Is there room on Mars and Europa for cute robots? [NASA] — collaborating with [UC Berkley] and [Distant Focus Corporation] — have the answer: PUFFER, a robot inspired by origami.
PUFFER — which stands for Pop-Up Flat-Folding Explorer Robot — is able to sense objects and adjust its profile accordingly by ‘folding’ itself into a smaller size to fit itself into nooks and crannies. It was designed so multiple PUFFERs could reside inside a larger craft and then be deployed to scout otherwise inaccessible terrain. Caves, lava tubes and shaded rock overhangs that could shelter organic material are prime candidates for exploration. The groups of PUFFERs will send the collected info back to the mother ship to be relayed to mother Earth.
One of the biggest challenges of traveling to Mars is that it’s far away. That might seem obvious, but that comes with its own set of problems when compared to traveling to something relatively close like the Moon. The core issue is weight, and this becomes a big deal when you have to feed several astronauts for months or years. If food could be grown on Mars, however, this would make the trip easier to make. This is exactly the problem that [Clinton] is working on with his Martian terrarium, or “marsarium”.
The first task was to obtain some soil that would be a good analog of Martian soil. Obtaining the real thing was out of the question, as was getting similar dirt from Hawaii. [Clinton] decided to make his own by mixing various compounds from the hardware store in the appropriate amounts. From there he turned to creating the enclosure and filling it with the appropriate atmosphere. Various gas canisters controlled by gas solenoid valves mixed up the analog to Martian atmosphere: 96% dioxide, 2% argon, and 2% nitrogen. The entire experiment was controlled by an Intel Edison with custom circuits for all of the sensors and regulating equipment. Check out the appropriately dramatic video of the process after the break.
While the fern that [Clinton] planted did survive the 30-day experiment in the marsarium, it wasn’t doing too well. There’s an apparent lack of nitrogen in Martian soil which is crucial for plants to survive. Normally this is accomplished when another life form “fixes” nitrogen to the soil, but Mars probably doesn’t have any of that. Future experiments would need something that could do this for the other plants, but [Clinton] notes that he’ll need a larger marsarium for that. And, if you’re not interested in plants or Mars, there are some other interesting ramifications of nitrogen-fixing as well.
Interplanetary probes were a constant in the tech news bulletins of the 1960s and 1970s. The Space Race was at its height, and alongside their manned flights the two superpowers sent unmanned missions throughout the Solar System. By the 1980s and early 1990s the Space Race had cooled down, the bean counters moved in, and aside from the spectacular images of the planets periodically arriving from the Voyager series of craft there were scant pickings for the deep space enthusiast.
The launch in late 1996 of the Mars Pathfinder mission with its Sojourner rover then was exciting news indeed. Before Spirit, the exceptionally long-lived Opportunity, and the relatively huge Curiosity rover (get a sense of scale from our recent tour of JPL), the little Sojourner operated on the surface of the planet for 85 days, and proved the technology for the rovers that followed.
In these days of constant online information we’d see every nuance of the operation as it happened, but those of us watching with interest in 1997 missed one of the mission’s dramas. Pathfinder’s lander suffered what is being written up today as the first bug on Mars. When the lander collected Martian weather data, its computer would crash.
Like many other spacecraft, the lander’s computer system ran the real-time OS VxWorks. Of the threads running on the craft, the weather thread was a low priority, while the more important task of servicing its information bus was a high priority one. The weather task would hog the resources, causing the operating system equivalent of an unholy row in our Martian outpost. A priority inversion bug, and one that had been spotted before launch but assigned a low priority.
You can’t walk up to a computer on another planet and swap out a few disks, so the Pathfinder team had to investigate the problem on their Earthbound replica of the lander. The fix involved executing some C code on an interpreter prompt on the spacecraft itself, something that would give most engineers an extremely anxious moment.
[Tony Stark Elon Musk] envisions us sending one million people to Mars in your lifetime. Put aside the huge number or challenges in that goal — we’re going to need a lot of places to live. That’s a much harder problem than colonization where mature trees were already standing, begging to become planks in your one-room hut. Nope, we need to build with what’s already up there, and preferably in a way that prepares structures before their inhabitants arrive. NASA is on it, and by on it, we mean they need you to figure it out as part of their 3D Printed Hab Challenge.
The challenge started with a concept phase last year, awarding $25k to the winning team for a plan to use Martian ice as a building material for igloo-like habs that also filter out radiation. The top 30 entries were pretty interesting so check them out. But now we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty. How would any of these ideas actually be implemented? If you can figure that out, you can score $2M.
Official rules won’t be out until Friday, but we’d love to hear some outrageous theories on how to do this in the comments below. The whole thing reminds us of one of the [Brian Herbert]/[Kevin J. Anderson] Dune prequels where swarms of robot colonists crash-land on planets throughout the universe and immediately start pooping out building materials. Is a robot vanguard the true key to planet colonization, and how soon do you think we can make that happen? We’re still waiting for robot swarms to clean up our oceans. But hey, surely we can do both concurrently.
In summary, Watney survives by creating one glorious, but realistic, hack after another. NASA and the other astronauts support him by coming up with some marvelous hacks along the way. One, encompassing the entire spaceship containing the surviving astronauts, is developed by the ship’s Captain, Melissa Lewis. Okay, that one may not be totally realistic but it’s mind blowing.
Reading about the hacks is one thing. Seeing them on the screen adds another dimension. Matt Damon, as Watney, mixing his own waste with water to fertilize potatoes is an image you cannot create in your mind’s eye.
One usual trick Hollywood plays is to switch the actions of minor characters to the major characters. That leaves out the ‘little guy’ in the backroom who frequently has the great idea. Often that’s us. Here they kept the woman who first saw Watney moving equipment on Mars and the astrophysicist who, well, I won’t spoil it, saved the day.
It’s a wondrous trend to see science fiction movies based on real science and not being dumbed down to the point of insult. You know it has to be good if XKCD did a comic. Surprisingly, Hollywood didn’t do a ‘hack’ job on either of these movies.
The SRR, as it’s called by the teams, is a two phase competition. In Phase 1 the robot must leave the starting platform, collect a pre-cached sample, and return the sample to the starting platform. Phase 2 is more difficult because the robot must not only collect the pre-cached sample but search a park for 9 additional samples. The park is a typical urban park about 1.5 football fields large with grass, trees, and park benches as obstacles.
Since the robots are supposed to be on celestial bodies lacking magnetic fields like Mars or the Moon, they cannot use a magnetometer (compass) or GPS satellites to determine their pose, i.e. orientation and location. Add to that handicap grueling time limits of 30 minutes for Phase 1 and 120 minutes for Phase 2 and you’ve got a huge challenge on your hands.
The Mountaineers, as they were known in the robot pits, are the only team to collect two samples during the competition. Another team from Los Angeles, Team Survey, was the first to complete Phase 1 in 2013, but only managed, in 2015, to collect the pre-cached sample during Phase 2.
All the teams who have competed are waiting to see if there will be a competition in 2016 and I am among them. After the break you’ll find a couple of videos of the 2015 competition. One is about the Mountaineers but the other us from NASA 360. If you look quickly during the opening sequence of the NASA 360 video you’ll see two small black robots. One is on its side spinning its wheels; the other jammed under a rock. Those are my rovers from the 2013 SRR. I’m chasing the dream of a winning extra-planetary rover and you should too!
Unless you’ve been living under a rock on Mars for the last few hundred “Sols”, you most likely have heard about the book “The Martian” by [Andy Weir]. It’s not often that we here at HAD will give a book recommendation, but there are so many cool little things going on here, that we just had to share it with you fine folks. We’re not going to give anyway any spoilers here. But be warned that the videos at the bottom do, and we would like to encourage the comments to be spoiler-free.
So why did this book catch our attention? Well, first off, it was self-published online, one chapter at a time by a really great writer. And as the people following his work grew, the author started to get more and more feedback about the story and technical details. He would then go back and make revisions to the work based on his audience suggestions/corrections. Does that remind you of something? Maybe a bit like the Open Source movement? Of course writers have worked with their audiences to help maintain continuity from one novel through each of its sequels. But this is fundamentally different, the audience becomes a creative force that can time-travel to rewrite the unfinished story’s… story.
The Second thing that grabbed our attention is that this is a book written by a fellow geek. See, [Andy] is a programmer by trade and in writing this book, rather than just making up dates and flight paths of spaceships, and he actually wrote software to do real orbital mechanics, so that the book is as accurate as possible. If you love reading technical details, while being very entertained by a great story (what Hackaday reader doesn’t?), this is the book for you.
If your hands are too busy with a soldering iron, we can also wholeheartedly suggest the audio book, as the performer does an amazing job. Or if you want, you can just wait until the movie comes out in October. We can’t guarantee Hollywood won’t screw this up, so you’d better hedge and read the book beforehand.
Thar’ be spoilers below. We’re including the movie trailer after the break, as well as a talk [Andy Weir] gave at Google where he shows the software he used while writing the book and several other spoilers and details.