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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“The Martian” is a Hacker’s Dream – In Space

You’ve probably seen the ads and heard the buzz about the movie “The Martian”, where a Mars astronaut, Mark Watney, is left on the planet and presumed dead. You may have read our previous article about the eponymous book by Andy Weir. That article wondered if the movie would do justice to the book.

It did.

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_Martian_film_posterthe 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.

For hackers, this movie should be paired with “Interstellar”, because of their fidelity to science. “The Martian” contains actual NASA technology and plans for Mars missions. “Interstellar”, well, what can you say bad about a movie that originated in the mind of Caltech Theoretical Physicist, Kip Thorne. The science in this movie is so real Thorne wrote an entire book describing it, and managed a few scientific papers based on the research required to accurately present the black hole.

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.

Movie trailer after the break.

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Robot Dances on the Icy Ceiling

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is working on a robot for the exploration of Europa’s oceans. A big problem is the oceans are under a permanent ice ceiling. JPL is making that ceiling a feature with a robot that dances, okay wheels, on the ceiling.

The Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration (BRUIE) is, as the name says, buoyant so it floats against the ice ceiling. Two large paddle wheels allow it to drive along the ceiling.

Andy Klesh from JPL with BRUIE
Andy Klesh from JPL with BRUIE

In 2012 they took an earlier version to Barrow, Alaska for testing under the ice. While the temperatures encountered there may not match those of Europa’s frozen methane [Europa is water, also – Rud] it’s still a challenging environment for man and robot. One of the challenges for the arctic exploration team was the need to test when the ice was thin enough to make a hole. They had to proceed judiciously to avoid falling in.

Recently they tested a newer version rover the California Science Center aquarium, giving new meaning to the phrase “swimming with the fishes.” Andy Klesh, principal investigator for the rover at JPL and volunteer diver at the science center accompanied BRUIE during the testing. Sometime in the future they hope to turn BRUIE loose in a lake where it can explore autonomously.

Fortunately the arctic team didn’t encounter any polar bears, another possible risk. When the rover makes it to Europa it’s unlikely to encounter an extra-terrestrial equivalent.

Video coverage after the break.

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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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Hanging Onto the World’s Greatest Piggyback Ride.

We were really sad to see NASA retire the Space Shuttle. Even though it’s being replaced with some new and exciting hardware, we have fond memories of the Shuttle program. The good news is that a lot of the old hardware can now be seen up close and personal. [Brady Haran] recently took a video tour of one of the iconic pieces of hardware from the Shuttle program, the Shuttle Carrier N905NA.

NASA purchased the Boeing 747-100 in 1974 from American Airlines, and by 1976 the jumbo jet was put on a strict diet in preparations to carry the shuttle on it’s back for transportation and initial testing. She was stripped of her interior (all but few first class seats), sound deadening, air conditioning, and baggage compartment. Vertical fins on the tail were added for yaw stability, and the four Pratt and Whitney turbofans were upgraded to more powerful units. The fuselage was strengthened, and mounting points for the shuttle added. Even with all the weight savings, it severely limited the 747’s range from about 5000 miles to about 1000 miles while the orbiter was on it’s back. The aircraft was retired from service after ferrying the Shuttles to their final destinations in 2012.

In the video after the break, you can take a short tour of the N905NA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston where they are preparing it for public display. Visitors will be able to tour the 747 (with exhibits inside the fuselage), and a very accurate mock-up of the shuttle that sits atop.
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Hanging Out With Someone Who Walked On The Moon

Lunar dune buggy rides, piloting the most powerful machine made by humankind, stuck thrusters, landing, eating, sleeping, and working on the moon. It does not get any more exciting than the Apollo program! I was recently given the opportunity to sit in on the MIT course, Engineering Apollo: the Moon Project as a Complex System where I met David Scott who landed on the moon as commander of Apollo 15. I not only sat in on a long Q and A session I also was able to spend time with David after class. It is not every day you that you meet someone who has landed on the moon, below are my notes from this experience.

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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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