Good news this week from Mars, where Ingenuity finally managed to check in with its controllers after a long silence. The plucky helicopter went silent just after nailing the landing on its 52nd flight back on April 26, and hasn’t been heard from since. Mission planners speculated that Ingenuity, which needs to link to the Perseverance rover to transmit its data, landed in a place where terrain features were blocking line-of-sight between the two. So they weren’t overly concerned about the blackout, but still, one likes to keep in touch with such an irreplaceable asset. The silence was broken last week when Perseverance finally made it to higher ground, allowing the helicopter to link up and dump the data from the last flight. The goal going forward is to keep Ingenuity moving ahead of the rover, acting as a scout for interesting places to explore, which makes it possible that we’ll see more comms blackouts. Ingenuity may be more than ten-fold over the number of flights that were planned, but that doesn’t mean it’s ready for retirement quite yet.
As hackers, most of us probably bear the “fixing a hardware problem in software” mark of shame. It’s understandable, of course — a few clicks on a keyboard beats dragging out the soldering iron to replace components, or waiting for a redesigned part to print. But should car manufacturers really be doing the same thing? Apparently they are, as Ford is now under investigation for pushing a software fix for a strictly mechanical problem. The underlying problem, which affects a quarter-million Explorers in the US, happens when a bolt holding the rear axle breaks, potentially resulting in the driveshaft coming disconnected. The problems this could cause if it happens while the car is moving are intuitively obvious to even the least mechanically inclined. But, Ford decided to concentrate on a different failure mode — the bolt fracturing while the vehicle is parked. This could, and apparently has, led to runaway cars in driveways and parking lots, an admittedly serious problem but really only half the story. Their genius solution was not to fix the mechanical issue, but to push a software update to apply the vehicle’s electric parking brake if the driveshaft disconnects. Let that one just sink in for a bit.
We’ve got to think there’s more to this story that we don’t know, because we don’t want to live in a world where engineers can’t see the unintended consequences of such a fix. This seems to be happening already; drivers are reporting erratic behavior on fixed Explorers, which has caused at least one accident. Scotty Kilmer has some strong opinions on this in the video below — we know Scotty is an acquired taste, but he’s got a point.
We’ve been following a weird story where Harvard professor Avi Loeb speculates that he may have recovered fragments of extraterrestrial technology from the floor of the sea. The story goes that in January 2014, a fireball was spotted off the coast of Papua New Guinea by US Department of Defense satellites. Based on the nature of the original object’s orbit and velocity, it appeared to be of interstellar origin and was dubbed IM-1. The US Space Command confirmed that their data matched Dr. Loeb’s in 2019, and gave him the approximate location where the meteor’s debris would have ended up, which he narrowed down further using seismographic data. Armed with that information, Loeb et al mounted a major expedition to recover fragments of the meteor from the seabed with a magnetic sled, which has just concluded. Their efforts recovered around 50 sub-millimeter metallic spherules, composed mainly of iron and silicon with magnesium, titanium, and trace elements. Importantly, no such material was recovered from a control area outside the predicted impact zone of IM-1. Regardless of what you think of Dr. Loeb’s conjectures on extraterrestrial visitors, recovering tiny fragments of a probable interstellar meteor from the seabed is an amazing technical accomplishment, especially given the amount of junk that’s down there. “Paint buckets per square kilometer” is our new favorite unit.
We found a neat little hack where someone with a Commodore SX-64 got access to a digital cinema projector, with predictable results. No, there was no malfeasance; everything appears on the level here. The hardware needed to connect the 40-year-old computer to the projector was surprisingly simple — just a RetroTINK 2X-Mini retrogaming video adapter and a couple of cables. There wasn’t much time to play, though; apparently, the 1920s art deco theater was about to be used for some classic film screenings. And while we admit that the retrogaming experience on such a big screen would be pretty cool, think about the demoscene!
And finally, for those of us in the United States, this past Tuesday was Independence Day, known almost universally as the Fourth of July. Our celebration of this day is pretty well known, with cook-outs, sports, and general summer fun, followed at nightfall by raucous fireworks shows, by both professional pyrotechnicians and…let’s call them freelancers. This writer’s neighborhood was ablaze all evening long, and the show was fantastic — even getting hit in the face by a chunk of shrapnel from a nearby mortar round didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. I was taken aback, though, by the air quality alert I got on my phone around 10:00 PM — we usually only see those when forest fire smoke sweeps in. When I checked AirNow.gov the next day, I was pretty surprised to see what all our celebrating had wrought: