Spacing Out; OneWeb Rescue, Starlink Base Stations, And Rocket Tests

Another couple of weeks, and a fresh crop of space news to run through as a quick briefing of the latest in the skies above us.

OneWeb's most recent launch, from Baikonur on the 21st of March 2020.
OneWeb’s most recent launch, from Baikonur on the 21st of March 2020. (OneWeb)

The global positioning orbits are getting pretty crowded, with GPS, Russia’s GLONASS, the EU’s Galileo, Japan’s QZSS, and now with the launch of the final satellite in their constellation, China’s BeiDou. As if five were not enough the chance that they might be joined by a sixth constellation from the United Kingdom resurfaced this week, as the UK government is expressing interest in supporting a rescue package for the troubled satellite broadband provider OneWeb. The idea of an independent GPS competitor from a post-Brexit UK has been bouncing around for a couple of years now, and on the face of it until this opportune chance to purchase an “oven ready” satellite constellation might deliver a route to incorporating a positioning payload into their design. The Guardian has its doubts, lining up a bevvy of scientists to point out the rather obvious fact that a low-earth-orbit satellite broadband platform is a very different prospect to a much-higher-orbiting global positioning platform. Despite the country possessing the expertise through its work on Galileo then it remains to be seen whether a OneWeb purchase would be a stroke of genius or a white elephant. Readers with long memories will know that British government investment in space has had its upsets before.

Happily for Brits, not all space endeavours from their islands end in ignominious retreat. Skyrora have scored another milestone, launching the first ever rocket skywards from the Shetland Islands. The Skylark Nano is a relatively tiny craft at only 2m high, and gathered research data during its flight to an altitude of 6km. We’ve followed their work before, including their testing in May of a Skylark L rocket on the Scottish mainland with a view to achieving launch capability in 2023.

A Starlink phased array end user antenna, spotted in Winsconsin. (darkpenguin22)
A Starlink phased array end user antenna, spotted in Winsconsin. (darkpenguin22)

SpaceX’s Starlink is never far away from the news, with a fresh set of launches delayed for extra pre-launch tests, and the prospect of signing up to be considered for the space broadband firm’s beta test. Of more interest for Hackaday readers though are a few shots of prototype Starlink ground stations and user terminals that have made it online, on the roof of a Tesla Gigafactory and at a SpaceX facility in Wisconsin. What can be seen are roughly 1.5m radomes for the ground stations and much smaller dinner-plate-sized enclosed arrays for the user terminals. The latter are particularly fascinating as they conceal computer-controlled phased arrays for tracking the constellation as it passes overhead. This is a technology more at home in billion-dollar military radars than consumer devices, so getting it to work on a budget that can put it on a roof anywhere in the world must be a challenge for the Starlink engineers. We can’t wait to see the inevitable eventual teardown when it comes.

Elsewhere, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two completed its second glide test over its Mojave Spaceport home since being grounded in 2019 for extensive refitting, and is now said to be ready for powered tests leading to eventual commercial service giving the extremely well-heeled the chance to float in the zero gravity of suborbital spaceflight. And finally, comes the news that NASA are naming their Washington DC headquarters building for Mary W. Jackson, their first African American female engineer, whose story some of you may be familiar with from the book and film Hidden Figures. The previously unnamed building sits on a section of street named Hidden Figures Way.

Spacing Out; All The Orbital News You’re Missing

We keep finding more great space stories than we can cover, so here’s a speed-run through the broader picture of the moment as it applies to space flight.

The big news this week was the first launch of a manned SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule to the ISS. I was excited because the pass en route to the space station was scheduled to be visible from the UK at dusk, and on Wednesday evening I perched atop a nearby hill staring intently at the horizon. Except it had been cancelled due to bad weather. The next launch window is planned for today and you can watch it live.

Meanwhile, fashion is the other piece of this manned-launch’s appeal. Their sharply-designed spacesuits have attracted a lot of attention, moving on from the bulky functional Michelin Man aesthetic of previous NASA and Roscosmos garments for a positively futuristic look that wouldn’t be out of place in Star Trek. Never mind that the two astronauts are more seasoned space dog than catwalk model, they still look pretty cool to us. Against the backdrop of a political upheaval at the top of NASA, this first crewed orbital mission from American soil since the retirement of the Shuttle has assumed an importance much greater than might be expected from a run-of-the-mill spaceflight.

While we’re on the subject of the ISS, it’s worth noting that we’re approaching twenty years since the first crew took up residence there, and it has been continuously crewed ever since as an off-planet outpost. This is an astounding achievement for all the engineers, scientists, and crews involved, and though space launches perhaps don’t have the magic they had five decades ago it’s still an awe-inspiring sight to see a man-made object big enough to discern its shape pass over in the night sky. We understand that current plans are to retain the station until at least 2030, so it’s a sight that should remain with us for a while longer.

Closer to Earth are a couple of tests for relative newcomers to the skies. When Richard Branson’s Virgin group isn’t trying to boot millionaires off the planet through its Virgin Galactic operation, it’s aiming to cheaply fling small satellites into orbit from a rocket-toting airborne Boeing 747 with its Virgin Orbit subsidiary. Their first test launch sadly didn’t make it to space, once the rocket had flawlessly launched from the airliner it suffered a fault and the mission had to be aborted. Getting into space is hard.

The second test was never intended to make it into space, but is no less noteworthy. The British company Skyrora have performed a successful ground test of their Skylark L rocket, aiming for a first launch next year and for offering low-earth orbit services by 2023. This is significant because it will be the first British launch since the ill-fated Black Arrow launch in 1971, and with their Scottish launch site the first ever from British soil. If you’ve seen Skyrora mentioned here before, it is because they were behind the retrieval of the Black Arrow wreckage from the Aussie outback that we mentioned when we wrote about that programme.

Looking forward to the coming week, especially today’s rescheduled SpaceX launch. This time however, I’ll check the weather conditions before climbing any hills.

Mitigating Con Deprivation: Disobey 2020

While the Coronavirus-induced lockdown surely makes life easier for the socially anxious and awkward ones among us, it also takes away the one thing that provides a feeling of belonging and home: conferences. Luckily, there are plenty of videos of past events available online, helping to bypass the time until we can mingle among like-minded folks again. To put one additional option on the list, one event you probably never even heard of is Disobey, Finland’s annual security conference that took place for its fifth time in Helsinki earlier this year, and they recently published the playlist of this year’s talks on their YouTube channel.

With slightly under 1500 hackers, makers, and generally curious people attending this year, Disobey is still on the smaller side of conferences, but comes with everything you’d expect: talks, workshops, CTF challenges, and a puzzle-ridden badge. Labeling itself as “The Nordic Security Event”, its main focus is indeed on computer and network security, and most of the talks are presented by professional security researchers, oftentimes Red Teamers, telling about some of their real-world work.

In general, every talk that teaches something new, discusses important matters, or simply provides food for thought and new insight is worth watching, but we also don’t want to give everything away here either. The conference’s program page offers some outline of all the talks if you want to check some more information up front. But still, we can’t just mention a random conference and not give at least some examples with few details on what to expect from it either, so let’s do that.

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Contest Winners: Machine Learning On All Kinds Of Gadgets

With nearly sixty exciting entries, the Train All the Things contest, presented in partnership with Digi-Key, has drawn to a close and today we are happy to share news of the winning projects. The challenge at hand was to show off a project using some type of Machine Learning and there were plenty of takes on this theme displayed.

Perhaps the most impressive project is the Intelligent Bat Detector by [Tegwyn‚ė†Twmffat] which claims the “ML on the Edge” award. His project, seen above, seeks not only to detect the presence of bats through the sounds they make during echolocation, but to identify the type of bat as well. Having been through a number of iterations, the bat detector, based on Nvidia Jetson Nano and a Raspberry Pi, can classify several types of bats, and a set of house keys (for a “control”). It’s also been impeccably documented and serves as a great example of how to get into machine learning.

The Soldering LIghtsaber takes the “ML Blinky” award for using machine learning in the microcontroller realm. This clever use of the concept seeks one thing: destroying the wait times for your soldering iron to heat up. It takes time to make temperature readings while the iron heats up, if you can do away with this step it speeds things up greatly. By sampling results of different voltages and heating times, machine learning establishes its own guidelines for how to pour electricity into the heating element without checking for feedback, and coming out the other side at the perfect temperature.

Rounding up our final two winners, the AI Powered Bull**** Detector claims the “ML on the Gateway” award, and
Hacking Wearables for Mental Health and More which won in the “ML on the Cloud” category.

The idea behind our illuminated poop emoji project is to detect human speech and make a judgement on whether the comment is valid, or BS. It does this by leveraging a learning set of comments that have previously been identified as BS and making an association with the currently uttered words.

Wearables for mental health is a wonderful project that was previously recognized in the 2018 Hackaday Prize. Economies of scale have made these wearables quite affordable as a way to add a sensor suite to behavior analysis. But of course you need a way to process all of the sensor data, a perfect task for a cloud-based machine learning application.

All four winners received a $100 gift code to Tindie. Don’t forget to check out all of the other interesting projects that were entered in this contest!

A Calculator In 2020?

This week, Al Williams wrote up an article on what might be the last scientific calculator. Back in the day, the fanciest of scientific calculators had not just sin, cos, and tan, but were also programmable so that you could code in frequently used formulae. And the calculator that he reviews is certainly powerful: with a screen, processor, and memory almost rivalling a mid-scale smartphone.

Wait a minute! “Almost”? I have a smartphone in my pocket right now. Why would I want something less powerful, when all that the calculator brings to the table is a bit of software? And that app can even be purchased for $20!

I’ll confess. I want a proper desktop calculator from time to time. But why? Sure, I can run calculations on the very computer that I’m using to type right now. And in terms of programming languages, the resources are far superior on my laptop. Unit conversions? Units, or the Interwebs. Heck, I can even type calculations directly into the Unix world’s default editor.

But there’s something nice about the single-purpose device. Maybe it’s the feel of the keys. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t require a context-switch on the computer. Maybe it’s irrational calculator nostalgia. Or maybe it’s an elegant tool from a more civilized age: the user experience is better because the tool is just simpler.

I like stand-alone devices that do their one thing right, and I almost always pick them over their more complex, if also more capable, counterparts when I only need that function. The fixed wrench over the adjustable wrench. The standalone audio recorder over my computer’s software. The simple bench power supply over the programmable. And, when I’m actually setting out to take good photos, a real camera instead of my cell phone’s. Purpose-built tools tend to work much better for their purpose than devices that try to do everything.

The days of the standalone calculator are nearly gone, though, so what am I going to do? I’m certainly not going to shell out megabucks for an overly-fancy calculator, nor am I going to be lured by nostalgia into picking up an antique at the ridiculous prices they fetch online. That leaves one option, and it’s both the Hackaday and the Jedi way. I’m going to have to build it myself. Where am I going to get a nice-feeling numeric keypad?

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The IoT Trap

I’m sure that you’ve heard about the Sonos speaker debacle. (If not, read about it on Hackaday.) Basically, a company that sells a premium Internet-connected speaker wanted to retire an older product line, and offered a 30% discount to people who would “trade in” their old speakers for new ones. The catch: they weren’t really trading them in, but instead flashing a “self-destruct” firmware and then taking it to the recycling.

Naturally, Sonos’ most loyal customers weren’t happy about intentionally bricking their faithful devices, a hubbub ensued, and eventually the CEO ended up reversing course and eating crow. Hackaday’s own Gerrit Coetzee wrote up our coverage and mentioned that maybe Sonos just couldn’t afford to support the service for the old products any more, and didn’t want them to remain in the wild. So much so, that it’s worth 30% of the cost of their current product to get out from under the implicit contract.

By buying one of these IoT devices, you’re paying more money up front for the promise that the company will keep supporting the service that it relies on into the future. But providing this service costs money, and as more and more “products” are actually services in disguise, we’ve seen case after case of working machines shut down because the company doesn’t want to keep paying for the service. It doesn’t seem to matter if the company is small, like Sonos, or an immensely wealthy monopoly player like Google. Somehow, the people planning these products have a much shorter lifetime in mind than their customers do, and fail to make the up-front price cover costs.

This puts these companies in a tough spot. The more a customer loves the device, the longer they’ll want to keep it running, and the worse the blowback will be when the firm eventually has to try to weasel its way out of a “lifetime” contract. And they are alienating exactly their most loyal customers — those who want to keep their widget running longer than might even be reasonable. Given that this whole business model is new, it’s not surprising that some firms will get it wrong. What’s surprising to me is how many fall into the IoT trap.

So take this as a cautionary tale as a consumer. And if you’re in a company offering a product that depends on a service to continue to function, ask yourself if you’re really going to be able to support it for the customer’s idea of the lifetime of the product. What looks like a great deal at a five-year horizon might bankrupt your company at ten. Will you, or your customers, be willing to throw their devices away? Should they be?

This article is part of the newsletter, delivered every seven days for each of the last 210 weeks or so. It also includes our favorite articles from the last seven days that you can see on the web version of the newsletter.

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CCCamp: 5,000 Hackers Out Standing In Their Field

What do hackers do on vacation? What do hackers do whenever they have free time? What do you love to do? That’s right. But how much more fun would it be if you could get together with 5,000 other hackers, share your crazy projects and ideas, eat, drink, dance, swim, and camp out all together for five days, naturally with power and Internet? That’s the idea of the Chaos Communication Camp, and it’s a once-in-four-years highlight of hacker life.

Held not too far outside of Berlin, the Camp draws heavily on hackers from Europe and the UK, but American hackers have been part of the scene since almost the beginning. (And Camp played an important role in the new-wave hackerspaces in the US, but that’s another story.) It’s one thing to meet up with the folks in your local hackerspace and work together on a project or brainstorm the next one, but it’s entirely a different thing when you’re drawing on hackers from all over the world. There was certainly more to see and do at Camp than you could in a month, not to mention in only five days, and this could be overwhelming. But if you dig in, the sense of community that came from shared effort and shared interests was the real take-home. And nearly everything at Camp should have its own article on Hackaday.

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