Extra Curricular Tour of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Last week, Hackaday had the chance to tour NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Tours are given all the time at JPL, but ours was special. Steve Collins invited us, and acted as our tour guide, and a new friendship with Michelle Easter got us a look inside the labs where equipment for the 2020 Mars mission is being built.

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Hacking Your Way Through NASA

The 2016 Hackaday SuperConference took place last month in sunny Pasadena, California. Also calling Pasadena home is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the place where Mars rovers are built, where probes are guided around the solar system, and where awesome space stuff happens.

JPL had a large contingent at the SuperCon and two of them teamed up to present their talk: Charles Dandino and Lucy Du. Lucy is a mechatronics engineer at JPL and already has a little bit of fame from fielding a Battlebot in the last two seasons of ABC’s series. Charles is also in mechatronics, with experience with Curiosity, the Mars 2020 rover, and the (hopefully) upcoming asteroid redirect mission.

In their talk, Charles and Lucy uncovered some of the hacks happening in the background at JPL. There’s a lot of them, and their impact goes much further than you would expect. Everything from remote control cars to keeping spacecraft alive on the other side of the solar system.

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Who Said FORTRAN is Dead?

NASA has an urgent need for a FORTRAN developer to support the Voyager spacecraft. Popular Mechanics interviewed Voyager program manager [Suzanne Dodd] who is looking to fill [Larry Zottarell’s] shoes when he retires.

We had a lot of people comment on my recent Hackaday article, “This Is Not Your Father’s FORTRAN”, who studied the language at some point. Maybe one of you would like to apply? You need to do so soon! NASA is hoping to give the new hire six to twelve months with [Zottarell] for on-the-job training. You’ll need to brush up on your vintage assembly language too.

light data system hwThe two Voyagers were some of the first NASA spacecraft to use computers. The resources are limited in the three 40 year-old computers found on each probe. They handle the spacecraft’s science and flight software. The software is a little more recent having been updated only 25 years ago in 1990.

A big problem is a lot of the engineering design materials are no longer in existence. People’s memories of the events and reasons for decisions made that long ago are bit hazy. But NASA does have an emergency list of those former engineers when questions arise. That means this could be more than just a job where you program for ancient hardware, you could find a lot of reasons to interact with the people who pioneered this field!

This will be an awesome hack. Anyone up to doing remote computing at a distance of 12 billion miles?

A video on the history of the two voyagers is found after the break.

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Hackaday 10th Anniversary: Hacking Your Way To NASA

[Steve] drives spacecraft for a living. As an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he’s guided probes to comets, asteroids, Mars, and Jupiter, figured out what happens when telemetry from these probes starts looking weird, and fills the role of the Space Hippy whenever NASA needs some unofficial PR.

Like most people who are impossibly cool, [Steve]’s career isn’t something he actively pursued since childhood. Rather, it’s something that fell in his lap. With qualifications like building a robotic computer to typewriter interface, a custom in-car navigation system in the late 80s, and a lot of work with an Amiga, we can see where [Steve] got his skills.

The earliest ‘hack’ [Steve] can remember was just that – an ugly, poorly welded sidecar for his bicycle made in his early teens. From there, he graduated to Lasertag landmines, Tesla coils, and building camera rigs, including a little bit of work on Octopussy, and a rig for a Miata. It helps when your dad is a cinematographer, it seems.

In college, [Steve] used his experience with 6502 assembler to create one of the first computerized lighting controllers (pre-DMX). After reading a biography on [Buzz Aldrin], [Steve] realized doing his thesis on orbital rendezvous would at least be interesting, if not an exceptionally good way to get the attention of NASA.

Around this time, [Steve] ran into an engineering firm that was developing, ‘something like Mathematica’ for the Apple II, and knowing 6502 assembly got him in the door. This company was also working to get the GPS constellation up and running, and [Steve]’s thesis on orbital mechanics eventually got him a job at JPL.

There’s several lifetimes worth of hacks and builds [Steve] went over at the end of his talk. The highlights include a C64 navigation system for a VW bug, a water drop high voltage machine, and a video editing system built from a few optical encoders. This experience with hacking and modding has served him well at work, too: when the star sensor for Deep Space 1 failed, [Steve] and his coworkers used the science camera as a stand in navigation aid.

One final note: Yes, I asked [Steve] if he played Kerbal Space Program. He’s heard of it, but hasn’t spent much time in it. He was impressed with it, though, and we’ll get a video of him flying around the Jool system eventually.

Mars Science Laboratory lands today

Since launching on November 26, 2011, the newest Mars rover Curiosity has been speeding towards the red planet. Its days in the harsh vacuum of space are numbered as Curiosity prepares to land in just a few hours.

The landing of Curiosity at Gale crater is scheduled to be received on Earth at Aug 5, 10:31 pm PDT / Aug 6, 1:31 am EDT / Aug 6, 5:31 am UTC. The latest updates on the success or failure of ramming into the Martian atmosphere should be available on NASA TV and this feed from JPL. There’s a huge bunch of feeds on spaceindustrynews.com, and of course the Twitter for the wonderfully anthropomorphized Curiosity.

If landing a Volkswagen-sized, nuclear powered robot on the surface of Mars isn’t cool enough, we’ll also see a picture of the descent from Martian orbit via the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The Atlantic has a bunch of awesome pictures showing off Curiosity’s preparation for launch. Of course there are videos after the break including one by [Stan Love] explaining why it’s soooooo hard to get to Mars.

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Make your own Aerogel

Our own [Eliot] dug this one up from the grave. While the recipe has been online for a while, do you know many 10 year olds who made their own Aerogel, that wonderful insulator that’s essentially gelled air? [William] made some(cache) for his science project in 2002. He started with Silbond H5, a combination of ethyl alcohol and ethyl polysilicate. You can get the MSDS after a painless email registration on the Silbond website. After the gel is formed you have to soak it in an alcohol bath to make sure all water has been removed from the structure. Then the gel is placed in a drying chamber. Liquid CO2 is forced into the chamber to displace all the alcohol in the chamber and the structure. Once the the alcohol is gone the supercritical drying phase begins. The temperature is raised to 90degF and the pressure is regulated to 1050psi. At this point the liquid CO2 in the gel structure takes on gas properties (looses surface tension) and leaves the silica structure. All that remains in the chamber is your new Aerogel which is 99% empty space and 1000 times less dense than glass.

Of course, if you’re lazy, you can buy some here.