Say Hello to the First Space Tow Truck

Clive Maxfield
|  Created: October 17, 2019  |  Updated: March 16, 2020

Artist's impression of MEV-1 (silver) attached to communications satellite (copper) (Image source: Northrop Grumman)

Things are moving quickly in space these days (no pun intended). I like to think that I keep my ear to the ground, but I was surprised to discover that Northrop Grumman's Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV-1), whose mission is to essentially act as a space tow truck, successfully launched a week ago. Riding on top of a Russian Proton rocket that was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, MEV-1 departed earth on Wednesday October 9th at 5:18 a.m. CDT while I was still snoozing in my oh-so-comfy bed.

I can’t but help think how things have changed in my lifetime. I decided to grace the world with my presence on 29 May 1957. Just a few months later, the Soviet Union determined to celebrate this momentous event by launching the world's first artificial satellite on 4 October 1957. They called this little rascal -- which was only about the size of a beach ball -- Sputnik, which means "travelling companion" or "fellow-traveler" in Russian.

Only 12 years later, on 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to step on the moon. I watched this incredible achievement on television with my dear old dad. Even though I was only 12 years old, he poured me a hint of a sniff of a tot of whiskey (he had a somewhat larger snifter), and we toasted Neil, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, each other, and the entire human race (even the French).

A few years ago, on 6 August 2014, the Rosetta space probe arrived at comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (abbreviated as 67P or 67P/C-G), which is a Jupiter-family comet that originated in the Kuiper belt. After performing a series of maneuvers to eventually orbit the comet, Rosetta's lander module, Philae, performed the first successful landing on a comet.

The following year, on 14 July 2015, the New Horizons interplanetary space probe performed its fly-by of Pluto, returning stunning pictures that blew me away.

Pluto as photographed by the New Horizons interplanetary space probe (Image source: NASA)

I was riveted to my seat for both the Rosetta and New Horizons missions. One thing that made these particularly poignant for me is that my chum, Adam Taylor, was the chief engineer in charge of space imaging at the UK imaging company e2V at the time (see ESC & Kevin Bacon meet New Horizons & Pluto).

Imaging sensors from e2V were used on both the Rosetta and New Horizons probes. Adam introduced me to Paul Jerram and Steve Bowring who actually designed the New Horizons sensors in the early 2000s (it took nine years for the probe to reach Pluto). I remember Steve telling me that whenever he sees a photograph of Pluto and its moons that was captured using the sensor he designed, he can't help but think about all the people around the world looking at that photograph and his part in its taking.

As an aside, Adam comes from Stannington, which is a suburb of the City of Sheffield, England. As you may or may not know, I hail from Sheffield myself. Adam is famous in Stannington as being the first person in the area to (intentionally) launch an FPGA into space. Adam now has his own consulting company, ADIUVO Engineering, and he's my "go-to guy" for any questions regarding mission-critical design. In fact, he recently launched a workshop for developing Mission-Critical FPGAs and SoCs, but we digress...

There are so many thoughts ricocheting around my poor old noggin at the moment, such as the fact that I met Alice Bowman, the Mission Operations Manager (MOM) for the New Horizons probe, at the Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) 2016 in Silicon Valley (see I met my new MOM at ESC Silicon Valley).

This reminded me that, less than a year ago, the folks at National Geographic invited me to attend a two-day astronaut training event at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Since I actually live in Huntsville, Alabama, and since I've long wanted to take a spin in one of those 3-axis gyroscopic simulator beasties, I immediately took them up on their offer (see My Astronaut Training for Mars).

More recently, just a few weeks ago as I pen these words, while speaking at ESC 2019, I attended a keynote presentation on the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), which will be NASA's first planetary defense mission and a "live" demonstration of asteroid deflection involving a spacecraft slamming into the asteroid with enough impact to alter the object's path. This really is the stuff of science fiction.

And, speaking of science fiction, I used to love reading the Heinlein juveniles; i.e., the twelve young adult novels written by Robert Heinlein and published between 1947 and 1958. One of my favorites was Space Cadet, in which our hero -- teenager Matt Dodson -- applies to join the prestigious Space Patrol. As part of this, Matt is involved in a mission to service a satellite orbiting the Earth, which really brings Northrop Grumman's current MEV-1 mission close to home (again, no pun intended).



I have to say that I've been very fortunate in my life and my career. In addition to being outrageously handsome, a trendsetter, and a leader of fashion (LOL), I've been lucky enough to see and do some amazing things. For example, whilst visiting the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to give a talk about the effects of radiation on electronic components (particularly FPGAs) and systems, I got to see the car-sized Curiosity rover before it headed out to Mars.

Having said this, if there's one thing I regret, it's the fact that I've not actually worked on any of these missions myself. For example, I met one of the guys who worked on Curiosity's Sky Crane.


I remember him describing the scene in the mission control room as everyone waited with bated breath to see if this incredibly, wacky, wonderful technology would work, and their relief and elation when they heard from Curiosity that everything was A-OK. I can only imagine how good that would feel, and how awesome to know that you had been a part of something so special. How about you? Have you worked on anything to do with space yourself? If not, would you like to? Either way, I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of the stuff we've talked about here.


About Author

About Author

Clive "Max" Maxfield received his BSc in Control Engineering in 1980 from Sheffield Hallam University, England and began his career as a designer of central processing units (CPUs) for mainframe computers. Over the years, Max has designed everything from silicon chips to circuit boards and from brainwave amplifiers to steampunk Prognostication Engines (don't ask). He has also been at the forefront of Electronic Design Automation (EDA) for more than 30 years.

Well-known throughout the embedded, electronics, semiconductor, and EDA industries, Max has presented papers at numerous technical conferences around the world, including North and South America, Europe, India, China, Korea, and Taiwan. He has given keynote presentations at the PCB West conference in the USA and the FPGA Forum in Norway. He's also been invited to give guest lectures at several universities in the US and at Oslo University in Norway. In 2001, Max "shared the stage" at a conference in Hawaii with former Speaker of the House, "Newt" Gingrich.

Max is the author of a number of books, including Designus Maximus Unleashed (banned in Alabama), Bebop to the Boolean Boogie (An Unconventional Guide to Electronics), EDA: Where Electronics Begins, FPGAs: Instant Access, and How Computers Do Math.

Recent Articles

Back to Home