The Day The Russians And Americans Met 135 Miles Up

If you watched the original Star Trek series, you’d assume there was no way the Federation would ever work with the Klingons. But eventually the two became great allies despite their cultural differences. There was a time when it seemed like the United States and Russia would never be friends — as much as nations can be friends. Yet today, the two powers cooperate on a number of fronts.

One notable area of cooperation is in spaceflight, and that also was one of the first areas where the two were able to get together in a cooperative fashion, meeting for the first time in orbit, 135 miles up.  The mission also marks the ultimate voyage of the Apollo spacecraft, a return to space for the USSR’s luckiest astronauts, and the maiden flight of NASA’s oldest astronaut. The ability to link US and Soviet capsules in space would pave the way for the International Space Station.  The Apollo-Soyuz mission was nothing if not historic, but also more relevant than ever as more nations become spacefaring. Continue reading “The Day The Russians And Americans Met 135 Miles Up”

Animatronic Saturn V Launch Tower Sends Lego Model To The Moon

When it comes to their more adult-oriented models, Lego really knocked it out of the park with their Saturn V rocket model. Within the constraints of the universe of Lego parts, the one-meter-tall model is incredibly detailed, and thousands of space fans eagerly snapped up the kit when it came out.

But a rocket without a launchpad is just a little sad, which is why [Mark Howe] came up with this animatronic Saturn V launch pad and gantry for his rocket model. The level of detail in the launchpad complements the features of the Saturn V model perfectly, and highlights just what it took to service the crew and the rocket once it was rolled out to the pad. As you can imagine, extensive use of 3D-printed parts was the key to getting the look just right, and to making parts that actually move.

When it’s time for a launch, the sway control arm and hammerhead crane swing out of the way under servo control as the Arduino embedded in the base plays authentic countdown audio. The crew catwalk swings away, the engines light, and the service arms swing back. Then for the pièce de résistance, the Saturn V begins rising slowly from the pad on five columns of flame. [Mark] uses a trio of steppers driving linear actuators to lift the model; the flame effect is cleverly provided by strings of WS2812s inside five clear plastic tubes. We have to say it took some guts to put the precious 1,969-piece model on a lift like that, but the effect was well worth the risk.

This project has a great look and is obviously a labor of love, and a great homage to the Apollo program’s many successes. We’ve got a ton of other Apollo-era hacks on our pages, including a replica DSKY, a rejuvenated AGC, and a look behind the big boards of mission control.

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China’s Moon Mission Was About More Than Rocks

If everything goes according to plan, China will soon become the third country behind the United States and the Soviet Union to successfully return a sample of lunar material. Their Chang’e 5 mission, which was designed to collect 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of soil and rock from the Moon’s surface, has so far gone off without a hitch. Assuming the returning spacecraft successfully renters the Earth’s atmosphere and lands safely on December 16th, China will officially be inducted into a very exclusive club of Moon explorers.

Of course, spaceflight is exceedingly difficult and atmospheric reentry is particularly challenging. Anything could happen in the next few days, so it would be premature to celebrate the Chang’e 5 mission as a complete success. But even if ground controllers lose contact with the vehicle on its return to Earth, or it burns up in the atmosphere, China will come away from this mission with a wealth of valuable experience that will guide its lunar program for years to come.

In fact, one could argue that was always the real goal of the mission. While there’s plenty of scientific knowledge and not an inconsequential amount of national pride to be gained from bringing a few pounds of Moon rocks back to Earth, it’s no secret that China has greater aspirations when it comes to our nearest celestial neighbor. Starting with the launch of the Chang’e 1 in 2007, the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program has progressed through several operational phases, each more technically challenging than the last. Chang’e 5 represents the third phase of the plan, with only the establishment of robotic research station to go before the country says they’ll proceed with a crewed landing in the 2030s.

Which helps explain why, even for a sample return from the Moon, Chang’e 5 is such an extremely complex mission. A close look at the hardware and techniques involved shows a mission profile considerably more difficult than was strictly necessary. The logical conclusion is that China intentionally took the long way around so they could use it as a dry run for the more challenging missions that still lay ahead.

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Short Video Recaps A Long Tradition Of Space Hacks

Human spaceflight has always been, and still remains, a risky endeavor. We mitigate risk by being as prepared as we can. Every activity is planned, reviewed, and practiced long before any rocket engines are ignited. But space has a history of not cooperating with plans, and thus there is a corresponding history of hacks to get missions back on track. YouTube space fan [Scott Manley] recaps some of his favorites in How a $2 Toothbrush Saved the ISS and Other Unbelievable Space Hacks.

The introduction explained this compilation was motivated by the latest International Space Station drama, where an elusive air leak has finally been tracked down. Air leaks are obviously much more worrying in a space station than in, say, a bicycle tire. Thus there exists a wide array of tools to track down leaks but they couldn’t find this one. Reportedly the breakthrough came from an improvised airflow visualization tool: leaves from a cut-open tea bag. Normally small floating particles are forbidden in space because they might end up in troublesome places. (Eyes, noses, onboard equipment…) Apparently the necessity of the hack outweighed the rules here.

Tea leaves are but the latest in a long line of hacks devised in the course of space missions, because things don’t always go according to the original plan. Or even any of the large volume of contingency plans. Solutions have to be cobbled together from resources on hand, because when we’re in space, what we brought is all we have. From directly editing production code during Apollo 14, to a field-built replacement fender for the Apollo 17 Lunar Rover Vehicle (top picture), to the $2 toothbrush pressed into service as metal debris cleaner. The mission must go on!

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Apollo DSKY Replica Looks The Part

It’s hard to say what exactly it is about the Apollo DSKY that captures so many hackers’ imaginations. Whatever it is, the “Display and Keyboard” unit from the Apollo Guidance Computer has inspired dozens of teardowns, simulations, and reproductions over the years, to varying degrees of success. But this mechanically faithful DSKY replica really knocks it out of the park in terms of attention to detail.

The product of [M. daSilva], this DSKY replica takes a somewhat different path than many of the others we’ve seen. By working from as many original documents as possible, he was able to reproduce the physical size and shape of the DSKY very accurately — no mean feat when working from copies of copies of the original paper prints. Still, the details that are captured, like the gussets and reinforcements that were added to strengthen the original die-cast parts, really make this DSKY look the part. It’s functional, too, thanks to a Raspberry Pi running VirtualAGC, with a Nextion 4.3″ LCD display standing in for the original electroluminescent display. We were surprised to learn the DSKY had a port for nitrogen purging the case; check out the video tour below for that and other tidbits.

Of course, just because [M. daSilva] chose to concentrate on dimensional accuracy for this go-around doesn’t preclude more faithful electronics in the future. Perhaps he can team up with [Ben Krasnow] or [Fran Blanche] and really make this a showpiece.

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Exploring The Clouds Of Venus; It’s Not Fantasy, But It Will Take Specialized Spacecraft

By now, you’ve likely heard that scientists have found a potential sign of biological life on Venus. Through a series of radio telescope observations in 2017 and 2019, they were able to confirm the presence of phosphine gas high in the planet’s thick atmosphere. Here on Earth, the only way this gas is produced outside of the laboratory is through microbial processes. The fact that it’s detectable at such high concentrations in the Venusian atmosphere means we either don’t know as much as we thought we did about phosphine, or more tantalizingly, that the spark of life has been found on our nearest planetary neighbor.

Venus, as seen by Mariner 10 in 1974

To many, the idea that life could survive on Venus is difficult to imagine. While it’s technically the planet most like Earth in terms of size, mass, composition, and proximity to the Sun, the surface of this rocky world is absolutely hellish; with a runaway greenhouse effect producing temperatures in excess of 460 C (840 F). Life, at least as we currently know it, would find no safe haven on the surface of Venus. Even the Soviet Venera landers, sent to the planet in the 1980s, were unable to survive the intense heat and pressure for more than a few hours.

While the surface may largely be outside of our reach, the planet’s exceptionally dense atmosphere is another story entirely. At an altitude of approximately 50 kilometers, conditions inside the Venusian atmosphere are far more forgiving. The atmospheric pressure at this altitude is almost identical to surface-level pressures on Earth, and the average temperature is cool enough that liquid water can form. While the chemical composition of the atmosphere is not breathable by Earthly standards, and the clouds of sulfuric acid aren’t particularly welcoming, it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that simple organisms could thrive in this CO2-rich environment. If there really is life on Venus, many speculate it will be found hiding in this relatively benign microcosm high in the clouds.

In short, all the pieces seem to be falling into place. Observations confirm a telltale marker of biological life is in the upper levels of the Venusian atmosphere, and we know from previous studies that this region is arguably one of the most Earth-like environments in the solar system. It’s still far too early to claim we’ve discovered extraterrestrial life, but it’s not hard to see why people are getting so excited.

But this isn’t the first time scientists have turned their gaze towards Earth’s twin. In fact, had things gone differently, NASA might have sent a crew out to Venus after the Apollo program had completed its survey of the Moon. If that mission had launched back in the 1970s, it could have fundamentally reshaped our understanding of the planet; and perhaps even our understanding of humanity’s place in the cosmos.

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The Smell Of Space

In space, so the Alien tagline goes, nobody can hear you scream. One of the most memorable pieces of movie promotion ever, it refers to the effect of the vacuum of space on the things human senses require an atmosphere to experience. It’s a lesson that Joss Whedon used to great effect with the Serenity‘s silent engine light-ups in Firefly, while Star Wars ignored it completely to give us improbable weapon noises in space battles.

Sound may not pass through the vacuum of space, but that’s not to say there are not things other than light for the senses. The Apollo astronauts reported that moon dust released a smell they described as akin to burnt gunpowder once it was exposed to the atmosphere inside their lander, and by now you may have heard that there is a Kickstarter that aims to recreate the smell as a fragrance. Will it replace the cloying wall of Axe or Lynx Africa body spray that pervades high-school boys’ changing rooms, or is it a mere novelty?

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