all the time that the spacecraft is in view from Germany. This short post is an update with the results collected so far.

Tianwen-1’s attitude is controlled by maintaining the spacecraft’s Y axis (on which the solar panels lie) perpendicular to the plane formed by the Sun, Earth and spacecraft, and by maintaining a fixed angle between the spacecraft’s X axis and the Sun vector. This is done to prevent the solar panels from having to steer constantly to track the Sun.

The figure below shows the angle between the Sun vector an the X axis using all the telemetry collected as of writing this post. We see that the Sun angle was fixed to 0 degrees at the start of the mission, then was changed to -15 degrees for a few days, and finally has been kept at -20 degrees since the beginning of August.

All the dots shown in this picture correspond to telemetry recorded either at Bochum or by Paul Marsh M0EYT. Many thanks to all people involved for their continuous effort in recording telemetry data.

Since the Sun-Earth angle, as seen from the spacecraft, changes as the spacecraft travels along the transfer orbit, and the spacecraft maintains a fixed Sun angle, the Earth angle keeps changing. The high-gain antenna is placed on the -Z axis according to diagrams of the spacecraft. However, the antenna can slew to track the Earth. The figure below shows the angle between the Earth vector and the -Z axis, which is precisely the slew angle needed to point the high-gain antenna.

We see that this slew angle keeps increasing with time. The slew angle of the antenna is limited mechanically, though we don’t know the maximum slew angle. At some point, the spacecraft will have to yaw and reduce its Sun-to-X angle in order to reduce the slew angle to an acceptable value. This is one of the events we are hoping to capture soon in the telemetry.

I don’t know the reason why the spacecraft yawed two times near the beginning of the mission. At first, I thought that the antenna slew was limited to perhaps 20 degrees, so the spacecraft would need to yaw every couple of week to maintain an acceptable antenna slew. Now it is clear that this is not the case, since the slew angle is near 60 degree. It may happen that the spacecraft was yawed for thermal reasons.

The other event we are expecting is the second correction manoeuvre, which according to some sources will happen in September. So far we haven’t seen any indication of this in the telemetry, so stay tuned for more news.

The updated Jupyter notebook where these plots have been made is here.

Tianwen-1 attitude during cruise and early orbit

In a previous post I talked about the ADCS telemetry of Tianwen-1. In there I showed that Space Packets in APID 1281 had several fields corresponding to the ADCS, including the quaternion giving the spacecraft attitude. I used these quaternions to show that the spacecraft had made a turn of 15º about its Y axis. However, at that time I still lacked some details to give a full interpretation of the attitude quaternions, such as what frame of reference they used or how were the spacecraft body axes defined.

Now I have looked at all the telemetry we have collected so far and with this I’ve been able to guess the missing details, so I can give a complete interpretation of the attitude quaternions. In this post I will show the attitude control law of Tianwen-1 on its cruise orbit to Mars and also the attitude during early orbit operations.

Tianwen-1 post–TCM-1 state vectors

Yesterday I reported about Tianwen-1’s first trajectory correction manoeuvre, TCM-1. In that post I commented the possibility that the updated state vectors that we saw on the telemetry after TCM-1 might come from a prediction or planning rather than take into account the actual performance of the burn.

The figure below shows the error between the state vectors collected after TCM-1 over the last two days, and a trajectory propagated in GMAT, using the following state vector, which is one of the first received after TCM-1.

[0151059eb9ea] 2020-08-02 00:17:06.711400 100230220.21360767 -106145016.11787066 -45441035.07405791 25.581827920522485 18.240707152437626 8.567874276424218

We see that on the UTC night between August 1 and 2 the state vectors deviate very little from the GMAT trajectory. However, on the UTC night between August 2 and 3 we see a slightly different trajectory in the state vectors. We have no data in between, as the spacecraft is not visible in Europe, so we don’t know the precise moment of change. The gap in telemetry around 2020-08-03 00:45 UTC is due to a transmission of high-speed data.

It seems reasonable to think that after TCM-1 the Chinese DSN performed precise ranging of the spacecraft to determine the new orbit accurately and then uploaded a correction to the state vectors on-board Tianwen-1.

The state vectors from last night all describe the same trajectory, as shown in the plot below which uses

[0151322e67d0] 2020-08-02 21:03:08.078400 102132184.96868199 -104770375.00352533 -44795830.46284772 25.29849580646669 18.532513218789806 8.692135086385246

to propagate a trajectory in GMAT. There is a small jump of a few hundred meters at some point. We usually see one or two these jumps per day, but we don’t understand well why they happen.

The trajectory according to the state vectors from 00:17:06 and from 21:03:08 are very similar. For example, at the closest approach to Mars they only differ in 1197km. For comparison, the difference between the new trajectory and the pre–TCM-1 trajectory is 126529km (again, at the closest approach to Mars).

I have generated a new table of right-ascension, declination and distance coordinates based on the updated state vectors. Note that this table doesn’t include light-time delay to the spacecraft.

Thanks to AMSAT-DL‘s Bochum observatory team and to Paul Marsh M0EYT for their continuous effort in tracking Tianwen-1. The data used in this post has come from their observations.

Tianwen-1 TCM-1

On 2020-08-01 23:00 UTC, Tianwen-1 made its first correction manoeuvre, called TCM-1. The manoeuvre was observed by Amateur trackers, such as Edgar Kaiser DF2MZ, Paul Marsh M0EYT, and the 20m antenna at Bochum observatory, operated by AMSAT-DL. The news of the successful manoeuvre appeared in Chinese media, and in the German Wikipedia article for Tianwen-1 (thanks to Achim Vollhardt DH2VA for sharing this information).

Since Tianwen-1 transmits its own real time orbit state vectors in the telemetry, by comparing the vectors transmitted before and after TCM-1, and also by studying the Doppler observed by groundstations on Earth, we can learn more about the manoeuvre.

Tianwen-1 manoeuvre and high-speed data

On the Beijing time morning of 2020-07-30, Tianwen-1 did something. Paul Marsh M0EYT reports that the probe first switched from the high gain antenna to the low gain antenna, then returned to the high gain antenna, and then switched to a high-speed data mode, finally coming back to the usual 16384baud telemetry.

r00t.cz has already analysed the telemetry data collected during this event. He reports that the high speed data was a replay of the telemetry produced during the period when the low gain antenna was used. He shows some interesting behaviour on APIDs 1280, 1281 and 1282 (see my previous post for a description of these during nominal operation). These seem to contain ADCS data.

This event was followed with some expectation by the Amateur deep space tracking community, since according to this paper Tianwen-1 would make the first correction manoeuvre (TCM-1) early on in the mission (day 9 is stated in the paper). However, by now it is clear that a true correction manoeuvre didn’t happen, since no significant change has been seen in the trajectory described by the state vectors transmitted in the spacecraft’s telemetry. However, this event might have been a very small thruster firing, in order to test the propulsion in preparation for the true TCM-1.

In this post, I look at the data during the high speed replay, following the same approach as in the previous post. With this data, I reach a definite conclusion of what happened during this event (I won’t spoil the mystery by stating it in advance). The description of the modulation and coding used by the high speed data will come in a later post.

The Jupyter notebook for the calculations in this post can be found here.

Tracking Tianwen-1’s orbit to Mars: part II

Yesterday I published a post explaining how Tianwen-1 is transmitting real time state vectors for its own orbit in its telemetry and how we’ve used those to propagate its orbit and track the spacecraft with the Bochum observatory 20m dish. However, there seemed to be some problem in the way we were interpreting the state vectors, since the ephemerides derived from these had a pointing error of a few degrees when compared with observations from Bochum and other smaller Amateur stations.

As of writing that post, I believe I have found the problem. It has to do with the way that the timestamps from the state vectors are interpreted. After correcting this problem I am getting an orbit that matches the observations well. Here I explain this problem and show some more details about the corrected ephemerides.

Tracking Tianwen-1’s orbit to Mars

Last Thursday 2020-07-23 at 04:41 UTC, Tianwen-1, a Chinese mission to Mars consisting of an orbiter, a lander and a rover, launched from Wenchang. Usually, I would be posting an analysis of a recording of the telemetry signal, made by Paul Marsh M0EYT or another of my Amateur DSN contributors, as I did a few days ago for the Emirates Mars Mission. However, something amazing has happened that has kept me quite busy. Rest assured that the analysis of the signal will come in a future post, but here I’m going to tell a story about Tianwen-1’s orbit.

ESA NEOCC riddle 1

A few weeks ago, the ESA Nearth Earth Object Coordination Center started a series of NEOCC riddles about Near Earth Object orbits and related topics. The first riddle was about orbits with a peculiar characteristic: they spend 50% of the time inside some fixed radius from the Sun (1.3au in the riddle), and the remaining 50% of the time outside this radius. It was published on June 4. Shortly after that I submitted my solution. The deadline for sending solutions ended yesterday, so today NEOCC has published their solution together with the list of people that solved the riddle correctly. In this post I publish my solution and make some additional comments.

Advances with delta-range and delta-range rate observations in GMAT

A month ago I started modifying the GMAT EstimationPlugin to support delta-range observations. This work is needed in order to perform orbit determination with the VLBI observations that we did with DSLWP-B (Longjiang-2) during its mission. Now I have a version which is able to use both delta-range and delta-range rate observations in simulation and estimation. This is pretty much all that’s needed for the DSLWP-B VLBI observations.

The modified GMAT version and accompanying GMAT scripts for this project can be found in the gmat-dslwp Github repository. This post is an account of the work I’ve made.

Simulating delta-range observations in GMAT

During the DSLWP-B (Longjiang-2) mission, we made a number of VLBI observations of the spacecraft’s UHF signal by performing GPS-synchronized recordings at Dwingeloo (The Netherlands), Shahe and Harbin (China), and Wakayama (Japan). The basic measurement for these observations is the time difference of arrival (TDOA), which measures the differences between the time that it takes the spacecraft’s signal to arrive to each of the groundstations. This can be interpreted in terms of the difference of distances between the spacecraft and each groundstation, so this measurement is also called delta-range.

One very interesting practical application of the VLBI observations is to perform orbit determination. The delta-range measurements can be used to constrain and determine the state vector of the spacecraft. This would give us an autonomous means of tracking Amateur deep-space satellites, without relying on ranging by a professional deep-space network. Even though the measurements we made showed good agreement with the ephemerides computed by the Chinese deep-space network, during the mission we never ran orbit determination with the VLBI observations, mainly due to the lack of appropriate software.

While GMAT has good support for orbit determination, it doesn’t support delta-range measurements. Its basic orbit determination data type is two-way round-trip time between a groundstation (or two) and the satellite, as shown in the orbit determination tutorial.

I have started to modify GMAT in the gmat-dswlp Github repository to implement the support for this kind of VLBI observations. As a first step, I am now able to create and simulate delta-range observations.