A report released this week suggests that 50 flights into its five-flight schedule, the Mars helicopter might be starting to show its age. The report details a protracted communications outage Ingenuity’s flight controllers struggled with for six sols after flight 49 back in April. At first attributed to a “communications shadow” caused by the helicopter’s robotic buddy, Perseverance, moving behind a rocky outcrop and denying line of sight, things got a little dicey once the rover repositioned and there was still no joy. Since the helicopter has now graduated from “technology demonstration” to a full-fledged member of the team tasked with scouting locations for the rover while respecting the no-fly zone around it, it was essential to get it flying again. Several attempts to upload a flight plan failed with nothing but an acknowledgment signal from the helicopter, but a final attempt got the program uploaded and flight 50 was a complete if belated success. So that’s good, but the worrying news is that since Sol 685, the helicopter has been switching in and out of nighttime survival mode. What that portends is unclear, but no matter how amazing the engineering is, there’s only so much that can be asked on Ingenuity before something finally gives.
Also in Mars news this week, our own Al Williams covered an interesting project that really seems to have captured the attention of space geeks, math geeks, and crypto geeks — the signals kind, not the money kind — alike. The project is called A Sign in Space, and is aimed at developing the chops needed to decode a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence. Should we ever be so lucky as to actually pick up something, chances are pretty good that what was encoded by lifeforms that evolved under completely different circumstances from us will be essentially incomprehensible. The simulated ET message, which was sent to Earth from a European Space Agency probe in orbit around Mars, is now available to one and all, and has garnered a lot of attention over on the project’s Discord. Whatever the message is, we really hope it’s not some variation of “So long, and thanks for all the fish,” or “Shaka, when the walls fell!” Although we’d suggest that the decoders check the polarization of the signal for any hidden messages.
A word to the wise: If your experiments tend toward the RF variety, do NOT mess with the amateur radio bands. Unless, of course, you have a spare $24,000 lying around that you want to donate to the Federal Communication Commission. That’s what it’ll cost Philip Beaudet (N6PJB) who allegedly engaged in some very bad behavior in late 2022. Local hams complained that Beaudet regularly interfered with the Western Amateur Radio Friendship Association’s net by playing recorded music while members were trying to check in, while refusing to identify himself. An FCC agent caught him in the act three times, and now he has 30 days to cough up the fine. Strangely, they didn’t revoke his license, which seems like the least they could do to clean up the airwaves.
At the risk of stating the obvious, landing on the Moon is hard. It’s only been done successfully a few dozen times, and while it’s not as complicated as nailing a Mars landing, it still carries plenty of challenges. We got a stark reminder of this fact with the recent failure of ispace’s HAKUTO-R mission, which was to be the first private lunar landing mission but crashed into the surface. We now have views of the crash site thanks to a flyover by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, as well as an explanation of what went wrong. Surprise! It was a software error; apparently, the radar altimeter got confused as the lander passed over a deep crater with steep sides, and calculated the lunar surface to be five kilometers higher than it actually is. The good news is that the lander absolutely nailed landing on that virtual lunar surface; the bad news is that as it hovered there waiting for the pads to touch the surface, it ran out of fuel and took a free-fall ride to the real surface.
And finally, we all know someone — or might actually be someone — who loves to pick apart movies that depict space travel in ways that violate the laws of physics. Yes, we know that spacecraft don’t need wings and wouldn’t bank and jink like World War II fighters trying to evade an enemy on their six, but there’s something to be said for just getting into the spirit of the proceedings. And so in a similar vein, we present one Tom Tierney, a physics teacher who absolutely ruins Pink Floyd’s classic 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon with physics. While pointing out that there really is no dark side of the Moon, his main quibble is with the optics depicted by Storm Thorgerson’s iconic design, which aren’t accurate in virtually any way. What’s cool about this is that Tom uses the artwork in his physics lessons, having students make measurements from the cover to determine the refractive index of the depicted prism, which clearly was not made of glass. We shouldn’t complain, because it’s not mean-spirited or petty at all, and if it helps teach physics, we’re all for it. But there’s something slightly sacrilegious about attacking DSOTM, at least for some of us.