Hackaday Links: August 30, 2020

Tech history is rife with examples of bizarre product demos, but we’ve got to think that Elon Musk’s Neuralink demo this week will have to rank up there with the weirdest of them. Elon’s job here was to sell the proposition that having a quarter-sized plug removed from your skull by a surgical robot and having it plunge 1,024 tiny wires into your gray matter will be totally normal and something that all the cool kids will be doing someday. We watched the 14-minute supercut of the demo, which went on for considerably longer than that due to the realities of pig wrangling, and we remain unsold on the technology. Elon selling it as “a Fitbit in your skull, with tiny wires” probably didn’t help, nor did the somewhat terrifying appearance of the surgical robot needed to do the job. On the other hand, Gertrude the Bionic Pig seemed none the worse for her implant, which was reportedly wired to her snout and sending data wirelessly. The demonstration of reading joint positions directly from the brain was honestly pretty neat. If you want to dive deeper into Neuralink, check out Maya’s great article that separates fact from science fiction.

Jerry Carr, NASA astronaut and commander of the third and final crewed Skylab mission, passed away this week at the age of 88. Carr’s Skylab 4 mission was record-breaking in 1974, with the three astronauts living and working in the orbiting workshop for 84 days. The mission contributed a vast amount of information on space medicine and the human factors of long-duration spaceflight. Carr retired from NASA in 1977 and had a long career as an engineer and entrepreneur. It’s sad to lose yet another of the dwindling number of heroes remaining from NASA’s manned-flight heyday.

Speaking of spaceflight, the closest most of us DIYers can get to space is likely courtesy of a helium-filled balloon. If you’ve ever considered sending something — or someone — aloft, you’ll find this helium balloon calculator an invaluable tool. Just plug in the weight of your payload, select from a few common balloon sizes, and the calculator will tell you how many you need and how much gas it will take to fill them. It’s got a second section that tells you how many more balloons it’ll take to get to a certain altitude, should merely getting off the ground not be enough for you.

If 2020 has proven anything, it’s that time is, at best, a negotiable concept. Improbably, September is only a day away, after an August that somehow took forever to go by in the blink of an eye. With that in mind,  October is OSHWA’s Open Hardware Month, with this year’s theme being “Label and Certify”. We’re a little bit in love with the Open Hardware Facts generator, which takes your open-source hardware, software, and documentation license and generates a USDA “Nutrition Facts”-style label for your product. They’ve also added tools to make it easier to get OSHWA certification for your project.

And finally, what would it be like to pilot a giant exoskeleton? Like, a 9,000 pound (4,100 kg), quadrupedal all-terrain beast of a mech? Turns out you can (theoretically) find out for yourself courtesy of Furrion Exo-Bionics and their monster mech, dubbed Prosthesis. The machine has been in development for a long time, with the vision of turning mech racing into the next big thing in sports entertainment. Their Alpha Mech Pilot Training Program will allow mere mortals to learn how to pilot Prosthesis at the company’s proving ground in British Columbia. Details are sparse, so caveat emptor, but it sure looks like fun.

Eavesdropping On Cosmonauts With An SDR

Usually when we hear about someone making contact with astronauts in orbit, it’s an intentional contact between a ham on the ground and one of the licensed radio amateurs on the ISS. We don’t often see someone lucky enough to snag a conversation between ground controllers and a spacecraft en route to the ISS like this.

For [Tysonpower], this was all about being in the right place at the right time, as well as having the right equipment and the know-how to use it properly. Soyuz MS-12 launched from Baikonur on March 14 with cosmonaut [Aleksey Ovchinin] and NASA astronauts [Nick Hague] and [Kristina Koch] onboard, destined for the ISS after a six-hour flight. The lucky bit came when [Tysonpower] realized that the rendezvous would happen when the ISS was in a good position relative to his home in Cologne, which prompted him to set up his gear for a listening session. His AirSpy Mini SDR was connected to a home-brew quadrifilar helical (QFH) “eggbeater” antenna on his roof. What’s nice about this antenna is that it’s fixed rather than tracking, making it easy to get on the air with quickly. After digging around the aviation bands at about 121 MHz for a bit, [Tysonpower] managed to capture a few seconds of a conversation between [Ovchinin] and Moscow Flight Control Center. The commander reported his position and speed relative to the ISS a few minutes before docking. The conversation starts at about 1:12 in the video below.

We think it’s just cool that you can listen in on the conversations going on upstairs with a total of less than $50 worth of gear. Actually talking to the hams aboard the ISS is another matter, but not a lot more involved really.

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I’m Sorry, Alexander, I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That

Getting people to space is extremely difficult, and while getting robots to space is still pretty challenging, it’s much easier. For that reason, robots and probes have been helping us explore the solar system for decades. Now, though, a robot assistant is on board the ISS to work with the astronauts, and rather than something impersonal like a robot arm, this one has a face, can navigate throughout the ship, and can respond to voice inputs.

The robot is known as CIMON, the Crew Interactive Mobile Companion. Built by Airbus, this interactive helper will fly with German astronaut Alexander Gerst to test the concept of robotic helpers such as this one. It is able to freely move about the cabin and can learn about the space it is in without being specifically programmed for it. It processes voice inputs similarly to a smart phone, but still processes requests on Earth via the IBM Watson AI. This means that it’s not exactly untethered, and future implementations of this technology might need to be more self-contained for missions outside of low Earth orbit.

While the designers have listened to the warnings of 2001 and not given it complete control of the space station, they also learned that it’s helpful to create an interactive robot that isn’t something as off-putting as a single creepy red-eye. This robot can display an interactive face on the screen, as well as use the same screen to show schematics, procedure steps, or anything else the astronauts need. If creepy design is more your style though, you can still have HAL watching you in your house.

Thanks to [Marian] for the tip!

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Underwater VR Offers Zero Gravity On A Budget

Someday Elon Musk might manage to pack enough of us lowly serfs into one of his super rockets that we can actually afford a ticket to space, but until then our options for experiencing weightlessness are pretty limited. Even if you’ll settle for a ride on one of the so-called “Vomit Comet” reduced-gravity planes, you’ll have to surrender a decent chunk of change, and as the name implies, potentially your lunch as well. Is there no recourse for the hacker that wants to get a taste of the astronaut experience without a NASA-sized budget?

Well, if you’re willing to get wet, [spiritplumber] might have the answer for you. Using a few 3D printed components he’s designed, it’s possible to use Google Cardboard compatible virtual reality software from the comfort of your own pool. With Cardboard providing the visuals and the water keeping you buoyant, the end result is something not entirely unlike weightlessly flying around virtual environments.

To construct his underwater VR headset, [spiritplumber] uses a number of off-the-shelf products. The main “Cardboard” headset itself is the common plastic style that you can probably find in the clearance section of whatever Big Box retailer is convenient for you, and the waterproof bag that holds the phone can be obtained cheaply online. You’ll also need a pair of swimmers goggles to keep water from rudely interrupting your wide-eyed wonderment. As for the custom printed parts, a frame keeps the waterproof bag from pressing against the screen while submerged, and a large spacer is required to get the phone at the appropriate distance from the operator’s eyes.

To put his creation to the test, [spiritplumber] loads up a VR rendition of NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, where astronauts experience a near-weightless environment underwater. All that’s left to complete the experience is a DIY scuba regulator so you can stay submerged. Though at that point we wouldn’t be surprised if a passerby confuses your DIY space simulator for an elaborate suicide attempt.

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The Flight Of The Seagull: Valentina Tereshkova, Cosmonaut

That the Cold War was a tense and perilous time in history cannot be denied, and is perhaps a bit of an understatement. The world stood on the edge of Armageddon for most of it, occasionally stepping slightly over the line, and thankfully stepping back before any damage was done.

As nerve-wracking as the Cold War was, it had one redeeming quality: it turned us into a spacefaring species. Propelled by national pride and the need to appear to be the biggest kid on the block, the United States and the Soviet Union consistently ratcheted up their programs, trying to be the first to make the next major milestone. The Soviets made most of the firsts, making Sputnik and Gagarin household names all over the world. But in 1962, they laid down a marker for a first of epic proportions, and one that would sadly stand alone for the next 19 years: they put the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, into space.

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Peggy Whitson, Space Scientist

When astronaut Dr. Peggy Whitson returned from space earlier this year, it was a triumphant conclusion to a lifelong career as a scientist, explorer, and leader. Whitson is a biochemist who became one of the most experienced and distinguished astronauts ever to serve. She’s got more time logged in space than any other American. There’s a reason that she’s been called the Space Ninja.

Education and Early Life

Some people find their vocation late in life, but Peggy Whitson figured it out in her senior year of high school. It was 1979 and NASA had just accepted its first class of female astronauts, including Christa McAuliffe and Judith Resnik who ultimately died aboard the Challenger.

Born on a family farm in Iowa in 1960, Whitson began working on her plan, with the stereotypical Midwestern work ethic seeming to prime her for the hard slog ahead. She earned a BS in Biology/Chemistry, Summa, from Iowa Wesleyan, before earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Rice in 1985. A person can write about Whitson blazing through to a doctorate in a single sentence, but the truth is that it’s just a lot of hard work, and that’s one of the aspects of her career that stands out: she worked tirelessly.

Scientist Career

After getting her doctorate, Whitson worked as a research associate at Johnson Space Center as part of a post-doctoral fellowship. She put in a couple of years as a research biochemist, working on biochemical payloads
like the Bone Cell Research Experiment in STS-47, which was run in space by fellow badass Dr. Mae Jamison. Whitson hadn’t given up on her dream of becoming an astronaut herself, and the whole time she worked at Johnson she was applying to NASA. It took ten years and five applications before she made it in.

In the meantime, however, Whitson was given a lot of very cool projects and also began to establish her credentials as a leader, serving as Project Scientist of the Shuttle-Mir Program from 1992 till 1995. For three years she helped lead Medical Sciences Division at Johnson. The two years after that she co-chaired the NASA committee on US-Russian relations. And because she still had more time to crush it, she also worked as an adjunct professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch as well as at Rice.

Then, in April of 1996, she learned that her hard work had paid off and that she had been accepted into astronaut school. Peggy Whitson was going to space.

Ad Astra

It would be eight more years before she made it to space, however. Two years of intense training was followed by ground-based technical duties, including two years spent in Russia in support of NASA crews there. However, in 2002 she got her chance, flying in a Soyuz up to the International Space Station as part of Expedition 5. There she conducted science experiments and helped install new components in the space station, logging 164 days in space.

Back on earth, Whitson continued to kick ass as a scientist, astronaut, and leader. In 2003 she commanded a 10-day underwater mission that helps trains astronauts for extended stays in space, preparing her for her signature accomplishments: two tours where she commanded the ISS.

In 2008 she led Expedition 16, in which three additional modules were added to the ISS. Because of the new construction, and despite her science focus, Whitson became one of NASA’s most prolific spacewalkers, making 10 EVAs in her career — second only to cosmonaut Anatoly Solovyev’s 16 and her cumulative EVA time of 60 hours is third best in the world.

The three years that followed she served as Chief Astronaut, before she returned to space in November 2016 as commander of Expedition 50. Compared to 16 it was much more mellow, albeit with hundreds of biochemistry experiments conducted. In April of 2017, Whitson surpassed the U.S. space endurance record, earning her a call from the President. She ended up with 665 days in space, returning September 2 as a hero.

Dr. Peggy Whitson’s brilliance and tireless drive have earned her innumerable awards and commendations. Her elementary school has a science lab named after her. This year Glamour named her one of their women of the year. She serves as an inspiration to anyone who aspires to a career in science, math, or space exploration: it won’t be easy, and it will take a really long time, but it’s the kind of work that makes the world a distinctly better place.

Photo Credit: NASA

Hacking On Mars In “The Martian”

It’s been 6 years since the hacker’s treat of a book, “The Martian” by Andy Weir, was self-published, and 2 years since the movie came out. We’ve talked about it briefly before, but enough time has passed that we can now write-up the book’s juicier hacks while being careful to not give away any plot spoilers. The book has more hacks than the movie so we’re using the book as the source.

For anyone unfamiliar with the story, Mark Watney is an astronaut who’s left for dead, by himself, on Mars. To survive, he has a habitat designed for six, called the Hab, two rovers, the Mars Descent Vehicle (MDV) they arrived in, and the bottom portion of the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), the top portion of which was the rocket that his five crewmates departed in when they left him alone on the inhospitable desert planet. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s easy to finish over a long weekend. Do yourself a favor and pick it up after work today.

Making Water

Watney’s major concern is food. They sent up some potatoes with the mission which will sprout roots from their eyes. To grow potatoes he needs water.

One component of the precious H2O molecule is of course the O, oxygen. The bottom portion of the MAV doesn’t produce oxygen, but it does collect CO2 from the Martian atmosphere and stores it in liquid form. It does this as one step in producing rocket fuel used later to blast off from the surface.

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