Spacing Out: StarShip Explodes (Again), Passenger Space Flight, Space Bugs, Astronaut Bone, And Martian Water

This time I promise I only have a couple of stories from Elon Musk’s company. SpaceX’s latest Starship test launch ended in another explosion, proving that space hardware remains hard to get right. We’ll keep watching as they keep launching, and it can’t be long until they’ve ironed out all the problems. Meanwhile there’s brighter news from the company’s Crew Dragon, a modified version of the capsule with the forward docking ring replaced by a transparent dome is planned for launch in September with the company’s first flight carrying civilian passengers. It’s doubtless unwelcome news for Virgin Galactic, whose suborbital passenger flights are edging closer to reality with the unveiling of their first SpaceShip III craft. Finally, a Falcon 9 upper stage broke up on re-entry over the northwestern USA, giving observers on the ground a spactacular show.

Spectacular view of the Falcon 9 debris. Via Lu Jerz

Meanwhile up there in orbit there have been found on the ISS some strains of bacteria previously unknown to scientists on Earth, but it’s not yet time to panic about Mutant Bugs From Space. It seems these bacteria are of a type that is essential in the growing of plants, so it’s likely they originally hitched a ride up with one of the several plant-growing experiments that have taken place over the station’s lifetime. Staying on the ISS, astronauts visiting the station have been at the centre of a recently published study looking at loss of bone density over long periods in space. The bone experts found that bone density could still be lost despite the astronauts’ in-flight exercise programs, and concluded that exercise regimes pre-flight should be taken into account for future in-orbit exercise planning.

Further away from Earth, the ESA Mars Express satellite has been used for a multi-year study of water loss to space from the Martian atmosphere. The ESA scientists identified the seasonal mechanism that leads to the planet’s upper atmosphere having an excess of water and in particular the effect of the periodic planet-wide dust storms on accelerating water loss, but failed to account for the water that they estimate Mars must have lost over its history. From a study of water-created surface features they can estimate how much liquid the planet once had, yet the atmospheric losses fail to account for it all. Has it disappeared underground? More studies are required before we’ll have an answer.

The exciting news over the coming days will no doubt be the Ingenuity Martian helicopter, which we have seen slowly unfolding itself prior to unloading from the belly of the Perseverence rover. If all goes according to plan the little craft will be set down before the rover trundles off to a safe distance, and the historic flight will take place on April 8th. We’ll be on the edges of our seats, and no doubt you will be, too.

An Homage To Daft Punk In Fan-Made Helmets Through The Years.

It’s with sadness that we note the end to an end. The French dance music duo Daft Punk have split up, announced in a video that’s has already clocked 22 million views.The band have inspired hardware geeks across the world not just with their music but the way they present themselves. A perennial project has been to replicate in some way their iconic robot helmets.

Ben Heck's 2009 take on the helmet
Harrison Krix’s 2009 take on Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo’s helmet.

The artists themselves have been reticent about the exact technology that powers their headgear, but while this is a source of endless mystery and speculation to the music press it’s safe to assume from our perspective that their designers have the same parts at their disposal as we have. Microcontrollers, EL wire, and LEDs are universal, so the challenge lies in artistic expression with the helmet design rather than in making the effects themselves. We’ve reached into the archives for a bit of Daft Punk helmet nostalgia, so stick on Harder Better Faster and lets take a look at them, er, one more time.

Continue reading “An Homage To Daft Punk In Fan-Made Helmets Through The Years.”

When Appliance Hackers Hit The Music Scene

The art-music-technology collective “Electronicos Fantasticos!” (commonly known as Nicos) is the brain child of artist/musician [Ei Wada] in Japan. They revive old, retired and out-dated electrical appliances as new “electro-magnetic musical instruments” creating not just new ways to play music, but one that also involves the listener as a musician, gradually forming an interactive orchestra. They do this by creatively using the original functions of appliances like televisions and fans, hacking them in interesting ways to produce sound. The project started in the beginning of 2015, leading to the creation of a collaborative team — Nicos Orchest-Lab — around the end of that year. They have since appeared in concerts, including a performance at “Ars Electronica”, the world’s largest media arts festival in 2019.

For us hackers, the interesting bits can be found in the repository of their Work, describing sketchy but tantalising details of the musical instruments. Here are a few of the more interesting ones, but do check out their website for more amazing instruments and a lot of entertaining videos.

CRT-TV Gamelan – A percussion instrument made from old CRT monitors. Coloured stripes projected on the screen cause changes in static-electricity picked up by the players hands, which then propagates to an electrical coil attached to their foot. This signal is then patched to a guitar amplifier.

Electric Fan Harp – They take out the fan blade, and replace it with a “coded disk” containing punched holes. Then they shine a bulb from under the rotating disk, and the interrupted light is picked up by an optical receiver held by the player. Controlling the fan speed and the location of the receiver pickup, they can coax the fan to produce music – based on the idea “What if Jimi Hendrix, the god of electric guitars, played electric fans as instruments?”

Barcoder – This one is quite simple but produces amazing results, especially when you pair up with another Barcoder musician. The output of the barcode reader is pretty much directly converted to sound – just wave the wand over printed barcode sheets. And it works amazingly well when pointed at striped shirts too. Check out the very entertaining videos of this gizmo. This led to the creation of the Barcodress – a coded dress which creates an interactive music and dance performance.

 

The Striped Shirtsizer

Striped Shirtsizer – This one is a great hack and a synth with a twist. A camera picks up video signals, which is then fed to the “Audio” input of an amplifier directly. In the video on the project page, [Ei Wada] explains how he accidentally discovered this effect when he wrongly plugged the “yellow” video out connector to the audio input of his guitar amplifier. At an outdoor location, a bunch of people wearing striped shirts then become an interactive musician-audience performance.

The Kankisenthizer

Kankisenthizer a.k.a Exhaust Fancillator  – This one consists of an array of industrial exhaust fans – although one could just as well use smaller instrument cooling fans. On one side is a bright light, and on the other a small solar cell. Light fluctuations picked up by the solar cell are then fed to the guitar amplifier. The array consists of fans with different numbers of blades. This, coupled with changing the fan speed, results in some amazing sound effects.

There’s a whole bunch more, and even though the “instructions” to replicate the instruments aren’t well documented, there’s enough for anyone who’s interested to start experimenting.

Continue reading “When Appliance Hackers Hit The Music Scene”

Spacing Out: Launch Successes And Failures, Next Stop Mars, Rocket Catching, & Space Stations

As large sections of the globe have seen themselves plunged into further resurgences of the pandemic over the past few weeks there has been no let-up in the world of space exploration even for the Christmas holidays, so here we are with another Spacing Out column in which we take a look at what’s going up, what’s flying overhead, and what’s coming down.

Not today, Paul. r2hox from Madrid, Spain, CC BY-SA 2.0.
Not today, Paul. r2hox from Madrid, Spain, CC BY-SA 2.0.

December was eventful, with China returning lunar samples and Japan doing the same with asteroid dust. And it was reported that we  might just possibly have detected radio waves from ET. The truth may be out there and we sincerely want to believe, but this widely reported signal from Proxima Centauri probably isn’t the confirmation of alien life we’ve all been waiting for.

There has been no shortage of launches over the last month from the usual agencies and companies, with a first launch from China of their Long March 8 heavy lift rocket from the Wenchang launch site in Hainan Province. Its payload of five satellites made it safely to orbit, and we expect the rocket will be a workhorse of their future exploration programme. Meanwhile SpaceX conducted a high-altitude test of their Starship SN8 vehicle, which proceeded according to plan until the craft was approaching the landing pad, at which point the failure of one of its engines to fire caused a spectacular crash. This does not equate to an unsuccessful test flight as it performed faultlessly in the rest of its manoeuvres, but it certainly made for some impressive video.

On the subject of SpaceX and Starship, Elon Musk has said he will sell all his personal property to fund a Martian colony. This will require a fleet of up to 1000 Starships, with three launches a day to ferry both colonists and supplies to the Red Planet. He attracted controversy though by saying that interplanetary immigration would be open to people of all means with loans available for the estimated $50,000 one-way travel cost, and Martian jobs on offer to enable the debt to be paid. Many critics replied to his Tweets likening the idea to indentured servitude. It’s worth remembering that Musk is the master of the grand publicity stunt, and while it seems a good bet that SpaceX will indeed reach Mars, it’s also not inconceivable that his timeline and plans might be somewhat optimistic.

A more tangible story from SpaceX comes in their super heavy booster rocket, which is to be reusable in the same manner as their existing Falcon 9, but not landing on its own legs in the manner of the earlier rocket. It will instead dock with its launch tower, being caught by the same support structures used to stabilise it before launch. At first glance this might seem too difficult to succeed, but no doubt people expressed the same doubts before the Falcon 9s performed their synchronised landings.

Finally away from more troubling developments in the political field, The Hill takes a look at some of those likely to have a hand in providing a commercial replacement for the ISS when it eventually reaches the end of its life. They examine the likely funding for NASA’s tenancy on the station, and looked at the cluster of Texas-based companies gearing up for space station manufacture. That’s right — space station modules from the likes of Axiom Space will become a manufactured assembly rather than one-off commissions. The decades beyond the ISS’s current 2030 projected end of life are likely to have some exciting developments in orbit.

The coming year is likely to be an exciting one, with a brace of missions heading to Mars for February as well as a new space station to catch our attention. The Chinese aren’t content to stop at the Moon, with their Tianwen-1 Mars mission due to start exploring our planetary neighbour, and the first Tianhe module of what will become their much larger space station taking to the skies in the coming year. Meanwhile the Red planet will see NASA’s Perseverance rover also reaching its surface, taking with it the Ingenuity helicopter. Finally, the United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe will go into orbit, making the second month one that should have plenty of news.

Wherever you are, keep yourself safe from Earth-bound viruses, and keep looking at the skies in 2021.

Spacing Out: Rocks From The Moon, Rocks From Mars, A Near Miss, And Some Interesting Launches

Sure, the SpaceX crew made it safely to the ISS, but there’s plenty happening beyond just that particular horizon. The Chinese National Space Administration have launched their Chang’e 5 mission to collect and return lunar rock samples, a collaboration between NASA and ESA to do the same with samples from Mars has passed its review, and a pair of satellites came uncomfortably close to each other in a near-miss that could have had significant orbital debris consequences. It’s time for Spacing Out!

Bringing Alien Rocks to Earth

The Chang'e 5 mission on the launch pad. China News Service, CC BY 3.0.
The Chang’e 5 mission on the launch pad. China News Service, CC BY 3.0.

Ever since the NASA and Soviet lunar launches at the height of the Space Race, there have been no new missions to collect material from the Lunar surface and return it to Earth. That changed last week.

The Chang’e 5 mission launched in China on November 23rd will deliver moon rocks to earth, and as this is being written it has already entered Lunar orbit and separated into its constituent parts in preparation for landing. It’s a four-craft mission, with a lunar lander and ascent module going to the surface, and a service module and Earth return craft remaining in orbit to receive the samples and send them back to the planet for re-entry and retrieval. The hurdles facing the mission scientists and engineers are immense, and a safe sample return in mid-December will be an extremely impressive achievement.

Happily Chang’e 5 even has a hacker angle, as its telemetry has offered a bonanza to satellite-watchers who have turned their dishes skyward to capture the event. Daniel Estévez EA4GPZ has posted a collected analysis of data telemetry work by a variety of people worldwide, but the eye-candy prize goes to r00t.cz, who has successfully decoded image stream data to the extent that they have assembled a fragment of video captured from the craft during its journey.

Not to be outdone in the field of ambitious sample return missions, NASA and ESA’s joint plan to collect and return rock core samples from Mars has met with the approval of the independent review board set up to examine it. This will involve multiple craft from both agencies, with NASA’s already launched Perseverance rover collecting and containing the samples before leaving them on the surface for eventual collection by a future ESA rover. This will then pass them to a NASA ascent craft which will take them to Martian orbit and rendezvous with an ESA craft that will return them to Earth. We space-watchers are in for an exciting decade.

That Was a Close One!

Anyone who has seen the film Gravity will be familiar with the Kessler syndrome, in which collisions between spacecraft and or debris could create a chain reaction of further collisions and render entire orbital spheres unusable to future craft because of the collision hazard presented by the resulting cloud of space debris. Because of this, spacecraft operators devote considerable resources towards avoiding such collisions, and it is not uncommon for slight orbital adjustments to be made to avoid proximity with other orbiting man-made objects.

On the 27th of November it seems that these efforts failed, with a terse announcement from Roscosmos of a near-miss between their Kanopus-V craft and the Indian CARTOSAT 2F. The two remote-imaging satellites passed as close as 224 metres from each other, which in space terms given their likely closing speeds would have been significantly too close for comfort. The announcement appears worded to suggest that the Indian craft was at fault, however it’s probably a fairer conclusion that both space agencies should have seen the other’s satellite coming. Fortunately we escaped a catastrophe this time, but it is to be hoped that all operators of such satellites will take note.

RocketLab Joins the Reusable Booster Club

Other recent launches that might excite the interest of readers are the New Zealand-based RocketLab launching their Electron rocket with  30 small satellites on board before for the first time retrieving their booster stage, and the Japanese Mitsubish Electric sending their JDRS-1 satellite to geosynchronous orbit. This last craft is of interest because it carries an optical data link rather than the more usual RF, and could prove the technology for future launches.

The coming weeks should be full of news from China on Chang’e 5’s progress. Getting a craft to the moon and returning it will be a huge achievement, and we hope nothing fails and we’ll see pictures of the first new Moon rocks on Earth since the 1970s. We don’t know how to say “Good luck and a successful mission!” in Chinese, so we’ll say it in English.

Spacing Out: A Big Anniversary, Starlink Failures Plummet, Lunar Cellphones, And A Crewed Launch

After a couple of months away we’re returning with our periodic roundup of happenings in orbit, as we tear you away from Star Trek: Discovery and The Mandalorian, and bring you up to date with some highlights from the real world of space. We’ve got a launch to look forward to this week, as well as a significant anniversary.

Continue reading “Spacing Out: A Big Anniversary, Starlink Failures Plummet, Lunar Cellphones, And A Crewed Launch”

Tech At Home Winners Who Made The Best Of Their Quarantine

Back in April we challenged hackers to make the best of a tough situation by spending their time in isolation building with what they had laying around the shop. The pandemic might have forced us to stay in our homes and brought global shipping to a near standstill, but judging by the nearly 300 projects that were ultimately entered into the Making Tech At Home Contest, it certainly didn’t stifle the creativity of the incredible Hackaday community.

While it’s never easy selecting the winners, we think you’ll agree that the Inverse Thermal Camera is really something special. Combining a surplus thermal printer, STM32F103 Blue Pill, and OV7670 camera module inside an enclosure made from scraps of copper clad PCB, the gadget prints out the captured images on a roll of receipt paper like some kind of post-apocalyptic lo-fi Polaroid.

The HexMatrix Clock also exemplified the theme of working with what you have, as the electronics were nothing more exotic than a string of WS2811 LEDs and either an Arduino or ESP8266 to drive them. With the LEDs mounted into a 3D printed frame and diffuser, this unique display has an almost alien beauty about it. If you like that concept and have a few more RGB LEDs laying around, then you’ll love the Hive Lamp which took a very similar idea and stretched it out into the third dimension to create a standing technicolor light source that wouldn’t be out of place on a starship.

Each of these three top projects will receive a collection of parts and tools courtesy of Digi-Key valued at $500.

Runners Up

Out friends at Digi-Key were also kind enough to provide smaller grab bags of electronic goodies to the creators of the following 30 projects to help them keep hacking in these trying times:

The Making Tech At Home Contest might be over, but unfortunately, it looks like COVID-19 will be hanging around for a bit. Hopefully some of these incredible projects will inspire you to make the most out of your longer than expected downtime.