With the notable exception of the Space Shuttle, rockets and spacecraft have always been considered disposable. It’s a slow and expensive way to travel, akin to building a new airliner for every flight, but it was the easiest option. These vehicles have always represented the pinnacle of engineering and material science of their time, and just surviving the trip to space once was an incredible accomplishment. To have another go around would have been asking too much of the technology. Even looking back on the Space Shuttle program, there’s plenty of debate about whether or not the reusable design really paid off in the end.
So SpaceX’s ability to land, refurbish, and refly the first stage of their Falcon 9 booster is no small accomplishment. After demonstrating the idea was possible in 2017, the company made numerous changes to the latest iteration of the rocket with reusability in mind. Known as Block 5, this version of the Falcon 9 is designed to be more survivable and require minimal servicing between flights. The company says its cheaper and faster to reuse the Block 5 than it would be to build a new one for each flight, allowing the company to approach spaceflight more like commercial aviation.
With a fleet of Block 5 boosters now in rotation, SpaceX has given them serial numbers not unlike an airplane’s tail number. It might not be the kind of thing the general public would normally be aware of, but these serial numbers have allowed a dedicated community of space aficionados to keep track of the missions each booster has flown.
Unfortunately the story of one of these rockets, officially referred to as “Cores” in SpaceX parlance, was recently cut short. Core B1056, returning from the Starlink 4 mission on February 17th, failed to land on the autonomous spaceport drone ship (ASDS) Of Course I Still LoveYou and splashed down in the ocean. It’s still unclear what condition the booster was in after its soft landing in the water, but when the recovery ships returned to port empty handed, there was no question as to the fate of B1056.
From a purely business standpoint, the failure of any of SpaceX’s boosters means lost time and revenue. But in some ways B1056 had established itself as the vanguard of the fleet, managing to either set or break a number of records in its relatively short life. The destruction of the most thoroughly flight proven Block 5 booster is a stark reminder that there’s very little about spaceflight that could be called routine.
We’re trying to figure out whether Sonos was doing the right thing, and it’s getting to the point where we need pins, a corkboard, and string. Sonos had been increasing the functionality of its products and ran into a problem as they hit a technical wall. How would they keep the old speakers working with the new speakers? Their solution was completely bizarre to a lot of people.
First, none of the old speakers would receive updates anymore. Which is sad, but not unheard of. Next they mentioned that if you bought a new speaker and ran it on the same network as an old speaker, neither speaker would get updates. Which came off as a little hostile, punishing users for upgrading to newer products.
The final bit of weirdness was their solution for encouraging users to ditch their old products. They called it, “trading in for a 30% discount”, but it was something else entirely. If a user went into the system menu of an old device and selected to put it in “Recycle Mode” the discount would be activated on their account. Recycle Mode would then, within 30 days, brick the device. There was no way to cancel this, and once the device was bricked it wouldn’t come back. The user was then instructed to take the Sonos to a recycling center where it would be scrapped. Pictures soon began to surface of piles of bricked Sonos’s. There would be no chance to sell, repair, or otherwise keep alive what is still a fully functioning premium speaker system.
Why would a company do this to their customers and to themselves? Join me below for a guided tour of how the downsides of IoT ecosystem may have driven this choice.
Most countries have dropped the requirement for learning Morse code to become a ham radio operator. Because of that, you might think Morse code is dead. But it isn’t. Some people like the nostalgia. Some like that you can build simple equipment to send and receive Morse code. Others like that Morse code is much more reliable than voice and some older digital modes. Regardless of the reason, many people want to learn Morse code and it is still a part of the ham radio scene. The code has a reputation of being hard to learn, but it turns out that is mostly because people haven’t been taught code in smart ways.
I don’t know if they still do, but some youth organizations used to promote some particularly bad ways to learn the code. The second worse way is to learn “dots and dashes” and many people did learn that way. The very worst way was using an image like the adjacent one to try to map the dots and dashes into letter shapes. This chart dates back to at least 1918 when a Girl Guides handbook printed it.
Even if you are a visual learner, this is a bad idea. The problem is, it is nearly impossible to hear sounds at 20 or 30 words per minute and map them to this visual representation. Another visual method is to use a binary tree where left branches are dots and right branches are dashes.
If you only need to master 5 words per minute to get a merit badge, you might get away with this. But for real use, 5 words a minute is very slow. For example, this sentence would take about 3 minutes to send at that speed. Just that one sentence.
No matter what you think of Elon Musk, it’s hard to deny that he takes the dictum “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” to heart. From hurling sports cars into orbit to solar-powered roof destroyers, there’s little that Mr. Musk can’t turn into a net positive for at least one of his many ventures, not to mention his image.
Elon may have gotten in over his head, though. His plan to use his SpaceX rockets to fill the sky with thousands of satellites dedicated to providing cheap Internet access ran afoul of the astronomy community, which has decried the impact of the Starlink satellites on observations, both in the optical wavelengths and further down the spectrum in the radio bands. And that’s with only a tiny fraction of the planned constellation deployed; once fully built-out, they fear Starlink will ruin Earth-based observation forever.
What exactly the final Starlink constellation will look like and what impact it would have on observations depend greatly on the degree to which it can withstand regulatory efforts and market forces. Assuming it does survive and gets built out into a system that more or less resembles the current plan, what exactly will Starlink do? And more importantly, how will it accomplish its stated goals?
MakerBot was poised to be one of the greatest success stories of the open source hardware movement. Founded on the shared knowledge of the RepRap community, they created the first practical desktop 3D printer aimed at consumers over a decade ago. But today, after being bought out by Stratasys and abandoning their open source roots, the company is all but completely absent in the market they helped to create. Cheaper and better printers, some of which built on that same RepRap lineage, have completely taken over in the consumer space; forcing MakerBot to refocus their efforts on professional and educational customers.
This fundamental restructuring of the company is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the recent unveiling of “SKETCH Classroom”: an $1,800 package that includes lesson plans, a teacher certification program, several rolls of filament, and two of the company’s new SKETCH printers. It even includes access to MakerBot Cloud, a new online service that aims to help teachers juggle student’s print jobs between multiple SKETCH printers.
Of course, the biggest takeaway from this announcement for the average Hackaday reader is that MakerBot is releasing new hardware. Their last printer was clearly not designed (or priced) for makers, and even a current-generation Replicator costs more than the entire SKETCH Classroom package. On the surface, it might seem like this is a return to a more reasonable pricing model for MakeBot’s products; something that could even help them regain some of the market share they’ve lost over the years.
There’s only one problem, MakerBot didn’t actually make the SKETCH. This once industry-leading company has now come full-circle, and is using a rebranded printer as the keystone of their push into the educational market. Whether they were unable to build a printer cheap enough to appeal to schools or simply didn’t want to, the message is clear: if you can’t beat them, join them.
Technology frequently looks at nature to make improvements in efficiency, and we may be nearing a new breakthrough in copying how nature stores data. Maybe some day your thumb drive will be your actual thumb. The entire works of Shakespeare could be stored in an infinite number of monkeys. DNA could become a data storage mechanism! With all the sensationalism surrounding this frontier, it seems like a dose of reality is in order.
The Potential for Greatness
The human genome, with 3 billion base pairs can store up to 750MB of data. In reality every cell has two sets of chromosomes, so nearly every human cell has 1.5GB of data shoved inside. You could pack 165 billion cells into the volume of a microSD card, which equates to 165 exobytes, and that’s if you keep all the overhead of the rest of the cell and not just the DNA. That’s without any kind of optimizing for data storage, too.
This kind of data density is far beyond our current digital storage capabilities. Storing nearly infinite data onto extremely small cells could change everything. Beyond the volume, there’s also the promise of longevity and replication, maintaining a permanent record that can’t get lost and is easily transferred (like medical records), and even an element of subterfuge or data transportation, as well as the ability to design self-replicating machines whose purpose is to disseminate information broadly.
So, where is the state of the art in DNA data storage? There’s plenty of promise, but does it actually work?
While Mars may be significantly behind its sunward neighbor in terms of the number of motor vehicles crawling over its surface, it seems like we’re doing our best to close that gap. Over the last 23 years, humans have sent four successful rovers to the surface of the Red Planet, from the tiny Sojourner to the Volkswagen-sized Curiosity. These vehicles have all carved their six-wheeled tracks into the Martian dust, probing the soil and the atmosphere and taking pictures galore, all of which contribute mightily to our understanding of our (sometimes) nearest planetary neighbor.
You’d think then that sending still more rovers to Mars would yield diminishing returns, but it turns out there’s still plenty of science to do, especially if the dream of sending humans there to explore and perhaps live is to come true. And so the fleet of Martian rovers will be joined by two new vehicles over the next year or so, lead by the Mars 2020 program’s yet-to-be-named rover. Here’s a look at the next Martian buggy, and how it’s built for the job it’s intended to do.