NASA’s Lucy Stretches Its Wings Ahead Of Trojan Trek

The good news about using solar power to explore space is there are no clouds to block your sunlight. Some dust and debris, yes, but nowhere near what we have to deal with on planets. The bad news is, as you wander further and further out in the solar system, your panels capture less and less of the sunlight you need for power. NASA’s Lucy spacecraft will be dependent on every square inch, so we’re happy to hear technicians have successfully tested its solar panel deployment in preparation for an October 2021 launch.

An animation of Trojan asteroids and inner planets in orbit around the Sun.
Trojan asteroids (in green) orbit the Sun ahead of and behind Jupiter.

Lucy’s 12-year mission is to examine one Main Belt asteroid and seven so-called Trojans, which are asteroids shepherded around the Sun in two clusters at Lagrange points just ahead and behind Jupiter in its orbit. The convoluted orbital path required for all those visits will sling the spacecraft farther from the sun than any solar-powered space mission has gone before. To make up for the subsequent loss of watts per area, the designers have done their best to maximize the area. Though the panels fold up to a package only 4 inches (10 centimeters) thick, they open up to an enormous diameter of almost 24 feet (7.3 meters); which is enough to provide the roughly 500 watts required at literally astronomical distances from their power source.

Near-Earth asteroids are exciting targets for exploration partly because of the hazards they pose to our planet. Trojan asteroids, thought to be primordial remnants of the same material that formed the outer planets, pose no such danger to us but may hold insights about the early formation of our solar system. We’re already eagerly anticipating the return of OSIRIS-REx’s sample, and Hayabusa2 continues its mission after so many firsts. An extended tour of these farther-off objects will keep us watching for years to come. Check out the video embedded below for Lucy’s mission overview.

Continue reading “NASA’s Lucy Stretches Its Wings Ahead Of Trojan Trek”

The Cost Of Moving Atoms In Space; Unpacking The Dubious Claims Of A $10 Quintillion Space Asteroid

The rest of the media were reporting on an asteroid named 16 Psyche last month worth $10 quintillion. Oddly enough they reported in July 2019 and again in February 2018 that the same asteroid was worth $700 quintillion, so it seems the space rock market is similar to cryptocurrency in its wild speculation. Those numbers are ridiculous, but it had us thinking about the economies of space transportation, and what atoms are worth based on where they are. Let’s break down how gravity wells, distance, and arbitrage work to figure out how much of this $10-$700 quintillion we can leverage for ourselves.

The value assigned to everything has to do with where a thing is, AND how much someone needs that thing to be somewhere else. If they need it in a different place, someone must pay for the transportation of it.

In international (and interplanetary) trade, this is where Incoterms come in. These are the terms used to describe who pays for and has responsibility for the goods between where they are and where they need to be. In this case, all those materials are sitting on an asteroid, and someone has to pay for all the transport and insurance and duties. Note that on the asteroid these materials need to be mined and refined as well; they’re not just sitting in a box on some space dock. On the other end of the spectrum, order something from Amazon and it’s Amazon that takes care of everything until it’s dropped on your doorstep. The buyer is paying for shipping either way; it’s just a matter of whether that cost is built into the price or handled separately. Another important term is arbitrage, which is the practice of taking a thing from one market and selling it in a different market at a higher price. In this case the two markets are Earth and space.

Continue reading “The Cost Of Moving Atoms In Space; Unpacking The Dubious Claims Of A $10 Quintillion Space Asteroid”

OSIRIS-REx Reaches Out And Touches Asteroid Bennu

After a four year trek through deep space, OSIRIS-REx made history this evening as it became the first NASA spacecraft to try and collect a surface sample from an asteroid (Editor’s note: servers may be down due to the breaking news). Once sensors verify the collected material is safely onboard, the vehicle will begin drifting away from the 490 meter wide Bennu in preparation of its eventual departure and return to Earth. If all goes according to plan, the craft’s conical Sample Return Capsule carrying its precious cargo will renter the atmosphere and land at the Utah Test and Training Range in September of 2023.

OSIRIS-REx with solar panels in “Y-Wing” configuration.

Due to its extremely low gravity and rocky surface, a traditional landing on Bennu was deemed impractical. Instead, OSIRIS-REx performed a daring touch and go maneuver that brought the spacecraft into contact with the surface for just a few seconds.

A camera on the bottom of the vehicle took images every few minutes during the descent and ran them through an onboard system called Natural Feature Tracking (NFT) that autonomously steered it away from dangerous surface features. As a precaution, the solar panels on the OSIRIS-REx were angled backwards in a “Y-Wing” configuration shortly before the descent to help protect them from striking the surface or being damaged by ejected material.

Once the colander-like Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) mounted to the end of the spacecraft’s 3.35 meter (11 foot) articulated robotic arm arm made contact with the regolith, pressurized nitrogen was used to kick up material and push it towards storage caches built into the mechanism. With so much riding on the successful collection of surface material, this largely passive system was selected to minimize the possible failures in the critical few seconds that OSIRIS-REx would be in contact with Bennu. Mission planners say it might take until Saturday to determine if a sample was successfully collected, and that the spacecraft has the ability to perform two more attempts if needed.

After its discovery in September 1999, both the Arecibo Observatory and the Goldstone Deep Space Network were used to make radar observations of Bennu to study its shape and size. Calculations have shown it has a cumulative 1 in 2,700 chance of striking the Earth by the year 2199. By mapping the asteroid, studying it at close range, and bringing a geological sample back home, NASA hopes to gain valuable insight on how similar near-Earth objects can be detected and ultimately diverted if needed.

Hackaday Links: September 27, 2020

Hardly a week goes by without a headline screaming about some asteroid or another making a close approach to Earth; it’s only by reading the fine print that we remember what an astronomer’s definition of “close” means. Still, 2020 being what it is, it pays to stay on top of these things, and when you do the story can get really interesting. Take asteroid 2020 SO, a tiny near-Earth asteroid that was discovered just last week. In a couple of weeks, 2020 SO will be temporarily captured into Earth orbit and come with 50,000 km near the beginning of December. That’s cool and all, but what’s really interesting about this asteroid is that it may not be a rock at all. NASA scientists have reverse-engineered the complex orbit of the object and found that it was in the vicinity of Earth in late 1966. They think it may be a Centaur booster from the Surveyor 2 moon mission, launched in September 1966 in the runup to Apollo. The object will be close enough for spectral analysis of its. surface; if it’s the booster, the titanium dioxide in the white paint should show up loud and clear.

Lasers are sort of forbidden fruit for geeks — you know you can put an eye out with them, and still, when you get your hands on even a low-power laser pointer, it’s hard to resist the urge to shine it where you shouldn’t. That includes into the night sky, which as cool as it looks could be bad news for pilots, and then for you. Luckily, friend of Hackaday Seb Lee-Delisle has figured out a way for you to blast lasers into the night sky to your heart’s content. The project is called Laser Light City and takes place in Seb’s home base of Brighton int he UK on October 1. The interactive installation will have three tall buildings with three powerful lasers mounted on each; a smartphone app will let participants control the direction, shape, and color of each beam. It sounds like a load of fun, so check it out if you’re in the area.

We got an interesting story from a JR Nelis about a quick hack he came up with to help his wife stay connected. The whole post is worth a read, but the short version of the story is that his wife has dementia and is in assisted living. Her landline phone is her social lifeline, but she can’t be trusted with it, lest she makes inappropriate calls. His solution was to modify her favorite cordless phone by modifying the keypad, turning it into a receive-only phone. It’s a sad but touching story, and it may prove useful to others with loved ones in similar situations.

We pay a lot of attention to the history of the early computer scene, but we tend to concentrate on computers that were popular in North America and the UK. But the Anglo-American computers were far from the only game in town, and there’s a new effort afoot to celebrate one of the less well-known but still important pioneer computers: the Galaksija. Aside from having a cool name, the Yugoslavian Z80 computer has a great story that will be told in documentary form, as part of the crowdsourced Galaksija project. The documentary stars our own Voja Antonic, who was key to the computer’s development. In addition to the film, the project seeks to produce a replica of the Galaksija in kit form. Check out the Crowd Supply page and see if it’s something you’re willing to back.

There’s an interesting new podcast out there: the Pick, Place, Podcast. Hosted by Chris Denney and Melissa Hough, it comes out every other week and is dedicated to the electronic assembly industry. They’ve currently got eight episodes in the can ranging from pick and place assembly to parts purchasing to solder paste printing. If you want to learn a little more about PCB assembly, this could be a real asset. Of course don’t forget to make time for our own Hackaday Podcast, where editors Mike and Elliot get together to discuss the week in hardware hacking.

Hackaday Links: September 6, 2020

That was a close shave! On Tuesday, asteroid 2011 ES4 passed really close to the earth. JPL’s close approach data pegs its nominal distance from earth at about 0.00081083276352288 au! Yeah, we had to look it up too: that’s around 75,000 miles (120,000 kilometers), just ten times the diameter of the earth and only about one-third the distance from the earth the moon. It got within about 52,000 miles of the moon itself. Bookworms who made it all the way through Seveneves are surely sweating right now.

There’s a low current arms race when it comes to lighting up LEDs. The latest salvo in the field comes from [Christoph Tack] who boasts a current of 1.36 µA at 3 V for a green LED that is roughly 10x brighter than a phosphorescent watch dial. Of course, the TritiLED is the design being chased, which claims to run 17.6-20.2 years on a single CR2032 coin cell.

Proving once again that Hanna and Barbera were indeed future-tech prophets, flying cars are now a thing. Sky Drive Inc. made a four-minute test flight of a single passenger octo-rotor aircraft. Like a motorcycle of the sky (and those are a thing too) this thing is single-passenger and the cockpit is open air. The CNN article mentions that “The company hopes to make the flying car a part of normal life and not just a commodity”. Yeah, we’re sure they do, but in an age when electric cars are demonized for ranges in the low hundreds of miles, this is about as practical for widespread use as self-balancing electric unicycles.

Just when you thought the Marble Machine X project couldn’t get any bigger, we find out they have a few hundred volunteers working to update and track CAD models for all parts on the machine. Want a quick-start on project management and BOM control? These are never seen as the sexy parts of hardware efforts, but for big projects, you ignore them at your own peril.

Google and Apple built a COVID-19 contact tracing framework into their mobile platforms but stopped short of building the apps to actually do the work, anticipating that governments would want to control how the apps worked. So was the case with the European tracing app as Elliot Williams recently covered in this excellent overview. However, the United States has been slower to the game. Looks like the tech giants have become tired of waiting and have now made it possible for the framework itself to work as a contact tracing mechanism. To enable it, local governments need to upload a configuration file that sets parameters and URLs that redirect to informational pages from local health departments, and users must opt-in on their phone. All other tracing apps will continue to function, this is meant to add an option for places that have not yet adopted/developed their own app.

And finally, it’s time to take back responsibility for your poor spelling. Auto-correct has been giving us sardines instead of teaching how to fish for them ourselves. That ends now. The Autocorrect Remover is an extension for Google Docs that still tells you the word is wrong, but hides the correct spelling, gamifying it by having you guess the right spelling and rewarding you with points when you get it right.

Damage To Arecibo Leaves Gaping Hole In Astronomy

In the early morning hours of August 10th, a support cable at the Arecibo Observatory pulled lose from its mount and crashed through the face of the primary reflector below. Images taken from below the iconic 305 meter dish, made famous by films such as Contact and GoldenEye, show an incredible amount of damage. The section of thick cable, estimated to weigh in at around 6,000 kilograms (13,000 pounds), had little difficulty tearing through the reflector’s thin mesh construction.

Worse still, the cable also struck the so-called “Gregorian dome”, the structure suspended over the dish where the sensitive instruments are mounted. At the time of this writing it’s still unclear as to whether or not any of that instrumentation has been damaged, though NASA at least has said that the equipment they operate inside the dome appears to have survived unscathed. At the very least, the damage to the dome structure itself will need to be addressed before the Observatory can resume normal operations.

The Arecibo Observatory by JidoBG [CC-BY-SA 4.0]
But how long will the repairs take, and who’s going to pay for them? It’s no secret that funding for the 60 year old telescope has been difficult to come by since at least the early 2000s. The cost of repairing the relatively minor damage to the telescope sustained during Hurricane Maria in 2017 may have been enough to shutter the installation permanently if it hadn’t been for a consortium led by the University of Central Florida. They agreed to share the burden of operating the Observatory with the National Science Foundation and put up several million dollars of additional funding.

It’s far too early to know how much time and money it will take to get Arecibo Observatory back up to operational status, but with the current world situation, it seems likely the telescope will be out of commission for at least the rest of the year. Given the fact that repairs from the 2017 damage still haven’t been completed, perhaps even longer than that. In the meantime, astronomers around the globe are left without this wholly unique resource.

Continue reading “Damage To Arecibo Leaves Gaping Hole In Astronomy”

The WISE In NEOWISE: How A Hibernating Satellite Awoke To Discover The Comet

Over the last few weeks the media has been full of talk about NEOWISE, one of the brightest and most spectacular comets to ever pass through our solar system that you can still see if you hurry. While the excitement over this interstellar traveler is more than justified, it’s also an excellent opportunity to celebrate the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) space telescope it was named after. The discovery of this particular comet is just the latest triumph in the orbiting observatory’s incredible mission of discovery that’s spanned over a decade, with no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

In fact, WISE has been operational for so long now that its mission has evolved beyond its original scope. When it was launched in December 2009 from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, its primary mission was scheduled to be completed in less than a year. But like many NASA spacecraft that came before it, WISE achieved its original design goals and found itself ready for a new challenge. Though not before it spent almost three years in hibernation mode as the agency decided what to do with it.

Continue reading “The WISE In NEOWISE: How A Hibernating Satellite Awoke To Discover The Comet”