Are There Better Things To Hurl Into Orbit Than A Sports Car?

We’ve been having a lively discussion behind the scenes here at Hackaday, about SpaceX’s forthcoming launch of their first Falcon Heavy rocket. It will be carrying [Elon Musk]’s red Tesla Roadster, and should it be a successful launch, it will place the car in an elliptical orbit round the Sun that will take it to the Martian orbit at its furthest point.

On one hand, it seems possible that [Musk]’s sports car will one day be cited by historians as the exemplar of the excesses of the tech industry in the early 21st century. After all, to spend the millions of dollars required to launch the largest reusable space launch platform ever created, and then use it to hurl an electric vehicle into orbit round the Sun seems to be such a gratuitous waste of resources, an act of such complete folly as to be criminal.

Surely even given that there is a reasonable chance of a first launch ending in fiery destruction it must be worth their while canvassing the universities and research institutions of the world with the offer of a free launch, after all there must be a significant amount of science that would benefit from some cost-free launch capacity! It seems a betrayal of the famous “Why explore space” letter from the associate science director of NASA to a nun who questioned the expenditure while so many in the developing world were starving.

Testing

But on the other hand, first launches of rockets are a hazardous endeavour, as the metaphorical blue touchpaper is lit on the world’s largest firework for the first time. Satellites are expensive devices, and it would be a foolhardy owner who entrusted their craft to a launch vehicle with a good chance of a premature splashdown.

Launch of first Arianne 5. Not where you want your pricey satellite.

First launches traditionally carry a ballast rather than a payload, for example NASA have used tanks of water for this purpose in the past. SpaceX has a history of novelty payloads for their test launches; their first Dragon capsule took a wheel of cheese into space and returned it to Earth. We picture Musk looking around a big warehouse and saying, “well, we got a lot of cars!”

There is a fascinating question to be posed by the launch of the car, just what did they have to do to it to ensure that it could be qualified for launch? Satellite manufacture is an extremely exacting branch of engineering, aside from the aspect of ensuring that a payload will work it must both survive the launch intact and not jeopardise it in any way. It’s safe to say that the Roadster will not have to function while in orbit as the roads of California will be far away, but cars are not designed with either the stresses of launch or the transition to zero gravity and the vacuum of space in mind. Will a glass windscreen originally specified for a Lotus Elise on the roads of Norfolk shatter during the process and shower the inside of the craft with glass particles, for example? There must have been an extensive space qualification programme for it to pass, from vibration testing through removal of any hazards such as pressurised gases or corrosive chemicals, if only the folks at SpaceX would share some its details that would make for a fascinating story in itself.

Space Junk

So the Tesla Roadster is a huge publicity stunt on behalf of SpaceX, but it serves a purpose that would otherwise have to have been taken by an unexciting piece of ballast. It will end up as space junk, but in an orbit unlikely to bring it into contact with any other craft. If its space-suited dummy passenger won’t be providing valuable data on the suit’s performance we’d be extremely surprised, and when it is finally retrieved in a few centuries time it will make a fascinating exhibit for the Smithsonian.

Given a huge launch platform and the chance to fill it with a novelty item destined for orbit,the Hackaday team stepped into overdrive with suggestions as to what might be launched were they in charge. They varied from Douglas Adams references such as a heart of gold or a whale and a bowl of petunias should the rocket abort and the payload crash to earth, to a black monolith and a few ossified ape remains to confuse space historians. We briefly evaluated the theory that the Boring Company is in fact a hiding-in-plain-sight construction organisation for a forthcoming Evil Lair beneath the surface of Mars, before concluding that maybe after all the car is a pretty cool thing to use as ballast for a first launch.

It may be reaching towards seven decades since the first space programmes successfully sent rockets beyond the atmosphere with the aim of exploration, but while the general public has become accustomed to them as routine events they remain anything but to the engineers involved. The Falcon Heavy may not have been developed by a government, but it represents every bit as astounding an achievement as any of its predecessors. Flinging an electric vehicle into orbit round the Sun is a colossal act of showmanship and probably a waste of a good car, but it’s also more than that. In hundreds of years time the IoT devices, apps, 3D printers, quadcopters or whatever else we toil over will be long forgotten. But there will be a car orbiting the Sun that remains a memorial to the SpaceX engineers who made its launch possible, assuming it doesn’t blow up before it gets there. What at first seemed frivolous becomes very cool indeed.

Spectre and Meltdown: Attackers Always Have The Advantage

While the whole industry is scrambling on Spectre, Meltdown focused most of the spotlight on Intel and there is no shortage of outrage in Internet comments. Like many great discoveries, this one is obvious with the power of hindsight. So much so that the spectrum of reactions have spanned an extreme range. From “It’s so obvious, Intel engineers must be idiots” to “It’s so obvious, Intel engineers must have known! They kept it from us in a conspiracy with the NSA!”

We won’t try to sway those who choose to believe in a conspiracy that’s simultaneously secret and obvious to everyone. However, as evidence of non-obviousness, some very smart people got remarkably close to the Meltdown effect last summer, without getting it all the way. [Trammel Hudson] did some digging and found a paper from the early 1990s (PDF) that warns of the dangers of fetching info into the cache that might cross priviledge boundaries, but it wasn’t weaponized until recently. In short, these are old vulnerabilities, but exploiting them was hard enough that it took twenty years to do it.

Building a new CPU is the work of a large team over several years. But they weren’t all working on the same thing for all that time. Any single feature would have been the work of a small team of engineers over a period of months. During development they fixed many problems we’ll never see. But at the end of the day, they are only human. They can be 99.9% perfect and that won’t be good enough, because once hardware is released into the world: it is open season on that 0.1% the team missed.

The odds are stacked in the attacker’s favor. The team on defense has a handful of people working a few months to protect against all known and yet-to-be discovered attacks. It is a tough match against the attackers coming afterwards: there are a lot more of them, they’re continually refining the state of the art, they have twenty years to work on a problem if they need to, and they only need to find a single flaw to win. In that light, exploits like Spectre and Meltdown will probably always be with us.

Let’s look at some factors that paved the way to Intel’s current embarrassing situation.

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2017: As The Hardware World Turns

The year is almost over, and now it’s time to look back on the last fifty-odd weeks. What happened in this year in hacking? 2017 will go down as the beginning of another AI renaissance, although we’re not going to call it that; this year was all about neural nets and machine learning and advancements resulting from the development of self-driving cars and very beefy GPUs. Not since the 80s have we seen more work in ‘AI’ fields. What will it amount to this time around the hype cycle? Find out in a few years.

Biohacking was big this year, and not just because people are installing RFID tags and magnets in their hands. CRISPR is allowing for Star Trek-style genome hacking, and this year saw in vivo experiments to enable and disable individual genes in rat models. Eventually, someone is going to get a Nobel for CRISPR.

We’re going to Mars, and soon — very soon — a SpaceX Falcon Heavy is going to either lob a Tesla Roadster into solar orbit or the Atlantic Ocean. We learned about the BFR that will take dozens of people to Mars in a single launch. Boeing and Lockheed think they can compete with the Elon Musk PR powerhouse. The Bigelow Aerospace inflatable module passed its in-flight test on the ISS, giving the space station a new storage closet. Even in space, amazing stuff is happening this year.

Is that it? Not by a long shot. This year has seen some of the coolest hacks we’ve ever seen, and some of the dumbest security breaches ever. Hackaday is doing awesome. What else did 2017 have? Read on to find out.

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Art, Craft, Make, Hack, Whatever

Anyone who has spent much time reading Hackaday, or in the real world in or around a few hackspaces, will know that ours is a community of diverse interests. In the same place you will find a breathtaking range of skills and interests, people working with software, electronics, textiles, and all conceivable materials and media. And oftentimes in the same person: a bare-metal kernel guru might spend their time in a hackspace making tables from freight pallets rather than coding.

Through it all run a variety of threads, identities if you will, through which the differing flavours of our wider community define themselves. Words like “Hacker” and “Maker” you may identify with, but when I mention words like “Crafter” or “Artist”, perhaps they might meet with some resistance. After all, artists paint things, don’t they, and crafters? They make wooly hats and corn dollies! Continue reading “Art, Craft, Make, Hack, Whatever”

Truly Terrible Dimensioned Drawings

I’m in the planning stages of a side project for Hackaday right now. It’s nothing too impressive, but this is a project that will involve a lot of electromechanical parts. This project is going to need a lot of panel mount 1/8″ jacks and sockets, vertical mount DIN 5 connectors, pots, switches, and other carefully crafted bits of metal. Mouser and Digikey are great for nearly every other type of electrical component, but when it comes to these sorts of electromechanical components, your best move is usually to look at AliExpress or DealExtreme, finding something close to what you need, and buying a few hundred. Is this the best move for a manufacturable product? No, but we’re only building a few hundred of these things.

I have been browsing my usual Internet haunts in the search for the right bits of stamped brass and injection molded plastic for this project, and have come to a remarkable conclusion. Engineers, apparently, have no idea how to dimension drawings. Drafting has been a core competency for engineers from the dawn of time until AutoCAD was invented, and now we’re finally reaping the reward: It’s now rare to find a usable dimensioned drawing on the Internet.

This post is going to be half rant, half explanation of what is wrong with a few of the dimensioned drawings I’ve found recently. Consider this an example of what not to do.  There is no reason for the state of engineering drawing to be this bad.

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Drone License Plates: An Idea That Won’t Stave Off the Inevitable

As more and more drones hit the skies, we are beginning to encounter a modest number of problems that promise to balloon if ignored. 825,000 drones above a quarter-kilo in weight were sold in the U.S. in 2016. The question has become, how do we control all these drones?

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AI: This Decade’s Worst Buzz Word

In hacker circles, the “Internet of Things” is often the object of derision. Do we really need the IoT toaster? But there’s one phrase that — while not new — is really starting to annoy me in its current incarnation: AI or Artificial Intelligence.

The problem isn’t the phrase itself. It used to mean a collection of techniques used to make a computer look like it was smart enough to, say, play a game or hold a simulated conversation. Of course, in the movies it means HAL9000. Lately, though, companies have been overselling the concept and otherwise normal people are taking the bait.

The Alexa Effect

Not to pick on Amazon, but all of the home assistants like Alexa and Google Now tout themselves as AI. By the most classic definition, that’s true. AI techniques include matching natural language to predefined templates. That’s really all these devices are doing today. Granted the neural nets that allow for great speech recognition and reproduction are impressive. But they aren’t true intelligence nor are they even necessarily direct analogs of a human brain.

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