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Hackaday Links: May 26, 2024

Another day, another crop of newly minted minimal astronauts, as Blue Origin’s New Shepard made a successful suborbital flight this week. Everything seemed to go according to plan, at least until right at the end, when an “unexpected foliage contingency” made astronaut egress a little more complicated than usual. The New Shepard capsule had the bad taste to touch down with a bit of West Texas shrubbery directly aligned with the hatch, making it difficult to find good footing for the platform used by the astronauts for the obligatory “smile and wave” upon exiting. The Blue Origin ground crew, clad in their stylish black and blue outfits that must be murderously impractical in the West Texas desert, stamped down the brush to place the stairway, but had a lot of trouble getting it to sit straight. Even with the impromptu landscaping, the terrain made it tough to get good footing without adding random bits of stuff to prop up one leg, an important task considering that one of the new astronauts was a 90-year-old man. It seems pretty short-sighted not to have adjustable legs on the stairway, but there it is.

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Alone, But Not Lonely: Remembering Astronaut Michael Collins

With many of the achievements of the Space Race now more than half a century behind us, it’s no wonder that we’re steadily losing the men who rode the rockets of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs into space. They were all very much in their primes at the time, but no matter what you’ve accomplished in life, even if it includes a trip to the Moon, time eventually catches up to you.

Still, it was quite a shock to learn today that astronaut Michael Collins passed away today at the age of 90. Collins made his trip to the Moon aboard Apollo 11, the mission which would see his crewmates Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin descend to the surface in the Lunar Module Eagle and take the historic first steps on its surface in July of 1969.

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An Out-Of-This-World Opportunity; Become An ESA Astronaut

In the six decades or so of human space exploration, depending on whose definition you take, only 562 people have flown in to space. We haven’t quite reached the state of holidaying in space that science fiction once promised us even though the prospect of sub-orbital spaceflight for the exceedingly well-heeled is very close, so that cadre of astronauts remains an elite group whose entry is not for the average person. Some readers might have an opportunity to change that though, as the European Space Agency have announced a fresh round of astronaut recruitment that will open at the end of March.

Sadly for our American readers the successful applicants have to hail from ESA member states, but since that covers a swathe of European countries we’re guessing that a lot of you might have your long-held dreams of spaceflight revived by it. You can learn more at a press conference to be held on the 16th of February, and streamed via ESA Web TV. Meanwhile whoever is recruited will be likely not only to participate in missions to the ISS, but maybe also more ambitious planned missions such as those to the planned Lunar Gateway space station in Lunar orbit. If you think you’ve got the Euro version of The Right Stuff, you’ll have the 8 weeks from the end of March until the 28th of May to get your application in. Good Luck!

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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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