Hitchhiking to the Moon for Fun and Profit

On February 22nd, a Falcon rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral carrying the Indonesian communications satellite Nusantara Satu. While the satellite was the primary payload for the mission, as is common on the Falcon 9, the rocket had a couple of stowaways. These secondary payloads are generally experiments or spacecraft which are too small or light to warrant a rocket of their own such as CubeSats. But despite flying in the economy seats, one of the secondary payloads on this particular launch has a date with destiny: Israel’s Beresheet, the first privately-funded mission to attempt landing on the Moon.

But unlike the Apollo missions, which took only three days to reach our nearest celestial neighbor, Beresheet is taking a considerably more leisurely course. It will take over a month for the spacecraft to reach the Moon, and it will be a few weeks after that before it finally makes a powered descent towards the Sea of Serenity, not far from where Apollo 17 landed 47 years ago. That assumes everything goes perfectly; tack a few extra weeks onto that estimate if the vehicle runs into any hiccups on the way.

At first glance, this might seem odd. If the trip only took a few days with 1960’s technology, it seems a modern rocket like the Falcon 9 should be able to make better time. But in reality, the pace is dictated by budgetary constraints on both the vehicle itself and the booster that carried it into space. While one could argue that the orbital maneuvers involved in this “scenic route” towards the Moon are more complicated than the direct trajectory employed by the manned Apollo missions, it does hold promise for a whole new class of lunar spacecraft. If you’re not in any particular hurry, and you’re trying to save some cash, your Moon mission might be better off taking the long way around.

Continue reading “Hitchhiking to the Moon for Fun and Profit”

Expert Says Don’t Teach Kids to Code

I was a little surprised to see a news report about Andreas Schleicher, the director of education and skills at OECD — the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Speaking at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Paris, Schleicher thinks that teaching kids to code is a waste of time. In particular, he seems to think that by the time a child today grows up, coding will be obsolete.

I can’t help but think that he might be a little confused. Coding isn’t going away anytime soon. It could, of course, become an even deeper specialty, and thus less generally applicable. But the comments he’s made seem to imply that soon we will just tell smart computers what we want and they will just do that. Somewhat like computers work on Star Trek.

What is more likely is that most people will be able to find specific applications that can do what they want without traditional coding. But someone still has to write something for the foreseeable future. What’s more, if you’ve ever tried to tease requirements out of an end user, you know that you can’t just blurt out anything you want to a computer and expect it to make sense. It isn’t the computer’s fault. People — especially untrained people — don’t always make sense or communicate unambiguously.

Continue reading “Expert Says Don’t Teach Kids to Code”

MCAS and the 737: When Small Changes have Huge Consequences

When the first 737 MAX entered service in May of 2017, it was considered a major milestone for Boeing. For nearly a decade, the aerospace giant had been working on a more fuel efficient iteration of the classic 737 that first took to the skies in 1967. Powered by cutting-edge CFM International LEAP engines, and sporting modern aerodynamic improvements such as unique split wingtips, Boeing built the new 737 to have an operating cost that was competitive with the latest designs from Airbus. With over 5,000 orders placed between the different 737 MAX variants, the aircraft was an instant success.

But now, in response to a pair of accidents which claimed 346 lives, the entire Boeing 737 MAX global fleet is grounded. While the investigations into these tragedies are still ongoing, the preliminary findings are too similar to ignore. In both cases, it appears the aircraft put itself into a dive despite the efforts of the crew to maintain altitude. While the Federal Aviation Administration initially hesitated to suspend operations of the Boeing 737 MAX, they eventually agreed with government regulatory bodies all over the world to call for a temporary ban on operating the planes until the cause of these accidents can be identified and resolved.

For their part, Boeing maintains their aircraft is safe. They say that grounding the fleet was done out of an “abundance of caution”, rather than in direct response to a particular deficiency of the aircraft:

Boeing continues to have full confidence in the safety of the 737 MAX.  However, after consultation with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and aviation authorities and its customers around the world, Boeing has determined — out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of the aircraft’s safety — to recommend to the FAA the temporary suspension of operations of the entire global fleet of 371 737 MAX aircraft.

Until both accident investigations are completed, nobody can say with complete certainty what caused the loss of the aircraft and their passengers. But with the available information about what changes were made during the 737 redesign, along with Boeing’s own recommendations to operators, industry insiders have started to point towards a fault in the plane’s new Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) as a likely culprit in both accidents.

Despite the billions of dollars spent developing these incredibly complex aircraft, and the exceptionally stringent standards their operation is held to, there’s now a strong indication that the Boeing 737 MAX could be plagued with two common issues that we’ve likely all experienced in the past: a software glitch and poor documentation.

Continue reading “MCAS and the 737: When Small Changes have Huge Consequences”

Proposed NASA Budget Signals Changes To Space Launch System

The White House’s proposed budget for 2020 is out, and with it comes cuts to NASA. The most important item of note in the proposed budget is a delay of the Space Launch System, the SLS, a super-heavy lifting launch vehicle designed for single use. The proposed delay would defer work on the enhanced version of the SLS, the Block 1B with the Exploration Upper Stage.

The current plans for the Space Launch System include a flight using NASA’s Orion spacecraft in June 2020 for a flight around the moon. This uncrewed flight, Exploration Mission 1, or EM-1, would use the SLS Block 1 Crew rocket. A later flight, EM-2, would fly a crewed Orion capsule around the moon in 2022. A third proposed flight in 2023 would send the Europa Clipper to Jupiter. The proposed 2020 budget puts these flights in jeopardy.

Continue reading “Proposed NASA Budget Signals Changes To Space Launch System”

Do You Know Where Your Drone is Headed? HJWYDK Article Explores Limits of MEMS Sensors

Knowing in what absolute direction your robot is pointed can be crucial, and expensive systems like those used by NASA on Mars are capable of calculating this six-dimensional heading vector to within around one degree RMS, but they are fairly expensive. If you want similar accuracy on a hacker budget, this paper shows you how to do it using cheap MEMS sensors, an off-the-shelf motion co-processor IC, and the right calibration method.

The latest article to be published in our own peer-reviewed Hackaday Journal is Limits of Absolute Heading Accuracy Using Inexpensive MEMS Sensors  (PDF). In this paper, Gregory Tomasch and Kris Winer take a close look at the heading accuracy that can be obtained using several algorithms coupled with two different MEMS sensor sets. Their work shows that when properly used, inexpensive sensors can produce results on par with much more costly systems. This is a great paper that illustrates the practical contributions our community can make to technology, and we’re proud to publish it in the Journal.

Continue reading “Do You Know Where Your Drone is Headed? HJWYDK Article Explores Limits of MEMS Sensors”

No, Your 3D Printer Doesn’t Have a Fingerprint

Hackers and makers see the desktop 3D printer as something close to a dream come true, a device that enables automated small-scale manufacturing for a few hundred dollars. But it’s not unreasonable to say that most of us are idealists; we see the rise of 3D printing as a positive development because we have positive intentions for the technology. But what of those who would use 3D printers to produce objects of more questionable intent?

We’ve already seen 3D printed credit card skimmers in the wild, and if you have a clear enough picture of a key its been demonstrated that you can print a functional copy. Following this logic, it’s reasonable to conclude that the forensic identification of 3D printed objects could one day become a valuable tool for law enforcement. If a printed credit card skimmer is recovered by authorities, being able to tell how and when it was printed could provide valuable clues as to who put it there.

This precise line of thinking is how the paper “PrinTracker: Fingerprinting 3D Printers using Commodity Scanners” (PDF link) came to be. This research, led by the University at Buffalo, aims to develop a system which would allow investigators to scan a 3D printed object recovered from a crime scene and identify which printer was used to produce it. The document claims that microscopic inconsistencies in the object are distinctive enough that they’re analogous to the human fingerprint.

But like many of you, I had considerable doubts about this proposal when it was recently featured here on Hackaday. Those of us who use 3D printers on a regular basis know how many variables are involved in getting consistent prints, and how introducing even the smallest change can have a huge impact on the final product. The idea that a visual inspection could make any useful identification with all of these parameters in play was exceptionally difficult to believe.

In light of my own doubts, and some of the excellent points brought up by reader comments, I thought a closer examination of the PrinTracker concept was in order. How exactly is this identification system supposed to work? How well does it adapt to the highly dynamic nature of 3D printing? But perhaps most importantly, could these techniques really be trusted in a criminal investigation?

Continue reading “No, Your 3D Printer Doesn’t Have a Fingerprint”

What Hardware Lies Beneath? Companies Swear They Never Meant to Violate Your Privacy

“Don’t Be Evil” was the mantra of Google from years before even Gmail was created. While certainly less vague than their replacement slogan “Do the Right Thing”, there has been a lot of criticism directed at Google over the past decade and a half for repeatedly being at odds with one of their key values. It seems as though they took this criticism to heart (or found it easier to make money without the slogan), and subsequently dropped it in 2018. Nothing at Google changed, though, as the company has continued with several practices which at best could be considered shady.

The latest was the inclusion of an undisclosed microphone in parts of their smart home system, the Nest Guard. This is a member of the Nest family of products — it is not the thermostat itself, but a base station for a set of home security hardware you can install yourself. The real issue is that this base station was never billed as being voice activated. If you’re someone who has actively avoided installing “always-listening” style devices in your home, it’s infuriating to learn there is hardware out that have microphones in them but no mention of that in the marketing of the product. Continue reading “What Hardware Lies Beneath? Companies Swear They Never Meant to Violate Your Privacy”