Tracking CubeSats for $25

CubeSats are tiny satellites which tag along as secondary payloads during launches. They have to weigh in at under 1.33 kg, and are often built at low cost. There’s even open source designs for these little spacecrafts. Over 800 CubeSats have been launched over the last few years, with many more launches scheduled in the near future.

[Thomas Cholakov] coupled a homemade cloverleaf antenna to a software-defined radio to track some of these satellites. The antenna is built out of copper-clad wire cut to the correct length to receive 437 MHz signals. Four loops are connected together and terminated to an RF connector.

This homebrew antenna is connected into a RTL-SDR dongle. The dongle picks up the beacon signals sent by the satellites and provides the data to a PC. Due to the motion of the satellites, their beacons can be easily identified by the Doppler shift of the frequency.

[Thomas] uses SDR Console to receive data from the satellites. While the demo only shows basic receiving, much more information on decoding these satellites can be found on the SDR Satellites website.

This looks like a fun weekend project, and probably the cheapest aerospace related project possible. After the break, watch the full video explaining how to build and set up the antenna and dongle.

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InSight Brings New Tech to Mars

Unless you’ve got your ear on the launch pad so to speak, you might not be aware that humanity just launched a new envoy towards the Red Planet. Estimated to touch down in Elysium Planitia on November 26th, the InSight lander is relatively low-key as far as interplanetary missions go. Part of the NASA’s “Discovery Program”, it operates on a considerably lower budget than Flagship missions such as the Curiosity rover; meaning niceties like a big advertising and social media campaign to get the public excited doesn’t get a line item.

Which is a shame, because not only are there much worse things to do with tax money than increase public awareness of scientific endeavours, but because InSight frankly deserves a bit more respect than that. Featuring a number of firsts, the engineers and scientists behind InSight might have been short on dollars, but ambition was in ample supply.

So in honor of the successful launch, let’s take a look at the InSight mission, the unique technology onboard, and the answers scientists hope it will be able to find out there in the black.

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Space Garbage Truck Takes Out the Trash

On April 2nd, 2018 a Falcon 9 rocketed skywards towards the International Space Station. The launch itself went off without a hitch, and the Dragon spacecraft delivered its payload of supplies and spare parts. But alongside the usual deliveries, CRS-14 brought a particularly interesting experiment to the International Space Station.

Developed by the University of Surrey, RemoveDEBRIS is a demonstration mission that aims to test a number of techniques for tackling the increasingly serious problem of “space junk”. Earth orbit is filled with old spacecraft and bits of various man-made hardware that have turned some areas of space into a literal minefield. While there have been plenty of ideas floated as to how to handle this growing issue, RemoveDEBRIS will be testing some of these methods under real-world conditions.

The RemoveDEBRIS spacecraft will do this by launching two CubeSats as test targets, which it will then (hopefully) eliminate in a practical demonstration of what’s known as Active Debris Removal (ADR) technology. If successful, these techniques could eventually become standard operating procedure on future missions.

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Hackaday Links: March 11, 2018

Guess what’ll be wrapping up in just two weeks? The Midwest RepRap Festival, the largest con for open source 3D printing in the world. MRRF is going down in Goshen, Indiana on March 23rd through March 25th. Tickets are free! If you’re looking for a hotel, I can speak from experience that the Best Western is good and close to the con, and I haven’t heard anything bad about the Holiday Inn Express.

Want to go to a convention with even weirder people? Somehow or another, a press release for Contact In The Desert, the largest UFO conference in the world, ended up in my inbox. It’s on the first weekend in June near Cochilla. Why is this significant? Because the greatest people-watching experience you’ll ever see, AlienCon 2018, is happening in Pasadena just two weeks later. The guy with the hair from Ancient Aliens will be at both events. Why are they having a UFO conference where military planes fly all the time? Wouldn’t it be better to rule out false positives?

The entirety of Silicon Valley tech culture is based upon the principle of flouting laws and regulations. We have reached a new high water mark. Swarm Technologies, a ‘stealth startup’ working on ‘Internet of Things’ satellites recently sent up four 0.25U cubesats on an ISRO flight. The satellites were deployed and are currently in orbit. This is somewhat remarkable, because the FCC, the government body responsible for regulating commercial satellites, dismissed Swarm’s application for launch on safety grounds. As reported by IEEE Spectrum, this is the first ever unauthorized launch of commercial satellites.

The TRS-80 Model 100 was one of the first, best examples of a ‘notebook’ computer. It had a QWERTY keyboard, an LCD, and ran off a few AA batteries for 20 hours. It’s the perfect platform for a Raspberry Pi casemod, and now someone has finally done it. [thecodeman] stuffed a Pi into a broken model M100 and replaced the old LCD with a 7.8″ 400×1280 pixel display. The display is the interesting part here, and it comes from EarthLCD, part number earthlcd-7-4001280.

The Flite Test crew is famous for their foam board RC airplanes, but they have historically had some significantly more interesting builds. Can you fly a cinder block? Yep. Can you fly a microwave and have it pop popcorn? Yep. Their latest crazy project is a flying Little Tikes Cozy Coupe, the ubiquitous red and yellow toy car meant to fit a toddler. The wings are made out of cardboard, the motors — both of them — generate thirty pounds of thrust each, and you can weld with the batteries. Does it fly? Yes, until the wings collapsed and the Cozy Coupe plummeted to the ground. Watch the video, it’s a great demonstration of designing a plane to rotate off the ground.

3D Printing The Final Frontier

While down here there’s room for debate about the suitability of 3D printing for anything more serious than rapid prototyping, few would say the same once you’ve slipped the surly bonds of Earth. With 3D printing, astronauts would have the ability to produce objects and tools on-demand from a supply of inert raw building materials. Instead of trying to pack every conceivable spare part for a mission to Mars, replacements (assuming a little forward thinking on the part of the spacecraft designers) can be made to order out of the stock of raw plastic or metal kept on-board. The implications of such technology for deep space travel or off-world settlement simply cannot be overstated.

In the more immediate future, 3D printing can be used to rapidly develop and deploy unmanned spacecraft. Tiny satellites (referred to as CubeSats) could be printed, assembled, and deployed by astronauts already in orbit. Innovations such as these could allow science missions to be planned and executed in months instead of years, and at a vastly reduced cost.

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AMSAT MPPT Goes to Infinity and Beyond

AMSAT, the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation, joined forces with students from Rochester Institute of Technology to create a MPPT attached to a Fox-1B CubeSat. It successfully launched into orbit on November 18th strapped to the back of a Delta II rocket. This analog MPPT, or Maximum Power Point Tracker, is used for optimizing the draw of a power cell in correspondence to the output of solar panels on the 10cm x 10cm satellite. In a nutshell, this works by matching the voltage of the two together. If you haven’t gotten a chance to play around with one of these first hand, Hackaday’s own [Elliot Williams] wrote up a thorough explanation of the glorious MPPT’s efficiency.

This little guy is currently hurtling along in an orbit every 90 minutes. During each of these elliptical trajectories, the satellite undergoes brutal heating and cooling cycles. The team calculated that this package will undergo a total of 29,200 orbits around Earth during its 5 year mission. This means that there are 29,200 tests for it to crack — quite literally — under pressure. To add another level of difficulty, the undergrad team didn’t have funding for automated board assembly. This meant that they had to hand solder over 400 micro components onto this board, adding additional human error to be accounted for in the likelihood of a failure. But so far, this puppy is going strong. This truly shows the struggles that can be overcome with a little elbow grease, hard work, and plain ‘ole good engineering.

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Hackaday Prize Best Product Finalist: Shape Shifting Structures For Space

While [Elon Musk] and [Jeff Bezos] are working on getting us to Mars and the Moon, [Ronald Jaramillo] is working on building structures once we get there. To that end, he’s been developing the ZBeam, two rolls of links that zip together like a zipper to form a rigid beam.

ZBeam making, regolith munching machine
ZBeam making, regolith munching machine

Initially stored in a compact cube targeted to eventually fit in a CubeSat’s dimension’s, 100 mm x 100 mm x 100 mm, the beam emerges from within the cube and will be able to connect with other cubes to form rigid structures. His hope is that they can one day be made automatically from lunar or Martian regolith (loose surface dirt) munching machines. His current one has 160 mm sides and uses a servo hacked to turn continuously.

In his hackaday.io project logs he shows the trial and error he’s gone through to get to his current stage: experimenting with the links to form a more rigid beam, fine tuning the unreeling of the rolls of links to prevent jamming, adding a safety-ratchet-gear to the gearing to overcome speed issues, and more. He currently 3D prints as many connected sets of links as he can on his Prusa i3, and then manually connects sets together to make a longer chain, but he has his eye on the Printrbot Printrbelt for printing arbitrarily long chains in one piece.

You can see one pretty impressive iteration of the ZBeam in action in the video below and more is on his project page. In fact, the judges for the 2017 Hackaday Prize liked [Ronald]’s projects so much that they designated it as a Best Product finalist.

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