Robot Team Wins $100,000 in June; Visits US Senate in September

Could you build a robot to search for and collect samples on Mars? Team Cataglyphis from West Virginia University did. They won $100,000 last June from a prize pool of $1.5 million and are being honored in the US Senate on September 21st. The team, along with many others, have competed each June since 2012 during the NASA Sample Return Robot Challenge held at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts.

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.

The Mountaineers team robot is seen after picking up the pre-cached sample during its attempt at the level two challenge during the 2015 Sample Return Robot Challenge, Thursday, June 11, 2015 at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Mass. Sixteen teams are competing for a $1.5 million NASA prize purse. Teams will be required to demonstrate autonomous robots that can locate and collect samples from a wide and varied terrain, operating without human control. The objective of this NASA-WPI Centennial Challenge is to encourage innovations in autonomous navigation and robotics technologies. Innovations stemming from the challenge may improve NASA's capability to explore a variety of destinations in space, as well as enhance the nation's robotic technology for use in industries and applications on Earth. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)
The Mountaineers team robot is seen after picking up the pre-cached sample [Photo Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky[
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!

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‘The Martian’: A Landmark Change in How Sci-Fi is Written

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.

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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.

The interstellar clock

[Alexander Avtanski] has put together a nice clock to meet all your interstellar travel needs. Besides being another PIC based timer, this is a neat little project because it incorporates pretty much every feature you could think of when building a clock for our solar sytem.  For example, it has 16 independent timers and alarms, it can  simultaneously give the time for multiple planets, as well as keep track of other stellar events like the eye of Jupiter or the phases of the moon. To get this project off the ground [Alex] reverse engineered an old dial up modem to serve as an enclosure and power supply and then added in a rechargeable battery so that his  his interstellar clock wasn’t tied to a wall.

[via make]

Ice on Mars

It’s official: the Phoenix Lander has discovered ice on Mars. A few days ago, the lander exposed some bright white chunks of material while retrieving a soil sample. These spots have since disappeared over the following days, suggesting they’ve melted. An additional trench found a hard layer at the same depth as the original ice.

The spacecraft team has been dealing with some data storage issues as well and will be pushing a software patch soon.

Recent news followup

Last week we talked about a single rumored arrest over the OiNK torrent tracker. Since then, there’s been a confirmed report of 6 arrests. The arrests appear to be the result of users uploading pre-release music to the now defunct site. For some time, police have had access to the OiNK user records minus the passwords which are thought to be stored as a salted MD5 hash. It seems British authorities can force these individuals to reveal passwords under something called the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

The Phoenix Mars Lander (pictured above) has found what might be a large piece of ice directly underneath it. This week the lander will scoop up a sample, melt its contents and test the various gases it releases. Twitter users can watch the mission’s progress in semi real time by following the MarsPhonix account. Lastly it looks like the official website for this mission was defaced through a SQL injection attack.

We already reported the world’s largest GPS drawing as a hoax. It has however inspired a few to look closer at the concept of position based art and others have already created authentic works. Our friends over at BoingBoing even made a little flash application to create your own “Unimpressive GPS Art“. Upon hearing of the hoax we were quick to draw up a brand new proposal for DHL using Google maps.