That NASA EM Drive Paper: An Expert Opinion

A week or two ago we featured a research paper from NASA scientists that reported a tiny but measurable thrust from an electromagnetic drive mounted on a torsion balance in a vacuum chamber. This was interesting news because electromagnetic drives do not eject mass in the way that a traditional rocket engine does, so any thrust they may produce would violate Newton’s Third Law. Either the Laws Of Physics are not as inviolate as we have been led to believe, or some other factor has evaded the attempts of the team to exclude or explain everything that might otherwise produce a force.

As you might imagine, opinion has entrenched itself on both sides of this issue. Those who believe that EM drives have allowed us to stumble upon some hitherto undiscovered branch of physics seized upon the fact that the NASA paper was peer-reviewed to support their case, while those who believe the mechanism through which the force is generated will eventually be explained by conventional means stuck to their guns. The rest of us who sit on the fence await further developments from either side with interest.

Over at Phys.org they have an interview from the University of Connecticut with [Brice Cassenti], a propulsion expert, which brings his specialist knowledge to the issue. He believes that eventually the results will be explained by conventional means, but explains why the paper made it through peer review and addresses some of the speculation about the device being tested in space. If you are firmly in one of the opposing camps the interview may not persuade you to change your mind, but it nevertheless makes for an interesting read.

If EM drives are of interest, you might find our overview from last year to be an illuminating read. Meanwhile our coverage of the NASA paper should give you some background to this story, and we’ve even had one entered in the Hackaday Prize.

Hacking Your Way Through NASA

The 2016 Hackaday SuperConference took place last month in sunny Pasadena, California. Also calling Pasadena home is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the place where Mars rovers are built, where probes are guided around the solar system, and where awesome space stuff happens.

JPL had a large contingent at the SuperCon and two of them teamed up to present their talk: Charles Dandino and Lucy Du. Lucy is a mechatronics engineer at JPL and already has a little bit of fame from fielding a Battlebot in the last two seasons of ABC’s series. Charles is also in mechatronics, with experience with Curiosity, the Mars 2020 rover, and the (hopefully) upcoming asteroid redirect mission.

In their talk, Charles and Lucy uncovered some of the hacks happening in the background at JPL. There’s a lot of them, and their impact goes much further than you would expect. Everything from remote control cars to keeping spacecraft alive on the other side of the solar system.

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NASA Wants SpacePoop Hackers

NASA is looking for a few good men and women to solve an upcoming problem. Astronauts will soon be venturing outward beyond Earth orbit. If the spacecraft cabin should depressurize then they’ll have to put on their spacesuits and may have to keep them on for up to six days. During that time something will have to handle the resulting urine, fecal, and menstrual waste, all without the astronauts use of their hands. And that’s where you come in.

NASA is having a space poop challenge. The current system of an adult diaper won’t last six days. Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to design a system that will move the waste away from the skin where it can cause infection. Continue reading for the rather unique requirements.

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EM Drive Paper Published By Eagleworks Team

There are one or two perennial scientific stories that sound just too good to be true, but if they delivered on their promise would represent a huge breakthrough and instantly obsolete entire fields. One example is so-called “cold fusion”, the idea that nuclear fusion could be sustained with a net energy release at room temperature rather than super-high temperature akin to that of the sun. We all wish it could work, but so far it has obstinately refused. As a TV actor portraying a space engineer of the future once said, one “cannae change the Laws of Physics“.
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NASA Puts its 3D Models Up on GitHub

NASA has a bunch of its 3D models up on GitHub, and if you didn’t know about it before, you do now. It’s a ridiculously large download, at over one and a half jiggabytes, but it’s full of textures and high-resolution models of spacecraft, landing sites, and other random NASA ephemera.

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Specifications You Should Read: The NASA Workmanship Standards

"This is reflective of the typically idiosyncratic way engineer's of this era explored the human condition. The purple and shitty gradient show's the artists deep struggle with deadlines and his personal philosophy on the tyranny of the bourgeois. " - A segment from a confused student's art history paper
“Reflective of the typically idiosyncratic way engineers of this era explored the human condition. The shitty gradient show’s the deep struggle with deadlines and their personal philosophy on the tyranny of the bourgeois. ” – An excerpt from a confused student’s art history paper after the standard is installed in the Louvre.

The NASA workmanship standards are absolutely beautiful. I mean that in the fullest extent of the word. If I had any say in the art that goes up in the Louvre, I’d put them up right beside Mona. They’re a model of what a standard should be. A clear instruction for construction, design, and inspection all at once. They’re written in clear language and contain all the vernacular one needs to interpret them. They’re unassuming. The illustrations are perfectly communicative.  It’s a monument to the engineer’s art.

Around five years ago I had a problem to solve. Every time a device went into the field happily transmitting magic through its myriad connectors, it would inevitably come back red tagged, dusty, and sad. It needed to stop. I dutifully traced the problem to a connector, and I found the problem. A previous engineer had informed everyone that it was perfectly okay to solder a connector after crimping. This instruction was added because, previously, the crimps were performed with a regular pair of needle nose pliers and they came undone… a lot. Needless to say, the solder also interfered with their reliable operation, though less obviously. Stress failures and intermittent contact was common.

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Toyota’s Code Didn’t Meet Standards and Might Have Led To Death

We were initially skeptical of this article by [Aleksey Statsenko] as it read a bit conspiratorially. However, he proved the rule by citing his sources and we could easily check for ourselves and reach our own conclusions. There were fatal crashes in Toyota cars due to a sudden unexpected acceleration. The court thought that the code might be to blame, two engineers spent a long time looking at the code, and it did not meet common industry standards. Past that there’s not a definite public conclusion.

[Aleksey] has a tendency to imply that normal legal proceedings and recalls for design defects are a sign of a sinister and collaborative darker undercurrent in the world. However, this article does shine a light on an actual dark undercurrent. More and more things rely on software than ever before. Now, especially for safety critical code, there are some standards. NASA has one and in the pertinent case of cars, there is the Motor Industry Software Reliability Association C Standard (MISRA C). Are these standards any good? Are they realistic? If they are, can they even be met?

When two engineers sat down, rather dramatically in a secret hotel room, they looked through Toyota’s code and found that it didn’t even come close to meeting these standards. Toyota insisted that it met their internal standards, and further that the incidents were to be blamed on user error, not the car.

So the questions remain. If they didn’t meet the standard why didn’t Toyota get VW’d out of the market? Adherence to the MIRSA C standard entirely voluntary, but should common rules to ensure code quality be made mandatory? Is it a sign that people still don’t take software seriously? What does the future look like? Either way, browsing through [Aleksey]’s article and sources puts a fresh and very real perspective on the problem. When it’s NASA’s bajillion dollar firework exploding a satellite it’s one thing, when it’s a car any of us can own it becomes very real.