Hacking when it Counts: Much Space Station Hacking Saved Skylab

Thanks to the seminal work of Howard and Hanks et al, the world is intimately familiar with the story behind perhaps the most epic hack of all time, the saving of the crippled Apollo 13 mission. But Apollo 13 is far from the only story of heroic space hacks. From the repairs to fix the blinded Hubble Space Telescope to the dodgy cooling system and other fixes on the International Space Station, both manned and unmanned spaceflight can be looked at as a series of hacks and repairs.

Long before the ISS, though, America’s first manned space station, Skylab, very nearly never came to fruition. Damaged during launch and crippled both electrically and thermally, the entire program was almost scrapped before the first crew ever arrived. This is the story of how Skylab came to be, how a team came together to fix a series of problems, and how Skylab went on to success despite having the deck stacked against her from the start.

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DARE To Fly: Live Coverage Of A 50KM Rocket Launch

We wrote about the Delft Aerospace Rocket Engineering (DARE) project recently: a group of students at Delft Technical University who are trying to launch a rocket to 50kM, breaking the European amateur rocketry record. Now, the group is close to their latest launch attempt, which is scheduled to take place from their launch base in Spain between the 14th and the 20th of October.

Launch preparations are underway, with the team working through a 10,000 point pre-launch checklist. Last year, their launch failed because of a leaking valve, but the amateur engineers have just successfully completed a pressure test using inert gas, so they are confident that this problem won’t happen again. They are offering a live video feed of the launch (embedded below), and will be regularly updating their twitter feed as they prepare. We wish them the best of luck.

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Wireless Rocket Motor Analyzer Tests Rockets, Saves Fingers

Testing rocket motors is a dangerous business, as they have an annoying habit of releasing all of that energy a little quicker than you might like. [Jeff Hopkins] knows this, so he made his own wireless rocket motor analyzer that allows him to trigger, test and monitor rocket motors from a safe distance. This involves more than just pushing a button and watching them go whoosh: his platform measures the thrust of the prototype over 90 times a second and transmits this data to him remotely for logging and later analysis. His current prototype can measure engines with up to 400 lbs of thrust. That is a lot, so it is a good thing that his rig can also remotely arm, fire or safe the motors, all over a 70cm wireless radio link that keeps him safely out of the way. It is also built of cheap parts, so if a RUD (Rapid Unplanned Disassembly) does occur, it won’t cost him much to rebuild and start again.

This project is part of a bigger plan: [Jeff] is looking to build a high-power launch platform that can launch an electronics platform high above the earth. Could this be the beginning of the race to be the first hacker in space? We shall see…

“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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Original Hackers’ New Satellite in Orbit

Ham radio put another satellite in orbit, the FOX-1A. Not many groups have the long-term hacking credentials of hams. Their tradition extends back to the first days of radio communications, which puts the group well over a century old. This newest satellite launched in the early hours of October 8th and, after deployment, was heard later the same day. Anyone with the ability to listen on the 2m band can hear FOX-1A. Tatlas-v-rocket-launches-nrol55-cubesatshose licensed as hams will be able to communicate using a 70cm transmitter while listening on 2m.

This satellite is using the cube-sat format and ‘ride sharing’ through a program offered by NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Twelve other nano-satellites rode along with the FOX-1A. These 10 cm cubes are used for commercial, educational, and non-profit projects. The purpose of today’s satellites covered not only ham radio but educating students in satellite construction, land management by American Indian tribes, and space to ground laser communication. Yeah, what’s cooler than space lasers? Video about the FOX-1A after the break.

We’ve seen some interesting ideas for cube-sats. And if you want to think about the ground portion of a system like this, check out the SatNOGs story — winners of the 2014 Hackaday Prize.

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CubeSat Challenge Winners Show Interesting Design Approaches

The winners are in for the GrabCad CubeSat Challenge, which asked designers to rethink the way that CubeSats are built. These tiny 10 cm square satellites are the hot thing in orbit, and the competition was looking for new ways to build and pack more into this tiny space. The winners offered some fascinating new approaches to building CubeSats, and some excellent design lessons that anyone can use.

The winner was FoldSat, by [Paolo Minetola]. His excellent design is a 3D printed folding case for a satellite that is built from just two 3D printed parts. The case can be snapped together and offers multiple ways to mount electronic components and sensors inside. [Paolo] estimates that it could save 40% time and 30% materials from existing CubeSat casings, which means more space inside and more time to build. It is an excellent example of how 3D printing can make things cheaper, easier and better, all at the same time.

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Dutch Student Team Aims To Launch Rocket to 50KM

Space. The final frontier. These are the voyages of DARE, the [Delft Aerospace Rocket Engineering] team, who are looking to launch a rocket to 50 kilometers (about 31 miles) to break the European amateur rocketry record later this year.

This brave crew of students from the Delft Technical University is boldly going where no European amateur has gone before with a rocket of their own design called Stratos II, a single stage hybrid rocket which is driven by a DHX-200 Aurora engine. This self-built engine uses a combination of solid Sorbitol and candlewax fuel, with liquid Nitrous Oxide as the oxidizer. The rather unlikely sounding combination should produce an impressive 12,000 Newtons of maximum thrust, and a total of 180,000 Ns of impulse. It’s difficult to make a proper comparison, but the largest model rocket motor sold in the US without a special license (a class G) has up to 160 Ns of impulse and the largest engine ever built by amateurs had 411,145 Ns of impulse.

The team did try a launch last year, but the launch failed due to a frozen fuel valve. Like any good engineering team, they haven’t let failure get them down, and have been busy redesigning their rocket for another launch attempt in the middle of October, Their launch window begins on October 13th at a military base in southern Spain, and we will be watching their attempt closely. Godspeed, DARE!

In commercial space news, yesterday NASA tested the RS-25 engine that will be used in the Space Launch System — the rocket it’s developing to take astronauts to the moon and mars. Also, the NTSB report on the tragic crash of SpaceShipTwo was released a few weeks ago. The report found that the feather mechanism was unlocked by the copilot at the wrong time, leading to the crash. Future system improvements will be put in place to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

Update – The Stratos II is a single-stage rocket, not a two-stage, as an earlier version of this article described. 8/16/15

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