A few years ago we talked about the chance that the first known extrasolar visitor — Oumuamua — might be a derelict solar sail. That notion has been picking up steam in the popular press lately, and it made us think again about the chances that the supposed rock was really a solar sail discarded or maybe even a probe flying with a solar sail. At the same time, Mars is as close as it ever gets so there is a gaggle of our probes searching the red planet, some of them looking for signs of past life.
All this makes us think: if we did find life or even artifacts of intelligent life, would we realize it? Sure, we can usually figure out what’s alive here on Earth. But to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, “We know it when we see it.” Defining life turns out to be surprisingly tricky, recognizing alien technology would be even harder.
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.
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.
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.
Well-seasoned readers will no doubt remember GRiD laptops, the once and always tacti-cool computers that dominated the military market for decades. GRiDs were the first laptops to go to space, and they were coveted for their sleek (for the time) good looks and reputation as indestructible machines.
The GRiDs went through many iterations, and even though their military roots make them nearly unobtanium, [Simon] scored a GRiD laptop and set about restoring it. His theme was the 1986 movie Aliens, which featured a few GRiD Compass computers as props. [Simon]’s 1550SX came a little later than the Compass 2, but documents with the machine reveal it was a Royal Air Force machine that had been deemed unserviceable for reasons unknown.
[Simon] carefully tore it down – pay close attention to the video below and you’ll hear the telltale plink of the magnesium case parts rather than the dull thud of plastic; they don’t make them like that anymore – and cleaned it up. He replaced the original display with a PiMoroni 10″ retro game display to keep the original 4:3 aspect ratio. A Raspberry Pi 4 went inside, along with a Teensy to take care of adapting the GRiD keyboard to USB and lighting up some front-panel LEDs. A second Teeny allows the original IsoPoint mouse to be used, which is a real gem. With the addition of appropriate graphics, the machine looks like it would be at home on a Colonial Marines dropship.
We love the retro feel of [Simon]’s build, and the movie nostalgia. We’re just glad he didn’t include a LiPo battery, which might not get along with the magnesium case. Game over, man!
Guess what’ll be wrapping up in just two weeks? The Midwest RepRap Festival, the largest con for open source 3D printing in the world. MRRF is going down in Goshen, Indiana on March 23rd through March 25th. Tickets are free! If you’re looking for a hotel, I can speak from experience that the Best Western is good and close to the con, and I haven’t heard anything bad about the Holiday Inn Express.
Want to go to a convention with even weirder people? Somehow or another, a press release for Contact In The Desert, the largest UFO conference in the world, ended up in my inbox. It’s on the first weekend in June near Cochilla. Why is this significant? Because the greatest people-watching experience you’ll ever see, AlienCon 2018, is happening in Pasadena just two weeks later. The guy with the hair from Ancient Aliens will be at both events. Why are they having a UFO conference where military planes fly all the time? Wouldn’t it be better to rule out false positives?
The entirety of Silicon Valley tech culture is based upon the principle of flouting laws and regulations. We have reached a new high water mark. Swarm Technologies, a ‘stealth startup’ working on ‘Internet of Things’ satellites recently sent up four 0.25U cubesats on an ISRO flight. The satellites were deployed and are currently in orbit. This is somewhat remarkable, because the FCC, the government body responsible for regulating commercial satellites, dismissed Swarm’s application for launch on safety grounds. As reported by IEEE Spectrum, this is the first ever unauthorized launch of commercial satellites.
The TRS-80 Model 100 was one of the first, best examples of a ‘notebook’ computer. It had a QWERTY keyboard, an LCD, and ran off a few AA batteries for 20 hours. It’s the perfect platform for a Raspberry Pi casemod, and now someone has finally done it. [thecodeman] stuffed a Pi into a broken model M100 and replaced the old LCD with a 7.8″ 400×1280 pixel display. The display is the interesting part here, and it comes from EarthLCD, part number earthlcd-7-4001280.
The Flite Test crew is famous for their foam board RC airplanes, but they have historically had some significantly more interesting builds. Can you fly a cinder block? Yep. Can you fly a microwave and have it pop popcorn? Yep. Their latest crazy project is a flying Little Tikes Cozy Coupe, the ubiquitous red and yellow toy car meant to fit a toddler. The wings are made out of cardboard, the motors — both of them — generate thirty pounds of thrust each, and you can weld with the batteries. Does it fly? Yes, until the wings collapsed and the Cozy Coupe plummeted to the ground. Watch the video, it’s a great demonstration of designing a plane to rotate off the ground.