In some ways, we’ve become a little jaded when it comes to news from Mars, which almost always has to do with the Ingenuity helicopter completing yet another successful flight. And so it was with the report of flight number 54 — almost. It turns out that the previous flight, which was conducted on July 22, suffered a glitch that cut the flight short by forcing an immediate landing. We had either completely missed that in the news, or NASA wasn’t forthcoming with the news, perhaps until they knew more. But the details of the error are interesting and appear related to a glitch that happened 46 flights before, way back in May of 2021, that involves dropped frames from the video coming from the helicopter’s down-facing navigational camera. When this first cropped up back on flight six, it was only a couple of missed frames that nearly crashed the craft, thanks to confusion between the video stream and the inertial data. Flight engineers updated the aircraft’s software to allow for a little more flexibility with dropped frames, which worked perfectly up until the aborted flight 53.
The report doesn’t say how many frames were dropped this time, but it was more than the threshold that was added in the software update, which triggered the “LAND_NOW” program — which clearly deserves the all-caps treatment — to run and forced the helicopter down to safety. They’re still giving the machine a thorough checkup, including flight 54, a brief “up-and-down” hop to generate data the team can use to find out what was going on. We’ll be keeping a close eye on this — Ingenuity doesn’t owe us anything at this point, but we’d sure hate to say goodbye right now.
Speaking of diagnostics, San Francisco’s fleet of robotaxis seems to be much in the news lately, and sadly, not much of it seems to be good. First, we spotted a report of an autonomous Chevy Bolt EV from ride-hailing company Cruise running very afoul of a semi-truck (presumably ICE and human-driven) in a most embarrassing way. The semi seems to have been trying to negotiate a left turn from a main thoroughfare onto a narrower side street, which often requires the driver to swing very wide to the right and basically block the entire roadway briefly. The robotaxi apparently was having none of this, though, and plunged right on, only to be smooshed by the trailer. Now, we’re not saying that this wouldn’t have happened if a human had been driving the Bolt — accidents like this happen all the time. But this seems like one of those edge cases where human emotions, namely the fear of large, heavy things moving close to you, would tend to keep a human driver at a safe distance until the truck completed the questionably legal turn. It’s hard to see how you can program the same sense of self-preservation into autonomous vehicles, and it seems like we may be seeing the results of that here.
Also from San Francisco come reports of people hailing driverless taxis for something other than the ride. We’ll let you read the article, but it seems safe to say that, despite having huge windows and cameras all over the place, some people feel like the lack of a human driver in the front seat and a couple of minutes to spare is all the excuse you need to get freaky. So next time you decide to hail a robotaxi, maybe bring along some wet wipes.
We ran across an interesting article on a talk that came from the bomb-scare-shortened DEF CON last week on the risks of ANSI escape sequences. If you’re unfamiliar with ANSI escapes, they make things like text highlighting on command lines possible. They’re immensely useful because they increase the legibility of an otherwise monochrome terminal session by giving you visual clues that make things stand out from the wall-of-text look. But being simple ASCII character sequences, it’s possible to craft an exploit that will insert ANSI escapes into a system’s log files and have arbitrary code executed when an admin runs the log through something like
grep. We’re not sure how practical this attack would be, or if there are any examples of ANSI escape exploits in the wild, but it does sound pretty devious.
Finally, here are two cool videos for your enjoyment. The first is a graphical representation of a coronal mass ejection (CME) in 2014 and how it interacted with different spacecraft as it blasted out from the Sun and into space. The CME started on October 14 and was detected by instruments aboard spacecraft sprinkled across the solar system from Venus to Pluto within a matter of months. The passing wave of charged particles also interacted with the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars, and eventually even managed to catch up with Voyager 2 by March. That last one is a little humbling — after all, Voyager 2 left Earth in 1977, and the Sun caught up to it in just 153 days.
And finally finally — shoulda used a 555, and they did:
But does it bother anyone else that they’ve got this poor chip walking backward?