Stolen Tech: The Soviet Shuttle

The US Space Shuttle program is dead and buried. The orbiters can now be found in their permanent homes in the Air and Space Museum, Kennedy Space Center, and the California Science Center. The launch pads used by the shuttles over a career of 135 launches are being repurposed for vehicles from SpaceX and the Space Launch System. Yes, some of the hardware and technology will be reused for NASA’s next generation of heavy launch vehicles, but the orbiter – a beautiful brick of a space plane – is forever grounded.

The Space Shuttle was a product of the cold war, and although the orbiters themselves were never purely military craft, the choices made during the design of the Space Shuttle were heavily influenced by the US Air Force. The Soviet Union was keenly aware the United States was building a ‘space bomber’ and quickly began development of their own manned spaceplane.

While this Soviet Shuttle would not be as successful as its American counterpart — the single completed craft would only fly once, unmanned — the story of this spaceplane is one of the greatest tales of espionage ever told. And it ends with a spaceship that was arguably even more capable than its American twin.

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Greased Lightning Shows 360 Degrees

A lot of people got drones for Christmas this year (and many Hackaday readers already had one, anyway). A lot of these drones have cameras on them. The expensive ones beam back live video via RF. The cheaper ones just record to an SD card that you can download later.

If you are NASA, of course, this just isn’t good enough. At the Langley Research Center in Virginia, they’ve been building the Greased Lightning (also known as the GL-10) which is a 10-engine tilt-prop unmanned aerial vehicle. The carbon fiber drone is impressive, sure, but what wows is the recent video NASA released (see below).

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The Price of Space

Many engineers of a certain age have one thing in common: Their early interest in science and engineering came from watching the US and Russian space programs. To me, regardless of any other benefit from the space program (and there are many), that ability to inspire a future generation of engineers made the entire program worthwhile.

We live in a world where kids’ role models are more likely to be sports or entertainment figures that have regular visits to police stations, jails, and rehab centers. The value of having role models that “do science” is invaluable.

This time of the year is a dark time for NASA missions, though. On January 27, 1967, the Apollo I crew (Grissom, White, and Chaffee) died in a fire. The investigation led to NASA limiting how much Velcro you can use in a cabin and moving away from pure oxygen in the cabin.

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Paddy Neumann’s Bounce Per Ounce is Better Than NASA’s

[Paddy Neumann] is an Australian physicist and founder of Neumann Space, a space start-up with a record-breaking ion drive.

The team at Neumann Space built an ion engine that broke the previous specific impulse (bounce per ounce) record. NASA’s HIPEP thruster previously held this record with a specific impulse of ~9600 seconds (+/- 200 seconds). The Neumann Drive’s specific impulse as recorded by the University of Sydney was ~14,690 seconds (+/- 2,000 seconds). This all equates to better efficiency by the Neumann Drive, however its acceleration does not match that of the HIPEP.

Simplified ion engine diagram courtesy of Neumann Space

The Neumann Drive has another unique advantage in its range of usable fuels. In comparison to the HIPEP which uses Xenon gas as fuel the Neumann Drive accepts a variety of metals including: Molybdenum, Magnesium, Aluminum, Carbon, Titanium, Vanadium, Tin, last and also least according to Neumann Space is Bismuth.

Interestingly, Neumann offered his intellectual property (IP) to the University of Sydney, since the research was done at the University but they passed on the offer. This allowed the IP to be returned to Paddy and he subsequently applied for a patent and began the search for funding for continued research.

Here at Hackaday we like space, in fact we’ve offered to send you to space more than once with the Hackaday Prize. We also enjoy amateur rocketry and young rocket scientists.

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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