A Brief History of Things that Haven't Been ET

HD164595 Location

Position of HD 164595 in the constellation Hercules

With apologies to Dr Stephen Hawking for the title.

The media is running amuck with stories of an ET signal from HD 164595. It's an intriguing concept as HD 164595 is rather close to our sun on the main sequence with at least one known planet. However this outburst is unlikely to be from another civilization for a number of reasons. 

First, let's look at few more promising ET candidates that turned out to be more regular natural phenomena. The most famous is probably Percival Lowell's martian canals. In the early 20th century photography was still in it's infancy so many astronomers still did visual observing. This combined with the human ability to insert patterns where none exists led Lowell to publish his findings as a civilization building canals. Not to fault him entirely as Mars does actually have a dynamic and constantly moving landscape but it's due to seasonal dust storms, not martians irrigating their crops.

The next promising candidate was the discovery of pulsars in the 60s. The first pulsar was found to pulse at 1.33 second intervals in the radio part of the spectrum. Antony Hewish and Jocelyn Burnell ruled out human made interference and jokingly named the radio source LGM-1 for "little green men." They didn't actually think the radio signal was from some far off alien intelligence, the name was just a joke. However popular media at the time certainly ran with that idea. Later, after more of these regular pulsing radio sources were discovered it was surmised they were rapidly rotating neutron stars. You know, just the corpses of long dead massive stars. Nothing terribly exciting there at all. Sarcasm heavily implied here in case you didn't pick up on that.

One of the more recent "it might be aliens" discoveries were so called perytons. They were only detected by the radio telescope at Parkes and only there since 1998. All sorts of theories were tested and after other radio telescoped failed to detect the signal and astronomical sources were excluded the team started to focus in on local phenomena. It turned out to be the observatory's microwave oven, I kid you not. 

So with the colorful history of discoveries that might have been ET let's look at the HD 164595 signal. It's a strong microwave spike. So strong infact some have theorized that it could only be produced by a civilization that could harness the entire output of their parent star. It's rather unlikely that something capable of such engineering would still be using microwave transmission for communication.  The signal also also isn't spectrally narrow like one would suspect an intentional transmission to be. There's also the fact that it doesn't particularly look like something you'd expect intelligent beings to be sending out. No obvious patterns. The argument could be made for it to be encrypted or encoded but if you're trying to get a neighboring star system's attention you probably want them to be able to understand it. Sure, it could have not been intended for intercept but why else would ET's be blasting out huge microwave bursts? An alien intelligence might use some mathematically significant signal or something else obviously artificially generated as a beacon to stand out against the noise. Random spectrally wide microwave bursts don't really do that. In fact, I'd say pulsars would have been a better candidate for SETI than this signal back in the day as their signals seemed to tick more boxes on the "might be ET" checklist. Sure, HD 164595 could be another intelligent life form trying to communicate with us but that requires extraordinary evidence. The signal could just as easily be Carl microwaving his burrito again.

RATAN Signal

The suspect signal from the paper

Simplest explanation is that it's some natural phenomena we don't fully understand. We have observed exactly one star up close and personally and have in depth experience with one solar system. There is a lot we don't quite understand yet. This isn't some smoking gun for aliens as the media is screaming about. It certainly warrants further study though. 

Chevrolet Cobalt: A Retrospective

Chevy Cobalt in Blue

My wife bought a 2005 Cobalt brand new. I've maintained it since we've been married and put a few miles on it myself. It's the normal LS trim level. Nothing terribly special in the grand scheme of things. Well, I did propose to her in it so there's that. But as far as a car goes it's as regular as you can get. Her Cobalt is low mileage for its age (around 50,000 miles) as we mostly use my vehicles with so it sees little in the way of daily duty. It still goes on longer trips and I do drive it to work sometimes in the summer. Old blue gets better mileage that my Subarus, doesn't need premium gas and doesn’t have the issue of having to be in a panic trying to find four new tires if we shred one far from home. Also, with all of my cars being manual transmissions the Cobalt is the only one Megan can drive.

It's never been a bad car for us. It's held up well, mostly only needing routine maintenance. A few issues under warranty and a bad window regulator have been the only real problems. However, we're just a sample size of one and the Chevy Cobalt has a bad reputation for some very good reasons.

It feels like GM had hopes that the Cobalt would make everyone forget the Cavalier and its image. The Cavalier, at least later versions of it, was mostly reliable if very cheaply built, even by 90s standards. The Cobalt was definitely up market from that. Anyone who bemoans a Cobalt's interior has never seen the Cavalier, Sunfire, Aspire or any other cheap domestic car from the 90s. I'm pretty sure they came from the factory with worn out bucket seats and paint coming off the plastic. In that measure the Cobalt was a success. Most certainly a movement in the upward direction for GM's small cars. It was just up against much better offerings at the time from Honda, Toyota and even Ford. It’s styling, even compared to other econoboxes of the day, was pretty boring too. Not necessarily ugly, just sort of there. The Cobalt looks simple and to be fair underneath it all it is. Chevy let the Cobalt leave the market quietly and deeply discounted. The ignition problems had become public knowledge before the model was put out to pasture. In 2010 one could find brand new cars sitting on lots for as little as $12,000. GM realized they couldn't hang with the Civic/Corolla/Focus on features and just decided to compete on being cheap. Even before ignition-gate the little car had a hard time overcoming its low rent materials and quality issues. Moving up market from the Cavalier wasn’t a very big jump, especially compared to the competition. General Motors then did what it does best and retired the beleaguered Cobalt nameplate to replace it with the Cruze. See the Vega and Cavalier for previous examples of this pattern. Where other manufacturers keep brands around GM seems happy to let any name recognition die.

The quality control issues with the Delta Platform cars were numerous from day one. American car companies in the 2000s put about as much care and time into small cars as a high schooler in a college prep English class does on a paper on Hemmingway. Large trucks and SUVs were still their bread and butter with some minor attention paid to midsize cars like the Taurus. In the big three's defense most people looking at small efficient cars like the Civic, Corolla or Prius probably wouldn't give a domestic make the time of day anyway. It's a cultural thing here in the US. Mostly it’s a hold over from the 70s when the imports were light years ahead in these respects, just look at a first generation Civic compared to a Chevy Vega. Nowadays its more of a wash in my opinion.

Unless you've had your head stuck in dark place for the last few years you've probably read about the myriad of lawsuits and recalls involving the Delta Platform cars. This was the Cobalt, Ion and G5 with a few other oddballs like the HHR. My wife's Cobalt has seen three recalls, one being for the ignition switch of doom. According to GM themselves there have been 124 deaths directly linked to the switch and airbags failing to deploying during collisions. Since that's GM's estimate I expect the actual number to be much higher, but as far as automobile deaths go 124 isn't a huge number but it's troubling that GM knew about the problem for years and failed to act on it. This is what happens when the bean counters run things. All of this is over a few cents on a ignition switch detent plunger. What was to be a rather regular car suddenly joined the likes of the Pinto and Corvair in the public's perception. 

I want to give some credit where it's due though. General Motors had some good ideas and well designed features on the Cobalt. The engineers clearly wanted it to succeed and it mostly seems like the accountants let it down. The 2.2L Ecotec is a fairly sturdy engine and low maintenance, it uses a timing chain in lieu of a belt so you avoid a costly service item there. The electric power steering works well. The trunk lid of all things amazes me. Most sedans have large hinges hanging down from the lid that intrude into the trunk space, meaning you can never quite fill the trunk up. The Cobalt has external hinges that stay out of the way and are supported on struts. You can pack that sucker up to the top if you want. On the interior has some well thought out parts too. An actual coolant temperature gauge on the dash, the gauges are actually readable in daylight, seats are comfortable and it's pretty well insulated from road noise. It's a bit spartan but it is an economy car after all. None of the controls are awkward to get to and the interior is good looking if a bit plain. You could actually order a trim level with no AC, crank windows and manual locks if you wanted  as well.


The amazing trunk lid! OK, maybe I'm just easily impressed.

Temperature Read Out

Wow! A real coolant temperature gauge! Don't see those anymore.

Which brings me to the conundrum at hand here. At some point the Cobalt seemed to be handed off to the interns to finish. Either that or the engineers got into the manger's vodka stash about midway through the process. There are parts of this car you look at and can't help but going “oh yeah, GM knew what they were doing here” and others that show they clearly dropped the ball or just weren’t paying attention. Combine this with the aforementioned bean counters trying to save pennies on its build and you’ve wound up with the Cobalt that GM hopes the rest of the world will forget. Of course I suspect GM never expect anyone to keep a Cobalt longer than a few years. Certainly not the decade we've had it. Small, inexpensive cars that hold up well over a decade don't fit in well with the idea that we're temporarily embarrassed millionaires. You're supposed to upgrade, small cars are for kids a poor people. This mentality is part of the reason why I think US manufacturers have never really had a domestic small car hit like the Civic, Fit or Corolla. 

The hit and miss syndrome wasn’t exclusive to the Delta Platform with either. GM has been quite innovative at times and then just falls right off the boat. The EV1 is probably the best example of this. GM had fully electric cars available before Elon Musk even really got PayPal off the ground, nevermind Tesla. Then they yanked the EV1 right out of consumers hands, sometimes against their will. GM of the 80s, 90s and 00s seemed to drop the ball on the follow through more often than not. We have yet to see what the post bailout GM will really be like. The Cobalt is nearly a perfect microcosm of this version of General Motors, There is a light on the horizon though as it seems they’ve started to steady their ship and up their build quality in recent years. Not to mention focusing on new technologies, economy and actually improvements in QC. The Volt is one of the most interesting hybrids on the market, they’ve started putting diesels back in small trucks and cars and despite it’s long term reliability issues the C7 Corvette is probably the closest thing to a super car killer being produced by the big three right now (at an awesome price tag I might add). But if you’re looking at a high power sports car chances are using it as a reliable daily driver isn’t high on your list. Ferrari and Porsche don’t exactly have Toyota quaking in their boots either. Only time will tell if the GM of the past is still lurking in the basement somewhere. As someone eyeing a Duramax Colorado I personally hope that GM has these problems taken care of.

I titled this as a retrospective but we have no plans on getting rid of the car. The Cobalt still runs, is paid for and is absurdly cheap to operate.  Despite dangerous reputation, dubious fit and finish, and, let’s be honest, downright blandness of the car the Cobalt continues to faithfully serve its purpose for us. It’s unassuming, non-threatening, simple and for the most part just stays out of the way. The Cobalt is a nice uneventful drive home after a day at the office. By contrast WRX is growly, mean and domineering. It requires, no it demands attention from everyone around it. I can’t drive through town on the way home with out getting revved at, headlights flashed, honked at, waved at or exciting random teenagers. It is so opposite who I am that sometimes I wonder what I’m doing with it. But, more on that later. The Cobalt just lets you slip, unnoticed and unbothered, straight through the crowd. Assured that it will work and not yell about itself each and every time.

With everything I’ve said if you’re looking for an affordable commuter a used Cobalt isn’t a bad way to go. A few of the early models had problems with the timing chain tensioner failing and poorly sealing valve seats but otherwise they seem to be able to do 200,000 miles no problem. By now I’d expect most of the infant mortality type issues to have worked their way through the ones still on the road. So, for a couple of grand you can pick up a decently comfortable, reliable car that gets upwards for 30mpg. Not bad really. Just make sure you get those recalls done.

Apollo 10 "Music"

Apollo 10 Mission Patch

Apparently there was a special on TV about music being heard by the Apollo 10 astronauts while coming around the far side of the moon. Conspiracy theorists had a field day with this as have the usual array of Facebook pages that poorly understand science and engineering. As is the case with most things explanation for the noise is a bit more mundane than aliens.

For the uninitiated NASA has posted an MP3 of the recording. There is a lot of noise from equipment, probably some of the whine is due to power inverters but at around the 2:40 mark you can faintly hear some noise. Personally I wouldn't call it music but whatever. You can hear the lunar module pilot Gene Cernan commenting on it.

If you ask me it sounds like pretty standard feedback or interference from local electronics. The command and lunar modules used VHF radios for communication which are pretty susceptible to interference from a wide range of appliances, inverters, lights, etc. Put your WiFi router near a leaky old microwave and see how far the range gets cut for a demostration of this interference. Apollo 11 reported the same noise, but once the LM touched down Collins reported the woo-woo noises ceased. To me that sounds like some sort of ground issue or feedback, not aliens. Just the sheer amount of noise in that recording would lead me to think it was just some leaky electronics or feedback.

As to the classification of these recordings lending credence to the aliens theory: it was the middle of the Cold War, everything was classified outside of school lunch menus.

Turns out space is a pretty noisy place in the radio part of the spectrum. The gas giant planets have very active magnetic fileds and are very loud radio sources. Cassini has provided us with "sounds" from Jupiter and Saturn. They're kind of creepy too:

So, it's not aliens or a government cover up. With most people these days using digital methods of telecommunication that are relatively noise free these sort of things may seem strange. However noise and interference are common to analog radio signals. Anyone else remember static on the TV or radio stations fading in and out with certain weather conditions? It's the same sort of stuff here.

Breaking Down the LIGO Announcement

Today I get to put on my physicist hat and talk about a major discovery. Admittedly the aforementioned hat is a little dusty but I'm just excited I get to use those fancy physics degrees of mine for a minute. There may be some of my old professors reading this and to them I profusely apologize and I really hope I didn't screw the explanation up too much.

Anyway, around 100 years ago there was this fellow named Einstein who had funny ideas about gravity and things that moved sufficiently fast. In 1915 Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity which dealt with gravity, basically it said that spacetime was deformable and what we measure as gravity is due to mass distorting that structure. Because of something called the Lorentz invariance of general relativity we had put a speed limit on propagation of information, this included gravity. This also broke with Newtonian physics as Newton had assumed the information from a gravitational interaction was transmitted instantaneously. Out of this fell the prediction of gravity waves. It seemed to make sense conceptually too (at least to me) given the physical construct of gravity general relativity was proposing.

Hypotheses are nice but as Warnher Von Braun once said "one test result is worth one thousand expert opinions." Fast forward around 100 years. Turns out Albert was right about a lot of things. We've measured the deflection of starlight around the sun during a total eclipse, time dilation as predicted by special relativity and dealt with the precession of the perihelion of Mercury with his theories. Over the years relativity has held up to scrutiny, so it's earned the right to be called a theory. Theory has a different denotation for scientists

This week the team at LIGO announced they had successfully detected gravity waves from colliding black holes. Now we can add gravity waves to the things Einstein was right about. Great. So what does that mean? Well, first off this is a direct observation of binary black holes. Previously we had relied on observations of the space around black holes. The math said singularities should exist, but because we can't observe or measure anything directly from them (anything within the event horizon would have to break the speed of light, an Einsteinian no-no, to reach us) we've relied on watching what they do to the stuff around them.


Visualization of gravity waves produced by black holes spiraling into each other.


However gravity waves give us a back door of sorts into direct observations. When two massive bodies spiral into each other like that they produce changes in the curvature of spacetime that propagate out in a wavelike fashion. Put another way the very thing everything is resting in is distorted in a rhythmic pattern and that pattern travels at the speed of light out in every direction from said event. LIGO measures this with a couple observatories, each have L shaped detectors that are 4 km long on each side. The fine folks over at LIGO fire a laser down each leg and reflect it back and look at the interference pattern. When the spacetime distortion happens the pattern between the two lasers changes and the wave can be measured. This is a gross simplification but you should get the idea. There are two observatories so they can corroborate their results as repeatability and verification is important in science.


Gravity waves as detected by LIGO


That leads us to important part number two. This discovery pretty much opens a whole new realm of observational astronomy and science. Now you can have radio telescopes, optical telescopes and gravity telescopes to take measurements of distant objects. I imagine we'll be able to use gravity wave measurements to figure out more accurate masses of these objects, the energies involved in these collisions and so on. This discovery is on par with Galileo's first telescope. Indeed LIGO is to gravity astronomy what that glass filled tube is to optical astronomy. Better instruments will allow for better data down the line and further testing of Einstein's theories.

Just like electromagnetic waves there is an entire spectrum of gravity waves to investigate. The masses and energies involved will dictate the frequency and amplitude of the waves along with the size of the detector needed to see it. Some gravity waves will take laser interferometers bigger than we can build here on Earth to detect. The closest analog is when Herschel discovered infrared and that the spectrum extended beyond the visible range. Pretty much everything we know about the universe comes from observations of the EM spectrum or particles interacting with detectors here on Earth. We now have another physical quantity to measure. It's like only being able to describe the make and model of a car and now suddenly you can also describe its color. Until the LIGO team's discovery we were basically blind to a fundamental physical interaction.

Does this mean that Einstein had some sort of ultimate theory? Nope. In fact the discovery of gravity waves will allow us to further stretch and test his math. He was really good at math by the way, that thing about him failing it is an urban legend to make you feel better about your own inability. Newton was shown to have a universal theory of gravitation until it failed to explain some phenomena. Today we have problems reconciling Einstein's relativity with some principles in quantum mechanics so it's not without its problems. This is conjecture but it's probable that relativity is a subset of another set of physical laws we not aware of. Newton's theory of gravity actually falls out of the math from relativity so there is precedence for such an idea. That is Newton's gravity are applicable to specific scenarios where as Einstein's are more general. So it stands to guess that there may be an even more general set of theories we don't know about yet. I don't want to bash Newton too much. We still use his laws to put probes around other planets and the guy basically invented calculus on a dare (eat it Leibniz fans).

Practical, everyday applications? Probably nothing for the foreseeable future. Don't expect Star Trek warp drive, Mass Effect biotics or other science fiction leap out of this either. The keyword there is fiction. Of course applications of this discovery could change as technology advances but I wouldn't hold my breath. I'm sure Einstein didn't envision the digital camera when he discovered the photoelectric effect (what he won the Noble Prize for, not relativity) and now practically the whole world has one at its disposal. In my opinion discovery shouldn't have to put food on the table or justify itself to be worthwhile. It's sad that we live in a world where simple curiosity isn't rewarded, but I digress. A greater understanding of the universe is a reward in itself. Well, back to my day gig of making sure college students can still get to Facebook.

Afternoons, garages and old cars

It's another Saturday afternoon. Your hands are sore, everything smells of motor oil, axle grease or ATF. It's getting close to its third decade, you've just started your forth and this three hour repair is on day number two. A mix of distrust and pride prevent you from simply taking it to a shop. You may have an understanding spouse but your friends think you've lost your mind. Questions have arisen about the financial wisdom in maintaining this vehicle or perhaps even some safety concerns.

This car, a simple means of conveyance to most, has been with you a while. Around a decade ago you began this relationship. Back then you had more ideas than money, things looked different. Retirement was something grandparents did. $300 for rent was a challenge and $300,000 for a house was unthinkable. The car took you everyday to work and class. Saw you and friends on a few trips. Eventually it drove you to a couple graduations or to a new job and your friends went their own ways. It took you and your now wife on your first date, later it drove you to your wedding. Dutifully the car moved your possessions from apartment to apartment during those first few years or marriage. Later it slogged through cold winters' days to move you into a new house.

Throughout all this change this machine remained ever constant. It's no longer just transportation but memorial of sorts. A symbol for what you once were and where you've come from.

Not only the memories but it's a connection to the way things used to be. Bluetooth? CVT? Navigation system? Nope. The 1990s weren't that long ago but things have changed. Even basic cars now are more about infotainment than driving. Digital gauges and touch screens now demand more attention than the task at hand. Huge pillars and backup cameras to compensate for the lack of visibility now standard. A truly small, light car with a clutch pedal and sense of danger is as foreign of a concept now as self driving cars were then. As Americans we claim to love driving but the evidence says otherwise.

No matter. You're different now. Progress happened. Perhaps you're a little fatter and a mortgage takes the place of that great next thing. Excitement about your potential future has been displaced somewhat by the reality of a mundane career and the realization that today is that "one day" you spent so long thinking about. Not to complain too much, you have it better than most. You have your health and the means to provide. Still, something is disconcerting about the whole situation. But not when you sit in that machine. After falling into the well worn bucket seat it's twelve years ago again. You were going to be something back then. Perhaps you still are, but this feels different. Turn the ignition and suddenly everything makes sense. The drive to do more than just get by returns.

So you lean back and start thinking about replacing those struts you've been putting off.

NRO Launch Patches

Yesterday I stumbled on a Reddit post about the launch attempt out of Vandenberg AFB. The payload belongs to the National Reconnaissance Office which is a pretty secretive place, the launch patch can be viewed below.



Somewhat mysterious and not as elaborate as other NASA patches. It could be a clue to the payload but given the history of the patches I'm going with "hey guys, let's give the graphics people a fun project and screw with some conspiracy theorists." It seems to have worked given the amount of time devoted on various blogs and boards to deciphering their meaning. Speaking of historical patches here are a few that stuck out to me:



The Latin reads "better the devil you know."


NROL 39 - Space Cthulhu


I'm surprised The History Channel hasn't done a special on this one. Once again a Reddit post led to an entire night of Wikipedia reading.

House, 30 and Growing Up (sort of)

A little over a month ago I turned 30, earlier this year we bought a house and I've recently started looking at strange things called "retirement" and "life insurance" instead of NewEgg, car parts or camera stuff. I don't get it either. There's something terrifying about realizing I could work in my current job until I'm too old to do anything else. That is the stuff of nightmares.

First off the house. We bought a nice place that's kind of out in the middle of nowhere. I've gone from maybe putting gas in my car once a month to doing about 175 miles a week of commuting. The garage is awesome and the house itself is huge. Our Realtor thought we should look at something smaller as this place is really setup for a 4+ person family. But we were largely tired of being cooped up in our ~700-800 square foot apartment and being right on top of each other all the time. Megan and I didn't even have separate office spaces and for those of you who know how I am about my desk can see how that was less than ideal.



The irony of the whole thing is that we mainly bought the place because of the huge bonus room upstairs and we almost never go up there. Seriously, a hobo could be living in it right now and we'd never know it. The first floor is much bigger than we thought so we generally stay downstairs.

I'm still not entirely sure on this whole provincial living thing. It's quiet but the connectivity is awful and I miss being able to walk to work. However there are no loud parties, drunk kids in the front yard, drive by paintings of the neighborhood, sketchy magazine sales people trying to scam you, other seemingly sketchy folks banging on the door asking for rides (we lived less than 30 feet from a bus stop), etc. All of those things actually happened by the way. At my core I think I'm a town or city dweller. I grew up in the countryside and to be perfectly honest I don't have terribly romantic feelings about it. I do miss curbside trash pickup, cell phone service and actual broadband. This DSL is what I call "for humor purposes only." We had to get an actual land line telephone too. However Megan is exceedingly happy out here so I'm content for now. I love having the space to spread out and work on projects too.

I do rather enjoy the garage as well. So much so I've nearly filled up. I recently picked up a used and abused Forester XT for a nice price that I've been working on. It needed a lot of work. New brakes, timing belt and associated hardware, plugs, and exhaust for starters. Still working on the exhaust as both catalytic converters are shot and expensive to replace if I want to stay with stock parts. I may just end up going the after market route. All this has lead me to become even more familiar with turbocharged horizontally opposed engines. That just makes it easier to work on an old Porsche at some point. I've also discovered I really enjoy heated seats, something I though absurdly frivolous before.

A lot has changed in the last few months and I've taken things with different degrees of grace or insanity. At this point I'd say 2/3rds of my coworkers can't stand to be around me. I don't fit in with adults very well. I've also been working on a few new things on the side that don't seem to be going anywhere fast at the moment, more on that later.

Apollo 11 at 45

Today marks the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. In a time when our entire civilization was held hostage by two superpowers and our own nation was struggling with massive internal strife we did the impossible. Even in our most tumultuous times humans are capable of greatness. The irony in the whole thing is we used much of the very same technology that threatened our extinction in accomplishing the Apollo program. Proof that our ingenuity is often a double edged sword. Today we face other challenges created by our own cleverness. Hopefully we will use our time and energy wisely to overcome those problems.

Buzz Aldrin's boot print on the moon

In a few thousand years, long after the people talk about the Americans as we talk about the Romans, ancient Chinese dynasties or the Aztecs today, history books will talk about our civilization's legacy and those who did great things. The great men and women of our time will largely be a footnote. I'd wager that few would remember the Clintons, Bushs, Roosevelts, Kennedys, Lincolns or Obamas. Just as most people today can't name probably more than a few Roman emperors, senators or Chinese dynasties. However three names will be probably come to mind when their history books talk of the Americans: Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins. The photo of a single boot print on another world presented in the same chapter. A reminder of a time when we first escaped the bounds of our planetary cradle and started to take our place as explorers of the cosmos. Perhaps their history books will have other tales of similar experiences on other worlds by other humans. One can imagine.

I'll leave you with a video by Mr Reid Gower who has rehashed some of the words of Carl Sagan. I wasn't alive during the Apollo program so the video and descriptions of those who were is all I have to go on. However I think this video describes the experience well.

First attempt at an SO-50 satellite pass

A few weeks ago I earned my Technician and General amateur radio license, my primary interested being listening to and communicating with satellites Today I had my first semi successful contact with SO-50.

The hardest part was finding the orientation for the antenna, I didn't quite get that right. Accounting for the Doppler shift wasn't very complicated. I started off at 436.810 Mhz and slowly worked my way down to 436.790 as SO-50 passed by.

Below is a video I recorded towards the end of the pass.

Quake 3 based games and DDoS amplification attacks

Quake 3 is one of those games that has hung around for a very long time. Not only that but its engine has been used as the basis of a ton games since the early 2000s. Id software later released the engine under the GPL and this has made it an even more popular choice for developers. Long story short, this engine isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Given its popularity, age, and simplicity it wasn't too surprising that folks are finding was to use it in a amplification attacks. It's happened to a few ioQuake3 servers I manage. At first I thought someone was trying to take my machine offline (I've had that happen too) but after some analysis I figured out what was going on. The attacks seem to come and go almost on a seasonal basis and have started cropping up again lately. In light of that I'd thought I'd share the resources I've been using to combat the problem.

Amplification attacks gained popularity in the DNS world. It's a very simple concept. The attacker spoofs their source IP address, makes a request to an unsuspecting server, and the server responds to the spoofed address. The attacker can quickly roll through a bunch of servers and redirect data to the target machine via the spoofed address. This is why it's called an amplification attack, because the attacker can gain much more throughput by combining traffic from several different sources than they could on their own connection.

Every now and again I see people using Quake 3 servers in these attacks. This includes Quake 3 Arena, ioQuake3, older COD games, etc. Anything based off the Quake 3 really. The attack is easy spot because you'll notice a disproportionate amount of traffic outbound on 27960 (or whatever port you're running the server on) compared to what's coming in. It'll jump out like a sore thumb in tcpdump, Wireshark or any other number of traffic monitoring tools. Attackers like using these games because they usually run on a standard port and are easily listed in game browsers. This allows them to dodge the suspicion that a port scan would bring them from their own ISP. In my experience it seems the attackers like to use the getstatus command as it returns a fairly large chunk of data, including a list of the connected clients. Generally in amplification attacks the attacking party will go with whatever will fire out the most data.

DDoS Diagram
A quick diagram of a amplification attack ...

Right now it seems like the best you can do is mitigate these attacks. The ioQuake3 folks have added some code into their version of the engine that can help. However it doesn't completely prevent your server from being used in an amplification attack. If your server is running on Linux there's a solution over at RawShark's blog via iptables.

# Intial fitlering. Do a little limiting on getstatus requests directly in the input chain.
iptables -A INPUT -p UDP -m length --length 42 -m recent --set --name getstatus_game
iptables -A INPUT -p UDP -m string --algo bm --string "getstatus" -m recent --update --seconds 1 --hitcount 20 --name getstatus_game -j DROP

# Quake 3 DDoS mitigaton table.
iptables -N quake3_ddos

# accept real client/player traffic
iptables -A quake3_ddos -m u32 ! --u32 "0x1c=0xffffffff" -j ACCEPT

# match "getstatus" queries and remember their address
iptables -A quake3_ddos -m u32 --u32 "0x20=0x67657473&&0x24=0x74617475&&0x25&0xff=0x73" -m recent --name getstatus --set

# drop packet if "hits" per "seconds" is reached
# NOTE: if you run multiple servers on a single host, you will need to higher these limits
# as otherwise you will block regular server queries, like Spider or QConnect
# e.g. they will query all of your servers within a second to update the list
iptables -A quake3_ddos -m recent --update --name getstatus --hitcount 5 --seconds 2 -j DROP

# accept otherwise
iptables -A quake3_ddos -j ACCEPT

# finally insert the chain as the top most input filter
iptables -I INPUT 1 -p udp --dport 27960 -j quake3_ddos

If you're running multiple servers on the same host replace the last line with the following:

iptables -I INPUT 1 -p udp --dports 27960,27961,27962 -j quake3_ddos

Again thanks to RawShark for that.

These rules will prevent your server from responding to these spoofed request. They do this by matching the request with the address it claims to be coming from and then dropping the traffic if it gets more than five hitcounts in two seconds. The initial filtering will look for a slightly different behavior directly in your input chain. With this in place your server will still get those bad requests but it won't respond to them. Usually the parties running the attack will give up in a matter of hours or a day if they don't get the desired response from your machine.

It can also be helpful to run your server on a non-standard port. While this often will just provide some security through obscurity it does seem to thwart the laziest folks in this type of scenario, which fortunately seems to be a lot of them. This has the disadvantage of having you server not show up in game browsers and a lot of public directories so it may be a no-go for some folks.

As an administrator of a Quake 3 server these attacks can range from annoying to serious business. If enough people are using your machine as an amplification point it can get you blacklisted by a number of service providers. In my experience the likely hood of it affecting your server directly is relatively low. However this is one of those "good internet citizen" things that is generally nice to keep an eye on so you aren't knocking your neighbor offline. Please be aware this doesn't "harden" your server or make things more secure, it just deals with this one type of annoyance. Again this won't stop the baddies from taking a peak at your box but is should help prevent you from beating up someone else.

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