New Space Abort Systems Go Back To The Future

Throughout the history of America’s human spaceflight program, there’s been an alternating pattern in regards to abort systems. From Alan Shepard’s first flight in 1961 on, every Mercury capsule was equipped with a Launch Escape System (LES) tower that could pull the spacecraft away from a malfunctioning rocket. But by the first operational flight of the Gemini program in 1965, the LES tower had been deleted in favor of ejection seats. Just three years later, the LES tower returned for the first manned flight of the Apollo program.

Mercury LES Tower

With the Space Shuttle, things got more complicated. There was no safe way to separate the Orbiter from the rest of the stack, so when Columbia made its first test flight in 1981, NASA returned again to ejection seats, this time pulled from an SR-71 Blackbird. But once flight tests were complete, the ejector seats were removed; leaving Columbia and all subsequent Orbiters without any form of LES. At the time, NASA believed the Space Shuttle was so reliable that there was no need for an emergency escape system.

It took the loss of Challenger and her crew in 1986 to prove NASA had made a grave error in judgment, but by then, it was too late. Changes were made to the Shuttle in the wake of the accident investigation, but escape during powered flight was still impossible. While a LES would not have saved the crew of Columbia in 2003, another seven lives lost aboard the fundamentally flawed Orbiter played a large part in President George W. Bush’s decision to begin winding down the Shuttle program.

In the post-Shuttle era, NASA has made it clear that maintaining abort capability from liftoff to orbital insertion is a critical requirement. Their own Orion spacecraft has this ability, and they demand the same from commercial partners such as SpaceX and Boeing. But while all three vehicles are absolutely bristling with high-tech wizardry, their abort systems are not far removed from what we were using in the 1960’s.

Let’s take a look at the Launch Escape Systems for America’s next three capsules, and see where historical experience helped guide the design of these state-of-the-art spacecraft.

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Robotic Dishwashers And Dishwashing As A Service

There’s a story that goes back to the 1980s or so about an engineering professor who laid down a challenge to the students of his automation class: design a robot to perform the most mundane of household tasks — washing the dishes. The students divided up into groups, batted ideas around, and presented their designs. Every group came up with something impressive, all variations on a theme with cameras and sensors and articulated arms to move the plates around. The professor watched the presentations respectfully, and when they were done he got up and said, “Nice work. But didn’t any of you idiots realize you can buy a robot that does dishes for $300 from any Sears in the country?”

The story may be apocryphal, but it’s certainly plausible, and it’s definitely instructive. The cultural impression of robotics as a field has a lot of ballast on it, thanks to decades of training that leads us to believe that robots will always be at least partially anthropomorphic. At first it was science fiction giving us Robbie the Robot and C3PO; now that we’re living in the future, Boston Dynamics and the like are doing their best to give us an updated view of what robots must be.

But all this training to expect bots built in the image of humans or animals only covers a narrow range of use cases, and leaves behind the hundreds or thousands of other applications that could prove just as interesting. One use case that appears to be coming to market hearkens back to that professor’s dishwashing throwdown, and if manufacturers have their way, robotic dishwashers might well be a thing in the near future.

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Ask Hackaday: What Are Your Apollo Memories?

This month will mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that brought to a successful conclusion the challenge laid down by President Kennedy only eight years earlier. Three men went to the Moon, two walked on it, and they all came back safely, in a dramatic eight-day display of engineering and scientific prowess that was televised live to the world.

If you’ve made more than 50 trips around the sun, chances are good that you have some kind of memories of the first Moon landing. An anniversary like this is a good time to take stock of those memories, especially for something like Apollo, which very likely struck a chord in many of those that witnessed it and launched them on careers in science and engineering. We suspect that a fair number of Hackaday readers are in that group, and so we want to ask you: What are your memories of Apollo?

A Real American Hero

My memory of the Moon landing is admittedly vague. I had just turned five the month before, hadn’t even started kindergarten yet, but I had already caught the space bug in a big way. I lived and breathed the space program, and I knew everything about the Mercury missions that were over by the time I was born, and the Gemini missions that had just wrapped up. Apollo was incredibly exciting to me, and I was pumped to witness the landing in the way that only a five-year-old can be.
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Teardown: VeriFone MX 925CTLS Payment Terminal

Regular Hackaday readers may recall that a little less than a year ago, I had the opportunity to explore a shuttered Toys “R” Us before the new owners gutted the building. Despite playing host to the customary fixture liquidation sale that takes place during the last death throes of such an establishment, this particular location was notable because of how much stuff was left behind. It was now the responsibility of the new owners to deal with all the detritus of a failed retail giant, from the security camera DVRs and point of sale systems to the boxes of employee medical records tucked away in a back office.

Clipping from New York Post. September 24th, 2018.

The resulting article and accompanying YouTube video were quite popular, and the revelation that employee information including copies of social security cards and driver’s licenses were left behind even secured Hackaday and yours truly a mention in the New York Post. As a result of the media attention, it was revealed that the management teams of several other stores were similarly derelict in their duty to properly dispose of Toys “R” Us equipment and documents.

Ironically, I too have been somewhat derelict in my duty to the good readers of Hackaday. I liberated several carloads worth of equipment from Geoffrey’s fallen castle with every intention of doing a series of teardowns on them, but it’s been nine months and I’ve got nothing to show for it. You could have a baby in that amount of time. Which, incidentally, I did. Perhaps that accounts for the reshuffling of priorities, but I don’t want to make excuses. You deserve better than that.

So without further ado, I present the first piece of hardware from my Toys “R” Us expedition: the VeriFone MX 925CTLS. This is a fairly modern payment terminal with all the bells and whistles you’d expect, such as support for NFC and EMV chip cards. There’s a good chance that you’ve seen one of these, or at least something very similar, while checking out at a retail chain. So if you’ve ever wondered what’s inside that machine that was swallowing up your debit card, let’s find out.

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Five Years Of The Raspberry Pi Model B+ Form Factor, What Has It Taught Us?

With all the hoopla surrounding the recent launch of the new Raspberry Pi 4, it’s easy to overlook another event in the Pi calendar. July will see the fifth anniversary of the launch of the Raspberry Pi Model B+ that ushered in a revised form factor. It’s familiar to us now, but at the time it was a huge change to a 40-pin expansion connector, four mounting holes, no composite video socket, and more carefully arranged interface connectors.

As the Pi 4 with its dual mini-HDMI connectors and reversed Ethernet and USB positions marks the first significant deviation from the standard set by the B+ and its successors, it’s worth taking a look at the success of the form factor and its wider impact. Is it still something that the Raspberry Pi designers can take in a new direction, or like so many standards before it has it passed from its originator to the collective ownership of the community of manufacturers that support it?

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Ask Hackaday: How Can You Build For A Ten Millennia Lifespan?

There’s been a lot of news lately about the Long Now Foundation and Jeff Bezos spending $42 million or so on a giant mechanical clock that is supposed to run for 10,000 years. We aren’t sure we really agree that it is truly a 10,000 year clock because it draws energy — in part — from people visiting it. As far as we can tell, inventor Danny Hills has made the clock to hoard energy from several sources and occasionally chime when it has enough energy, so we aren’t sure how it truly sustains itself. However, it did lead us to an interesting question: how could you design something that really worked for 10,000 years?

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What’s The Deal With Square Traces On PCBs

When designing a printed circuit board, there are certain rules. You should place decoupling capacitors near the power pins to each chip. Your ground planes should be one gigantic fill of copper; two ground planes connected by a single trace is better known as an antenna. Analog sections should be kept separate from digital sections, and if you’re dealing with high voltage, that section needs to be isolated.

One that I hear a lot is that you must never put a 90-degree angle on a trace. Some fear the mere sight of a 90-degree angle on a PCB tells everyone you don’t know what you’re doing. But is there is really no greater sin than a 90-degree trace on a circuit board?

This conventional wisdom of eschewing 90-degree traces is baked into everything we know about circuit board design. It is the first thing you’re taught, and it’s the first thing you’ll criticize when you find a board with 90-degree traces. Do square traces actually matter? The short answer is no, but there’s still a reason we don’t do it.

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