Ask Hackaday: Quadcopter in Near Space?

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to send a quadcopter to near space and return it safely to the Earth. Getting it there is not that difficult. In fact, you can get pretty much anything you want to near space with a high altitude weather balloon. Getting it back on the ground in one piece is a whole other ballgame.

Why does someone need to do this? Well, it appears the ESA’s StarTiger team is taking a card out of NASA’s book and wants to use a Sky Crane to soft land a rover on Mars. But instead of using rockets to hold the crane steady in the Martian sky, they want to use…you guessed it, a quadcopter. They’re calling it the Dropter.

quadcopter on mars

At first glance, there seems to be a lot wrong with this approach. The atmosphere on Mars is about 100 times less dense than the Earth’s atmosphere at sea level. How do props operate in these conditions? Testing would need to be done of course, and the Earth’s upper atmosphere is the perfect place to carry out such testing. At 100,000 feet, the density of the stratosphere is about the same as that of the Martian surface atmosphere. AND 100,000 feet is prime high altitude balloon territory.  Not to mention the gravity on Mars is about 38% of Earth’s gravity, meaning a 5.5 pound model on Earth could accurately represent a 15 pound model on Mars.

With all of these facts taken into consideration, one can conclude that realistic testing of a scale model Martian quadcopter is within the grasp of the hacker community. We’ve seen some work on high altitude drones before, but never a quadcopter.

Now it’s your turn to do something no one has ever done before. Think you got what it takes to pull such a project off? Let us know what your approach to the challenge would be in the comments.

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Hackaday Links: January 18, 2015

A little while ago, we complained that there aren’t many projects using the Microview, a very cool Arduino and OLED thing that might be just too big for a ring. [Johannes] answered the call with a slot car track timer. He’s using an infrared distance sensor to count off lap times for his slot car track and a mini thermal printer to print out the times. Video right here.

Too many cables in your freshman college dorm room? Here’s the solution.

Our Internet travels frequently take us to strange auctions (we’re still looking for a US Mail truck, btw), but this one takes the cake. 24kt gold plates that were flown in space for five and a half years weighing 6,015.5 grams (212.191 oz). At the current price of $1277.06/oz, this auction should go for $270,980 USD. I’m 99% sure this was part of the Long Duration Exposure Facility, but I have no clue why this much gold was flown. Surely they could have done the same amount of science with only a hundred thousand dollars worth of gold, right?

So here’s this, but this isn’t your everyday, “put an Arduino in a vibrator” crowdfunding campaign. No, they actually have some great tutorials. Did you know that a stroke sensor looks like shag carpeting? [Scott] tells us, “I believe the founders are all graduate students getting PhDs in something or other, starting a sex toy company on the side.” More power to ’em.

Speaking of dildonics, the guy who coined that term will be giving one of the keynotes at the Vintage Computer Festival East this year. Yes, we’ll be there in full force.

First Ever Parts Emailed to Space

The shocking thing is not that this happened. The shocking thing is how normal it seems. An astronaut inside a space station needed a ratcheting socket wrench. Someone else on Earth drew it up on a computer then e-mailed the astronaut. The astronaut clicked a button and then the tool was squirted out of a nozzle. Then he picked up and used the tool for the job he needed done. No big deal.

The story itself is almost uneventful – of course we can do these things now. Sure, it happens to be the first time in mankind’s history we have done this. Yes, it is revolutionary to be able to create tools on demand rather than wait months for one to be built planet-side and put onto the next resupply rocket. But, amateurs living in places without even widespread electricity or running water have already built these machines from actual garbage.

Every once in a while a story slaps us with how much the future is now.

These particular 3d prints were duplicated on the ground, and both sets preserved for future comparative analysis to see if microgravity has any effect on 3d prints. They have an eye on sending them to Mars, a journey where resupply is more than just a couple-month inconvenience.

See the first link above for more detail and photos of NASA’s 3d printer and the Microgravity Science Glovebox in the Columbus laboratory module.

Retrotechtacular: The Construction of Wooden Propellers

During World War I, the United States felt they were lagging behind Europe in terms of airplane technology. Not to be outdone, Congress created the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics [NACA]. They needed to have some very large propellers built for wind tunnel testing. Well, they had no bids, so they set up shop and trained men to build the propellers themselves in a fantastic display of coordination and teamwork. This week’s film is a silent journey into [NACA]’s all-human assembly line process for creating these propellers.

Each blade starts with edge-grained Sitka spruce boards that are carefully planed to some top-secret exact thickness. Several boards are glued together on their long edges and dried to about 7% moisture content in the span of five or so days. Once dry, the propeller contours are penciled on from a template and cut out with a band saw.

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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.

Ask Hackaday: Help NASA With Their High Altitude Problem

image of hackaday logo on box at high altitude

Unless you’ve been living under a high voltage transformer, you’ve probably heard that NASA has grounded the Space Shuttle fleet. This makes getting stuff to and from the International Space Station slightly more difficult. With the growing need to get small experiments back to the surface quickly and safely, NASA is researching an idea they call Small Payload Quick Return, or SPQR (pdf warning). Basically, they toss the experiment out of the window, use drag to slow it down, and then use a High Altitude High Opening (HAHO) self guiding parafoil to steer the thing down to a predefined location on the surface.

Now, what we’re interested in is the self guided parafoil part, as it takes place in known hacker territory – around 100,000 feet. This is the altitude where most high altitude balloon experiments take place. NASA is throwing a bunch of money and brainpower to research this part of the system, but they’re having problems. Lots of problems.

Stick around after the break and see if you can help, and maybe pick up some ideas on how to steer your next High Altitude Balloon project back to the launch pad.

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[Tom Sachs] Builds His Own Space Program

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Born in the mid 60’s, [Tom Sachs] has always been fascinated with space, especially the Apollo program. Just like every kid of his generation, [Tom] imagined himself in Neil Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s boots, gazing over the lunar surface. He never gave up that dream, and years later as a successful modern artist, he built his own space program.

[Tom Sachs] is a master of bricolage . Taken from the French word for tinkering, Wikipedia defines bricolage as “… the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things that happen to be available, or a work created by such a process.”  The term could also describe the junkbox procurement methods we use on many of our own projects.

sachs-lunar-landerBoth [Tom’s] 2007 lunar program and his 2012 Mars program featured his astonishing lunar lander. Built from plywood, found items, and junk, the lander literally made us do a double take the first time we saw it. The attention to detail is incredible. At first glance one could mistake this for a simulator built by NASA themselves. After a few seconds the custom touches start to jump out, such as a “Thank You” garbage door from a fast food restaurant, or a bar stocked with tequila and vodka. The lander’s tools are not just for show either, as the gallery opens with a simulated space mission, which could best be described as a mix of art, improv, and an epic game of make-believe for adults.

[Tom’s] installations also include mission control, which in his Mars piece consisted of a dizzying array of screens, controls and an 80’s boombox. Dressed in the white shirt, thin tie, and horn rimmed glasses we’ve come to associate with NASA engineers of the 60’s, this is where [Tom] works. He truly is the engineer of this mission.

Editor’s Note [Tom] and the entire hacker community at large have a chance to go to space by entering The Hackaday Prize!

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