Do Space Probes Fail Because Of Space Weather?

Over the past few decades, numerous space probes sent to the far-flung reaches of the Solar System have fallen silent. These failures weren’t due to communications problems, probes flying into scientifically implausible anomalies, or little green men snatching up the robotic scouts we’ve sent out into the Solar System. No, these space probes have failed simply because engineers on Earth can’t point them. If you lose attitude control, you lose the ability to point a transmitter at Earth. If you’re managing a space telescope, losing the ability to point a spacecraft turns a valuable piece of scientific equipment into a worthless, spinning pile of junk.

The reasons for these failures is difficult to pin down, but now a few people have an idea. Failures of the Kepler, Dawn, Hayabusa, and FUSE space probes were due to failures of the reaction wheels in the spacecraft. These failures, in turn, were caused by space weather. Specifically, coronal mass ejections from the Sun. How did this research come about, and what does it mean for future missions to deep space?

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Perf Board Pyrotechnics Courtesy of a High-Voltage Supply

You may have asked yourself at one time or another, “Self, what happens when you pass 100 thousand volts through a printed circuit board?” It’s a good question, and [styropyro] put together this fascinating bit of destructive testing to find out.

Luckily, [styropyro] is well-positioned to explore the high-voltage realm. His YouTube stock-in-trade is lasers, ranging from a ridiculously overpowered diode-laser bazooka to a bottle-busting ruby laser. The latter requires high voltage, of course, and his Frankenstein’s lab yielded the necessary components for this destructive diversion. A chopper drives dual automotive ignition coils to step the voltage up to a respectable 100 kV. The arcs across an air gap are impressive enough, but when applied to a big piece of copper-clad protoboard, the light show is amazing. The arcs take a seemingly different path across the board for each discharge, lighting up the path with an eerie blue glow accompanied by a menacing buzz. Each discharge path may be random, but they all are composed of long stretches across the rows and columns of copper pads that never take the more direct diagonal path. [styropyro]’s explanation of the math governing this behavior is feasible, but really we just liked looking at the pretty and dangerous display. Now if only the board had been populated with components…

No, there’s not much of a hack here, but it’s cool nonetheless. And it’s probably a well-earned distraction from his more serious stuff, like his recent thorough debunking of the “Chinese laser rifle” that was all over the news a while back.

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A Dramatic Demo of AC Versus DC Switching

Switches seem to be the simplest of electrical components – just two pieces of metal that can be positioned to either touch each other or not. As such it would seem that it shouldn’t matter whether a switch is used for AC or DC. While that’s an easy and understandable assumption, it can also be a dangerous one, as this demo of AC and DC switching dramatically reveals.

Using a very simple test setup, consisting of an electric heater for a load, a variac to control the voltage, and a homemade switch, [John Ward] walks us through the details of what happens when those contacts get together. With low-voltage AC, the switch contacts exhibit very little arcing, and even with the voltage cranked up all the way, little more than a brief spark can be seen on either make or break. Then [John] built a simple DC supply with a big rectifier and a couple of capacitors to smooth things out and went through the same tests. Even at a low DC voltage, the arc across the switch contacts was dramatic, particularly upon break. With the voltage cranked up to the full 240-volts of the UK mains, [John]’s switch was essentially a miniature arc welder, with predictable results as the plastic holding the contacts melted. Don your welding helmet and check out the video below.

As dramatic as the demo is, it doesn’t mean we won’t ever be seeing DC in the home. It just means that a little extra engineering is needed to make sure that all the components are up to snuff.

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11,000 Volt Jacob’s Ladder Sounds Like a Lightsaber

In the high-voltage world, a Jacob’s ladder is truly a sight to behold. They are often associated with mad scientist labs, due to both the awesome visual display and the sound that they make. A Jacob’s ladder is typically very simple. You need a high voltage electricity source and two bare wires. The wires are placed next to each other, almost in parallel. They form a slight “V” shape and are placed vertically. The system acts essentially as a short-circuit. The voltage is high enough to break through the air at the point where the wires are nearest to each other. The air rises as it heats up, moving the current path along with it. The result is the arc slowly raising upwards, extending in length. The sound also lowers in frequency as the arc gets longer, and once [Gristc] tuned his system just right the sound reminds us of the Holy Trilogy.

We’ve seen these made in the past with other types of transformers that typically put out around 15,000 Volts at 30mA. In this case, [Gristc] supersized the design using a much beefier transformer that puts out 11,000 Volts at 300mA. He runs the output from the transformer through eight microwave oven capacitors as a ballast. He says that without this, the system will immediately trip the circuit breakers in his house.

In the demo video below, you can see just how large the arc is. It appears to get about 10 inches long before breaking with a sound different from any Jacob’s ladders we’ve seen in the past as well. Continue reading “11,000 Volt Jacob’s Ladder Sounds Like a Lightsaber”