80 Years From Invention, China Is Struggling With Jet Engines

The jet engine has a long and storied history. Its development occurred spontaneously amongst several unrelated groups in the early 20th Century. Frank Whittle submitted a UK patent on a design in 1930, while Hans von Ohain begun exploring the field in Germany in 1935. Leading on from Ohain’s work, the first flight of a jet-powered aircraft was in August 27, 1939. By the end of World War II, a smattering of military jet aircraft had entered service, and the propeller was on the way out as far as high performance aviation is concerned.

With the invention of the jet engine so far in the past, one could be forgiven for thinking that the technology has long been mastered around the world. However, recent reports show that’s not the case. China is a great example, facing issues with the development of jet engines for their indigenous military aircraft.

Closely Guarded Secrets

China’s development of ballpoint pen tips was a national news story in 2017. Source: Xinhua

In the age of the Internet and open source, technology moves swiftly around the world. In the consumer space, companies are eager to sell their product to as many customers as possible, shipping their latest wares worldwide lest their competitors do so first. In the case of products more reliant on infrastructure, we see a slower roll out. Hydrogen-powered cars are only available in select regions, while services like media streaming can take time to solve legal issues around rights to exhibit material in different countries. In these cases, we often see a lag of 5-10 years at most, assuming the technology survives to maturity.

In most cases, if there’s a market for a technology, there’ll be someone standing in line to sell it. However, some can prove more tricky than others. The ballpoint pen is one example of a technology that most of us would consider quaint to the point of mediocrity. However, despite producing over 80% of the world’s ballpoint pens, China was unable to produce the entire pen domestically. Chinese manufactured ballpoint tips performed poorly, with scratchy writing as the result. This attracted the notice of government officials, which resulted in a push to improve the indigenous ballpoint technology. In 2017, they succeeded, producing high-quality ballpoint pens for the first time.

The secrets to creating just the right steel, and manipulating it into a smooth rolling ball just right for writing, were complex and manifold. The Japanese, German, and Swiss companies that supplied China with ballpoint tips made a healthy profit from the trade. Sharing the inside knowledge on how it’s done would only seek to destroy their own business. Thus, China had to go it alone, taking 5 years to solve the problem.

There was little drive for pen manufacturers to improve their product; the Chinese consumer was more focused on price than quality. Once the government made it a point of national pride, things shifted. For jet engines, however, it’s somewhat of a different story.

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What Is The Tianwen-1 Probe Saying?

A few days ago, the Chinese National Space Administration launched their Tianwen-1 mission to Mars from their launch site in the province of Hainan. It should arrive at the Red Planet in April 2021, when it will face the daunting task of launching a surface probe from its orbiting component, which will release a rover once it has reached the surface. Like all such missions it’s in constant contact with its controllers on the ground, and as with any radio transmissions floating through the aether its telemetry has been received by the radio hacker community and analaysed by [r00t].

Straight away there’s something interesting in the modulation scheme, instead of a carrier with modulation applied to it there is a main unmodulated centre carrier, and the data appears instead on a series of subcarriers. Is this a feature of its being a space probe, the unmodulated carrier making it easier to find and track in deep space?

They quickly find the telemetry carrier, and decode its frames. It carries a series of data sets, including positional and instrumentation data. From the positional data they can tell when the craft has made any course changes, and from the sensor data such as the solar sensor its movement can be deduced and graphed. It makes for a fascinating insight into the mission, and we’re grateful for the analysis.

Mars is a notoriously difficult target for space probes, somewhere that multiple missions have for various reasons failed to reach. We hope the Tianwen-1 mission is ultimately successful and that in time the Chinese space people will in due course be showing us some of the fruits of their labours. They’re not alone in launching this month, so we’ve got a plethora of Mars-related stories to look forward to next year.

Header image: Tianwen-1 rover mockup. Pablo de León‎ / CC BY-SA 3.0

Busting GPS Exercise Data Out Of Its Garmin-controlled IoT Prison

If you take to the outdoors for your exercise, rather than walking the Sisyphusian stair machine, it’s nice to grab some GPS-packed electronics to quantify your workout. [Bunnie Huang] enjoys paddling the outrigger canoe through the Singapore Strait and recently figured out how to unpack and visualize GPS data from his own Garmin watch.

By now you’ve likely heard that Garmin’s systems were down due to a ransomware attack last Thursday, July 23rd. On the one hand, it’s a minor inconvenience to not be able to see your workout visualized because of the system outage. On the other hand, the services have a lot of your personal data: dates, locations, and biometrics like heart rate. [Bunnie] looked around to see if he could unpack the data stored on his Garmin watch without pledging his privacy to computers in the sky.

Obviously this isn’t [Bunnie’s] first rodeo, but in the end you don’t need to be a 1337 haxor to pull this one off. An Open Source program called GPSBabel lets you convert proprietary data formats from a hundred or so different GPS receivers into .GPX files that are then easy to work with. From there he whipped up less than 200 lines of Python to plot the GPS data on a map and display it as a webpage. The key libraries at work here are Folium which provides the pretty browsable map data, and Matplotlib to plot the data.

These IoT devices are by all accounts amazing, listening for satellite pings to show us how far and how fast we’ve gone on web-based interfaces that are sharable, searchable, and any number of other good things ending in “able”. But the flip side is that you may not be the only person seeing the data. Two years ago Strava exposed military locations because of an opt-out policy for public data sharing of exercise trackers. Now Garmin says they don’t have any indications that data was stolen in the ransomware attack, but it’s not a stretch to think there was a potential there for such a data breach. It’s nice to see there are Open Source options for those who want access to exercise analytics and visualizations without being required to first hand over the data.