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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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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Converting a Roomba into a Mars rover

When we first heard of [Dino]’s all-terrain Roomba, we hoped the ‘stair-climbing Roomba’ problem had finally been solved, but the final build turned out much cooler.

A year ago, [Dino] built a small robot based on a rocker-bogie suspension. This suspension system has been used on every Mars rover, including the huge Mars Science Labratory scheduled to land on Mars next year. [Dino] beefed up the suspension from the previous version and changed the wheels and center of gravity. Now, the little Roomba rover seems quite capable of climbing over objects as tall as itself.

The control of the rover is similar to other Roomba hacks we’ve seen – just tapping a few transistors. [Dino] is using a Seeduino and an ultrasonic sensor to avoid collisions. [Dino] says that he’s thinking about pivoting each wheel independently to get around the skid-steering, but maybe an omnidirectional wheel would be better suited.

Check out the video after the break for a demo of the Roomba rover traversing the treacherous boulder strewn terrain in [Dino]’s garage.

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