NASA’s Long-Delayed Return To Human Spaceflight

With the launch of the SpaceX Demo-2 mission, the United States has achieved something it hasn’t done in nearly a decade: put a human into low Earth orbit with a domestic booster and vehicle. It was a lapse in capability that stretched on far longer than anyone inside or outside of NASA could have imagined. Through a series of delays and program cancellations, the same agency that put boot prints on the Moon and built the iconic Space Shuttle had been forced to rely on Russia to carry its astronauts into space since 2011.

NASA would still be waiting to launch its own astronauts had they relied on America’s traditional aerospace giants to get the job done. The inaugural flight of the Boeing CST-100 “Starliner” to the International Space Station in December was an embarrassing failure that came perilously close to losing the unmanned capsule. A later investigation found that sloppy software development and inconsistent testing had caused at least two major failures during the mission, which ultimately had to be cut short as the vehicle couldn’t even reach the altitude of the ISS, to say nothing of making a docking attempt. NASA and Boeing have since agreed to attempt another test of the CST-100 sometime before the end of the year, though a delay into 2021 seems almost inevitable due to the global pandemic.

But America’s slow return to human spaceflight can’t be blamed on the CST-100, or even Boeing, for that matter. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA has been hindered by politics and indecisiveness. With a constantly evolving mandate from the White House, the agency’s human spaceflight program has struggled to make significant progress towards any one goal.

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Hackaday Prize And Conservation X Labs Issue Design Challenges To Address Extinction Crisis

When most people think of extinct species, they likely imagine prehistoric creatures such as dinosaurs or woolly mammoths. Extinction is something you read about in history books, nature’s way of removing contestants in the great game of life. It’s a product of a cruel and savage world, and outside of a few remaining fringe cases, something that humanity’s advanced technology has put a stop to.

Unfortunately, the truth is far more complicated than that. The planet is currently going through its sixth major extinction event, and this time, it’s our fault. Humanity might not be willfully destroying the natural habitats of the plants, fish, birds, and other lifeforms that have been eradicated, but we’re responsible for it just the same. Humans are an apex predator unlike any the world has ever seen before, and the only force that can stop us is ourselves.

Founded in 2015, Conservation X Labs is devoted to doing everything it can to end this sixth wave of extinction. Unsatisfied with the pace of traditional conservation, they leverage technology and open innovation to develop unique new ways of combating the damage our species has done to life on this planet. After all, it’s the only one we’ve got.

We’ve partnered with this organization to help develop solutions to some of these problems. This includes an open call challenge that anyone can enter, and a Dream Team program that you can get involved with if you act quickly. Let’s take a look at what Conservation X Labs is all about, and what is involved with the challenges at hand.

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X-37B Spaceplane To Test Power Beaming Technology

Since 2010, the United States military has been operating a pair of small reusable spaceplanes that conduct secretive long-duration flights in low Earth orbit. Now officially operating under the auspices of the newly formed Space Force, the X-37Bs allow the military to conduct in-house research on new hardware and technology with limited involvement from outside agencies. The spaceplane still needs to hitch a ride to space on a commercial rocket like the Atlas V or the Falcon 9, but once it’s separated from the booster, the remainder of the X-37B’s mission is a military affair.

An X-37B being prepared for launch.

So naturally, there’s a lot we don’t know about the USSF-7 mission that launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on May 17th. The duration of the mission and a complete manifest of the experiments aboard are classified, so nobody outside the Department of Defense truly knows what the robotic spacecraft is up to. But from previous missions we know the craft will likely remain in orbit for a minimum of two years, and there’s enough public information to piece together at least some of the investigations it will be conducting.

Certainly one the most interesting among them is an experiment from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) that will study converting solar power into a narrow microwave beam; a concept that has long been considered the key to unlocking the nearly unlimited energy potential offered by an orbital solar array. Even on a smaller scale, a safe and reliable way to transmit power over the air would have many possible applications. For example it could be used to keep unmanned aerial vehicles airborne indefinitely, or provide additional power for electric aircraft as they take-off.

Performing an orbital test of this technology is a serious commitment, and shows that all involved parties must have a fairly high confidence level in the hardware. Unfortunately, there isn’t much public information available about the power beaming experiment currently aboard the X-37B. There’s not even an indication of when it will be performed, much less when we should expect to see any kind of report on how it went. But we can make some educated guesses based on the work that the Naval Research Laboratory has already done in this field.

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Improving 3D Printed Supports With A Marker

Anyone who’s spent some quality time with a desktop 3D printer is familiar with the concept of supports. If you’re working with a complex model that has overhanging features, printing a “scaffolding” of support material around it is often required. Unfortunately, supports can be a pain to remove and often leave marks on the finished print that need to be addressed.

Looking to improve the situation, [Tumblebeer] has come up with a very unique modification to the traditional approach that we think is certainly worthy of closer examination. It doesn’t remove the need for support material, but it does make it much easier to remove. The method is cheap, relatively simple to implement, and doesn’t require multiple extruders or filament switching as is the case with something like water-soluble supports.

The trick is to use a permanent marker as a release agent between the top of the support and the area of the print it’s actually touching. The coating of marker prevents the two surfaces from fusing, while still providing the physical support necessary to keep the model from sagging or collapsing.

To test this concept, [Tumblebeer] has outfitted a Prusa i3 MK3S with a solenoid actuated marker holder that hangs off the side of the extruder assembly. The coil is driven from the GPIO pins of a Raspberry Pi running OctoPrint, and is engaged by a custom command in the G-code file. It keeps the marker out of the way during normal printing, and lowers it when its time to lay down the interface coating.

[Tumblebeer] says there’s still a bit of hand-coding involved in this method, and that some automated G-code scripts or a custom slicer plugin could streamline the process considerably. We’re very interested in seeing further community development of this concept, as it seems to hold considerable promise. Having a marker strapped to the side of the extruder might seem complex, but it’s nothing compared to switching out filaments on the fly.

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Breathing New Life Into Old School ThinkPad Keyboards

The ThinkPad is generally considered the unofficial laptop of hackerdom, so it’s no surprise that we see plenty of projects focused on repairing and modifying these reliable workhorses. But while we usually see folks working on relatively modern incarnations of this iconic line of computers, this project by [Frank Adams] and [Brian Chan] shows that the hacker’s love affair with the ThinkPad stretches back farther than many might realize.

As explained on the project’s Hackaday.io page, the duo have produced an open hardware board that will allow you to take the keyboard and trackpoint from a late ’90s ThinkPad 380ED and use it as a standard USB input device on a modern computer. According to [Frank], the keyboards on these machines are notable for having full-size keys rather than the “chicklet” boards that are so common today.

Now you may be wondering why this is significant. After all, we’ve seen plenty of projects that hook up an old keyboard to a USB-equipped microcontroller to get them speaking the lingua franca. Well, the trick here is that the trackpoint on these older ThinkPads actually required additional circuitry on the motherboard to function. The keyboard features three separate FPC connections for the matrix, the trackpoint buttons, and the analog strain gauges in the trackpoint itself.

After a considerable amount of reverse engineering, [Frank] and [Brian] have developed a board that uses the Teensy 3.2 to turn this plethora of pins into something useful. In the video after the break, you can see the new composite USB device working perfectly on a modern Windows computer.

It will probably come as little surprise to find that [Frank] is no stranger to hacking ThinkPad keyboards. In 2018 we covered a similar adapter he built for the far more modern T61, which was an absolute cakewalk by comparison.

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This Frequency Generator Knows How To Get Down

What kind of clever things could you do with a signal that had a period of 2 hours? Or 20? Any ideas? No seriously, tell us. Because [Joseph Eoff] has come up with a way to produce incredibly low frequency signals that stretch out for hours, and we’d love to figure out what we can do with it.

To be fair, it’s not like [Joseph] has any ideas either. He thought it would be an interesting project, and figures now that he has the technology, maybe some application will come to him. They say that if you’ve got a hammer everything looks like a nail, so maybe the next project he sends our way will be a sinusoidal fish feeder.

[Joseph] says doing the software side of things with Pure Data wasn’t a problem, but getting it out of the computer proved to be tricky. It turns out that your average computer sound card isn’t equipped to handle frequencies down into the millihertz range (big surprise), so they need to be coaxed out with some extra hardware. Using a simple circuit not unlike an AM demodulator, he’s able to extract the low-frequency signal from a 16 kHz carrier.

So if you ever find yourself in need of a handful of hertz, now you’ve got the tool to generate them. At least it’s more practical than how they used to generate low frequency signals back in the 1900s.

A DIY Electronics Lab You Can Show Off With Pride

It’s hardly a secret that getting into a serious electronics habit can be detrimental to your bank account. A professional grade lab is simply unobtainable for many a tinkerer, and even mid-range hardware can set you back considerably. Which is why many folks just starting out will attempt to salvage or build as much of their equipment as possible. It might not always be pretty, but it’ll get the job done.

But this project by [Chrismettal] could end up completely reinventing the home electronic workspace. Using 3D printed frames, low-cost components, and a sprinkling of custom PCBs, this modular electronics workbench has all the bells and whistles an aspiring hardware hacker could need. As an added bonus, it looks like something that came off the International Space Station.

Inside the resistor substitution module.

This is one of those projects that simply can’t be done justice in a few paragraphs. If you’ve ever wanted to put together a dedicated electronics workbench but were put off by the cost of individual components, read though the fantastic documentation [Chrismettal] has prepared for the EleLab_v2. Is it all top-of-the-line hardware? No, of course not. But it’s more than suitable for the kind of work people in this community usually find themselves involved in on a weekend.

So what’s included? Naturally [Chrismettal] has created a power supply module, in both variable and fixed flavors. But there’s also a module for a resistor substitution, a component tester, and even a digital storage oscilloscope. You can mix and match the modules suit your needs, and if you want to create entirely new ones, the FreeCAD sources are available to get you started.

We’ve seen low-cost power supply modules before, and naturally we’re no strangers to cheap DSO kits. But this project wraps those devices and gadgets up into a form factor that anyone would be happy to have on their bench. We’re exceptionally interested in seeing new modules developed for the EleLab_v2, and doubt this is the last time you’ll see this impressive project grace these pages.

[Thanks to BrunoC for the tip.]