Back in April we reported on the successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station which carried, along with supplies and experiments for the orbiting outpost, the RemoveDEBRIS spacecraft. Developed by the University of Surrey, RemoveDEBRIS was designed as the world’s first practical demonstration of what’s known as Active Debris Removal (ADR) technology. It included not only a number of different technologies for ensnaring nearby objects, it even brought along deployable targets to use them on.
Orbital debris (often referred to simply as “space junk”) is a serious threat to all space-faring nations, and has become even more pressing of a concern as the cost of orbital launches have dropped precipitously over the last few years, accelerating number and frequency of new objects entering orbit. The results of these first of their kind tests have therefore been hotly anticipated, as the technology to actively remove debris from Low Earth orbit (LEO) is seen by many in the industry to be a key element of expanding access to space for commercial purposes.
There is a looming spectre of doom hovering over the world of electronics manufacturing. It’s getting hard to find parts, and the parts you can find are expensive. No, it doesn’t have anything to with the tariffs enacted by the United States against Chinese goods this last summer. This is a problem that doesn’t have an easy scapegoat. This is a problem that strikes at the heart of any economic system. This is the capacitor and resistor shortage.
When we first reported on the possibility of a global shortage of chip capacitors and resistors, things were for the time being, okay. Yes, major manufacturers were saying they were spinning down production lines until it was profitable to start them up again, but there was relief: parts were in stock, and they didn’t cost that much more.
If someone asked me to make a list of things I didn’t expect to ever hear again, the question “Do you want to go to a Toys “R” Us?” would be pretty near the top spot. After all of their stores (at least in the United States) closed at the end of June 2018, the House of Geoffrey seemed destined to join Radio Shack as being little more than a memory for those past a certain age. A relic from the days when people had to leave their house to purchase goods.
But much to my surprise, a friend of mine recently invited me to join him on a trip to the now defunct toy store. His wife’s company purchased one of the buildings for its ideal location near a main highway, and before the scrappers came through to clean everything out, he thought I might like a chance to see what was left. Apparently his wife reported there was still “Computers and stuff” still in the building, and as I’m the member of our friend group who gets called in when tangles of wires and sufficiently blinking LEDs are involved, he thought I’d want to check it out. He wasn’t wrong.
Readers may recall that Toys “R” Us, like Radio Shack before it, had a massive liquidation sale in the final months of operations. After the inventory was taken care of, there was an auction where the store’s furnishings and equipment were up for grabs. I was told that this location was no different, and yet a good deal of material remained. In some cases there were no bidders, and in others, the people who won the auction never came back to pick the stuff up.
So on a rainy Sunday evening in September, armed with flashlight, camera, and curiosity, I entered a Toys “R” Us for last time in my life. I found not only a stark example of what the changing times have done to retail in general, but a very surprising look at what get’s left behind when the money runs out and the employees simply give up.
Space elevators belong to that class of technology that we all want to see become a reality within our lifetimes, but deep-down doubt we’ll ever get to witness firsthand. Like cold fusion, or faster than light travel, we understand the principles that should make these concepts possible, but they’re so far beyond our technical understanding that they might as well be fantasy.
Except, maybe not. When Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launches their seventh Kounotori H-II Transfer Vehicle towards the International Space Station, riding along with the experiments and supplies for the astronauts, will be a very special pair of CubeSats. They make up the world’s first practical test of space elevator technology, and with any luck, will be one of many small steps that precedes the giant leap which access to space at a fraction of the cost will be.
Of course, they won’t be testing a fully functional space elevator; even the most aggressive of timelines put us a few decades out from that. This will simply be a small scale test of some of the concepts that are central to building a space elevator, as we need to learn to crawl before we can walk. But even if we aren’t around to see the first practical space elevator make it to the top, at least we can say we were there on the ground floor.
Deep in the mojave, the largest aircraft ever made will soon be making test flights. This is the Stratolaunch, and it’s measured the largest to ever fly based on wingspan. The Stratolaunch was constructed out of two 747s, and is designed for a single purpose: as a mobile launch platform for orbital rockets.
There are a couple of ways to measure the size of an aircraft. The AN-225 Mriya has the highest payload capacity, but only one of those was ever built (though that might change soon). The Spruce Goose was formerly the largest aircraft by wingspan, but it only flew once, and only in ground effect. The Stratolaunch is in another category entirely. This is an aircraft that contains some of the largest composite structures on the planet. Not only can you park a school bus between the fuselages of the Stratolaunch, you can strap that school bus to the plane and carry it up to 30,000 feet.
But why build this astonishing aircraft? The reasons go back more than a decade, and the end result is a spaceplane.
Everyone knows that space is an incredibly inhospitable place, but the surface of Mars isn’t a whole lot better. It’s a dim, cold, and dry world, with a wisp of an atmosphere that provides less than 1% of Earth’s barometric pressure. As the planet’s core no longer provides it with a magnetosphere, cosmic rays and intense solar flares bathe the surface in radiation. Human life on the surface without adequate environmental shielding is impossible, and as NASA’s fleet of rovers can attest, robotic visitors to the planet aren’t completely immune to the planet’s challenges.
As a planet-wide dust storm finally begins to settle, NASA is desperately trying to find out if the Red Planet has claimed yet another victim. The agency hasn’t heard from the Opportunity rover, which landed on Mars in 2004, since before the storm started on June 10th; and with each passing day the chances of reestablishing contact are diminished. While they haven’t completely given up hope, there’s no question this is the greatest threat the go-kart sized rover has faced in the nearly 15 years it has spent on the surface.
Opportunity was designed with several autonomous fail-safe systems that should have activated during the storm, protecting the rover as much as possible. But even with these systems in place, its twin Spirit succumbed to similar conditions in 2010. Will Opportunity make it through this latest challenge? Or has this global weather event brought the long-running mission to a dramatic close?
Mere weeks after tariffs were put into place raising the cost of many Chinese-sourced electronics components by 25%, a second round of tariffs is scheduled to begin that will deal yet another blow to hackers. And this time it hits right at the heart of our community: 3D-printing.
A quick scan down the final tariff list posted by the Office of the US Trade Representative doesn’t reveal an obvious cause for concern. In among the hundreds of specific items listed one will not spot “Filaments for additive manufacturing” or anything else that suggests that 3D-printing supplies are being targeted. But hidden in the second list of tariff items, wedged into what looks like a polymer chemist’s shopping list, are a few entries for “Monofilaments with cross-section dimension over 1 mm.” Uh-oh!