2148: Cubesat Launch
Title text: Luckily, the damages were partly offset by the prize money we got from accidentally winning the nearby water skiing championship tournament.
A CubeSat (aka U-class spacecraft) is a miniature artificial-satellite with cubic dimensions of 10 cm × 10 cm × 11.35 cm (~ 4 in × 4 in × 4.5 in), and masses of about 1.33 kg (2.9 lbs) per unit. CubeSats are put into orbit from the International Space Station or launched as secondary payloads. As of January 2019, at least 900 CubeSats have successively achieved orbit, and at least 80 have been destroyed in launch failures. Their common functions include: Earth observation, amateur radio transmitters, as well as testing prototype small-satellite technology.
The comic begins with Megan telling Cueball that being officially part of a CubeSat launch is fairly expensive (starting at around $40,000), but she has an idea for a much cheaper alternative: use a fishing line on a drone to attach to a rocket (that is similar visually to the European Vega rocket) just before launch, with the CubeSat attached to the other end of the fishing line so it gets pulled into space.
In reality, this plan would fail for multiple reasons.
- Security would presumably prevent the drone from reaching the rocket.
- Even if Megan were to pilot the drone past security undetected, the launch would have been scrubbed as soon as any observer noticed the drone near the rocket and told Mission Control, who would order a countdown halt and stop the rocket launch, which prevents Megan from launching her CubeSat in the first place — after which Security would locate the drone's user and take her into custody.
- The drone would not be able to attach itself to the rocket in a way that would remain secure.
- The fishing line would not hold - either the rocket exhaust would sever it, or the force from the CubeSat, gravity, and the acceleration of the rocket would become more than its tensile strength could withstand.
- The unshielded CubeSat would likely be destroyed by aerodynamic forces.
- The comic shows the drone attaching to the lower part of payload fairing, a shell at the tip of the rocket protecting the satellites from aerodynamic forces in the early phase of the launch. The fairing is ditched as soon as practical and falls back to Earth, so the drone would never reach orbit.
- Precise weight is an important number during launch. The extra weight of the drone, the fishing line, the air drag from the drone, and the CubeSat all would combine to put more downward force on the rocket than planned. The rocket may be able to compensate for this unexpected extra weight, but if it can't, the rocket may find itself in a lower orbit than planned, or unable to reach orbit at all.
Upon realizing her plan, Cueball immediately responds with "uh-oh", indicating his concern, but Megan assures him that it will be fine, before piloting the drone towards the rocket. She successfully connects the drone to the rocket, and the rocket lifts off.
Whatever her plan was, it goes wrong almost immediately. The unexpected force on the rocket from the side causes it to tilt and go off course. Perhaps if the rocket's control software employed adaptive control techniques, it could have maintained control in the presence of this unexpected force. It is implied that it's not due to the comparatively small force of the CubeSat, but because Cueball is standing on the fishing line. However in real life the force from Cueball stepping on the line would still be very small and would be unable to cause a scenario like this. Megan and Cueball get tangled in the fishing line and are carried away. While the fate of the rocket is not shown, it is likely that its unplanned attitude change would activate the automatic termination sequence or result in manual activation of the destruction protocol.
Megan and Cueball miraculously survive and are brought to an investigative board to explain their actions. Megan attempts to defend herself using flawed logic: something was bound to go wrong sooner or later, so it's not her fault that she was the cause. This logic does not account for the fact that this particular rocket's chance to crash was greatly increased by the drone attempting to connect to it. She isn't totally to blame for the accident anyways, since the launch should have been scrubbed as soon as the drone came anywhere near the rocket, and the failure of Mission Control to do so is negligence on their part, and hence they are more responsible for the failure of the mission than Megan and Cueball as they did not follow proper protocol and allowed the launch to occur under unsafe conditions.
The title text describes that the supposedly huge amount in damages they had to pay (for all the damage they caused) was partly covered by the earnings from a water skiing championship, which Cueball and Megan presumably won by being dragged across the water by the rocket. This might be a tangential reference to an incident in the Tintin adventure The Black Island, where Thomson and Thompson blunder into and win an aerobatics competition when they compel a mechanic with no flying experience into taking off in pursuit of that volume's antagonists. Alternatively, it may simply be a case of the title text being largely irrelevant to the comic itself and simply something Randall found funny.
- [Megan is holding a cube attached by a string to a quad-copter drone flying above her head. She talks to Cueball standing next to her.]
- Megan: A spot on a CubeSat launch costs a lot, but you can get a drone and a spool of fishing line for cheap.
- Cueball: Uh oh.
- [A wide shot of Megan flying the drone with the cube at her feet while Cueball stand behind her looking after the drone that flies up to the left.]
- Megan: No no, watch.
- Megan: This is gonna go great.
- [Wide shot of a rocket standing on its launch pad with the support tower. The, now very small, drone is approaching, string attached, from the right.]
- [Slim shot of the rocket as the drone attaches to the rocket, just under the tip with the payload. The string goes down and out to the right.]
- Megan (off-panel): Perfect!
- [A huge cloud is emitted from the bottom of the rocket as it lift off the ground every so slightly.]
- [As the rocket is taking off it begins tilting in the direction of the string. Two off-panel voices come from Megan and Cueball's direction.]
- Off-panel voice #1: Should it be tilting already?
- Off-panel voice #2: Hey, move your leg.
- [Close up of Megan and Cueball struggling in tangle of string that surrounds Megan while she is holding the cube in one hand and the remote for the drone in the other. Cueball uses both hands to try and help her out of the tangle. The string goes out to the left towards the rocket.]
- Megan: Ugh, let go, I can get-
- Cueball: -No, lift your other arm-
- [Three slim panels follow, one above the others, of the rocket, with string, tilting increasingly to the right and down as if pulled by the string. In the final panel of the three the tip of the rocket is now further than where the string goes down to the bottom of the panel. So, the string now goes back left from where it is attached to the rocket, rather than to the right as in all previous panels.]
- [Megan entangled in the string with the cube in her hand and Cueball hanging below her holding on to the string, are flying through the air, as the string goes up right, and with small lines drawn above it to indicate it is moving to the right. On the ground, Jill holds a hand to her mouth looking up at them, while a guy looking like Cueball runs away with hands over his head.]
- Megan and Cueball (screaming): Aaaaaa
- [A disheveled looking Megan and Cueball both with plaster casts on their arms stand before four people, Hairbun, another Cueball like guy, Ponytail and Hairy. They are the members of an interview panel and are sitting behind a desk like table with a large label on its front:]
- Launch accident investigation board
- Megan: Listen.
- Megan: Space exploration is never going to be completely safe.
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