Martian Successes Reshape Sample Return Plans

For as long as humans have been sending probes to Mars, there’s been a desire to return rock, soil, and atmosphere samples back to Earth for more detailed analysis. But the physics of such a mission are particularly demanding — a vehicle that could land on the Martian surface, collect samples, and then launch itself back into orbit for the return to Earth would be massive and prohibitively expensive with our current technology.

Mars sample return tube

Instead, NASA and their international partners have been working to distribute the cost and complexity of the mission among several different vehicles. In fact, the first phase of the program is well underway.

The Perseverance rover has been collecting samples and storing them in 15 cm (6 inch) titanium tubes since it landed on the Red Planet in February of 2021. Considerable progress has also been made on the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) which will carry the samples from the surface and into orbit around the planet, where they will eventually be picked up by yet another vehicle which will ultimately return them to Earth.

But there’s still some large gaps in the overall plan. Chief among them is how the samples are to be transferred into the MAV. Previously, the European Space Agency (ESA) was to contribute a small “fetch rover” which would collect the sample tubes dropped by Perseverance and bring them to the MAV launch site.

But in a recent press release, NASA has announced that those plans have changed significantly, thanks at least in part to the incredible success of the agency’s current Mars missions.

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Martian Wheel Control Algorithms Gain Traction

Imagine the scene: You’re puttering along in your vehicle when, at least an hour from the nearest help, one of your tires starts losing air. Not to worry! You’ve got a spare tire along with the tools and knowhow to change it. And if that fails, you can call roadside assistance. But what if your car isn’t a car, has metal wheels for which no spares are available, and the nearest help is 200 million miles away? You just might be a Jet Propulsion Laboratory Engineer on the Curiosity Mars Rover mission, who in 2017 was charged with creating a new driving algorithm designed to extend the life of the wheels.

High Performance Rock Crawler, Courtesy Spidertrax.com License: CC BY 3.0

You could say that the Curiosity Mars rover is the ultimate off-road vehicle, and as such it has to deal with conditions that are in some ways not that different from some locations here on Earth. Earth bound rock crawlers use long travel suspensions, specialized drivetrains, and locking differentials to keep the tires on the ground and prevent a loss of traction.

On Mars, sand and rocks dominate the landscape, and a rover must navigate around the worst of it. It’s inevitable that, just like a terrestrial off-roader, the Mars rovers will spin a tire now and then when a wheel loses traction. The Mars rovers also have a specialized drivetrain and long travel suspensions. They don’t employ differentials, though, so how are they to prevent a loss of traction and the damaging wheel spin that ensues? This where the aforementioned traction control algorithm comes in.

By controlling the rotation of the wheels with less traction, they can still contribute to the motion of the vehicle while avoiding rock rash. Be sure to check out the excellent article at JPL’s website for a full explanation of their methodology and the added benefits of uploading new traction control algorithms from 200 million miles away! No doubt the Perseverance Mars rover has also benefited from this research.

But why should NASA get to have all the fun? You can join them by 3d printing your own Mars rover and just maybe some Power Wheels derived traction control. What fun!

3D-Printed Scale Model Of Perseverance Rover Seems As Complicated As The Real One

Sometimes the best way to figure out how something works is to make a model of it. 3D-modeling software makes it possible to do the job in silico, and sometimes that’s enough. But to really get inside the designer’s head, executing a physical model, like this quarter-scale RC-controlled Perseverance rover, is a great way to go.

If you’re looking for cutting-edge tech or groundbreaking design, this build will probably not light your fire. But a closer look will show not only great details about how JPL designs robots that can operate on Mars, but some great design and 3D-printing tips too. [Dejan]’s modeling process started with the 3D renderings of Perseverance available on the NASA website, which went into SolidWorks via Blender. [Dejan] was intent on capturing all the details of the rover, even those that ended up just for looks. But there’s plenty of functionality, too — the running gear looks and functions just like the six-wheel double-bogie design used on Perseverance, as well as Curiosity before it. This revealed an interesting fact that we didn’t previously realize — that the hull is suspended from a single pivot point on each side, while a linkage across the deck both prevents the body from pivoting and provides differential control of the drive bogies on either side of the rover.

The video below shows both the impressive amount of 3D printing needed to make all the model’s parts as well as the involved assembly process. It also shows the Arduino-controlled model being piloted around via radio control. There’s a lot to learn from this model, and [Dejan]’s craftsmanship here is top-notch too. We’ve seen such builds before from him, like this 3D-printed SCARA arm, a CNC hot-wire foam cutter, and an automated wire bender.

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Hackaday Links: May 16, 2021

With the successful arrival of China’s first Mars lander and rover this week, and the relatively recent addition of NASA’s Perseverance rover and its little helicopter sidekick Ingenuity, Mars has collected a lot of new hardware lately. But while the new kids on the block are getting all the attention, spare a thought for the reliable old warhorse which has been plying Gale Crater for the better part of a decade now — Curiosity. NASA has been driving the compact-car-sized rover around Mars for a long time now, long enough to rack up some pretty severe damage to its six highly engineered wheels, thanks to the brutal Martian rocks. But if you think Curiosity will get sidelined as its wheels degrade, think again — the rover’s operators have a plan to continue surface operations that includes ripping off its own wheels if necessary. It’s a complex operation that would require positioning the wheel over a suitable rock and twisting with the steering motor to peel off the outer section of the wheel, leaving a rim to drive around on. JPL has already practiced it, but they predict it won’t be necessary until 2034 or so. Now that’s thinking ahead.

With all the upheaval caused by the ongoing and worsening semiconductor shortage, it might seem natural to expect that manufacturers are responding to market forces by building new fabs to ramp up production. And while there seems to be at least some movement in that direction, we stumbled across an article that seems to give the lie to the thought that we can build our way out of the crisis. It’s a sobering assessment, to say the least; the essence of the argument is that 20 years ago or so, foundries thought that everyone would switch to the new 300-mm wafers, leaving manufacturing based on 200-mm silicon wafers behind. But the opposite happened, and demand for chips coming from the older 200-mm wafers, including a lot of the chips used in cars and trucks, skyrocketed. So more fabs were built for the 200-mm wafers, leaving relatively fewer fabs capable of building the chips that the current generation of phones, IoT appliances, and 5G gear demand. Add to all that the fact that it takes a long time and a lot of money to build new fabs, and you’ve got the makings of a crisis that won’t be solved anytime soon.

From not enough components to too many: the Adafruit blog has a short item about XScomponent, an online marketplace for listing your excess inventory of electronic components for sale. If you perhaps ordered a reel of caps when you only needed a dozen, or if the project you thought was a done deal got canceled after all the parts were ordered, this might be just the thing for you. Most items offered appear to have a large minimum quantity requirement, so it’s probably not going to be a place to pick up a few odd parts to finish a build, but it’s still an interesting look at where the market is heading.

Speaking of learning from the marketplace, if you’re curious about what brands and models of hard drives hold up best in the long run, you could do worse than to look over real-world results from a known torturer of hard drives. Cloud storage concern Backblaze has published their analysis of the reliability of the over 175,000 drives they have installed in their data centers, and there’s a ton of data to pick through. The overall reliability of these drives, which are thrashing about almost endlessly, is pretty impressive: the annualized failure rate of the whole fleet is only 0.85%. They’ve also got an interesting comparison of HDDs and SSDs; Backblaze only uses solid-state disks for boot drives and for logging and such, so they don’t get quite the same level of thrash as drives containing customer data. But the annualized failure rate of boot SDDs is much lower than that of HDDs used in the same role. They slice and dice their data in a lot of fun and revealing ways, including by specific brand and model of drive, so check it out if you’re looking to buy soon.

And finally, you know that throbbing feeling you get in your head when you’re having one of those days? Well, it turns out that whether you can feel it or not, you’re having one of those days every day. Using a new technique called “3D Amplified Magnetic Resonance Imaging”, or 3D aMRI, researchers have made cool new videos that show the brain pulsating in time to the blood flowing through it. The motion is exaggerated by the imaging process, which is good because it sure looks like the brain swells enough with each pulse to crack your skull open, a feeling which every migraine sufferer can relate to. This reminds us a bit of those techniques that use special algorithms to detects a person’s heartbeat from a video by looking for the slight but periodic skin changes that occurs as blood rushes into the capillaries. It’s also interesting that when we spied this item, we were sitting with crossed legs, watching our upper leg bounce slightly in time with our pulse.

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Getting Ready For Mars: The Seven Minutes Of Terror

For the past seven months, NASA’s newest Mars rover has been closing in on its final destination. As Perseverance eats up the distance and heads for the point in space that Mars will occupy on February 18, 2021, the rover has been more or less idle. Tucked safely into its aeroshell, we’ve heard little from the lonely space traveler lately, except for a single audio clip of the whirring of its cooling pumps.

Its placid journey across interplanetary space stands in marked contrast to what lies just ahead of it. Like its cousin and predecessor Curiosity, Perseverance has to successfully negotiate a gauntlet of orbital and aerodynamic challenges, and do so without any human intervention. NASA mission planners call it the Seven Minutes of Terror, since the whole process will take just over 400 seconds from the time it encounters the first wisps of the Martian atmosphere to when the rover is safely on the ground within Jezero Crater.

For that to happen, and for the two-billion-dollar mission to even have a chance at fulfilling its primary objective of searching for signs of ancient Martian life, every system on the spacecraft has to operate perfectly. It’s a complicated, high-energy ballet with high stakes, so it’s worth taking a look at the Seven Minutes of Terror, and what exactly will be happening, in detail.

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The Open Source Mars Rover, One Year Later

As the name implies, here at Hackaday we strive to bring you interesting projects every single day. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a project only gets one day to grace these storied pages. Quite the opposite, in fact. We’re always happy to revisit a project and find out how far it’s evolved since we last crossed paths with it, especially when the creators themselves reach out to give us an update.

Which is exactly what happened when [Jakob Krantz] recently wrote in to get us up to speed on this incredible open source rover project. We first saw this 3D printed Curiosity inspired robot a little less than a year ago, and at that point it was essentially just a big box with the distinctive NASA rocker-bogie suspension bolted on. Now it not only looks a lot closer to the Martian rovers that inspired it, but it’s also learned a number of new tricks that really take this project to the next level.

The articulated head and grabber arm don’t just help sell the Curiosity look, they’re actually functional. [Jakob] notes that he doesn’t have kinematics integrated yet, so moving the arm around is more for show than practical application, but in the future it should be able to reach out and grab objects. With the new cameras in the head, he’ll even be able to get a first person view of what he’s picking up.

Last year [Jakob] was using a standard RC transmitter to drive the rover around, but he’s since put together a custom controller that’s truly a thing of beauty. It uses an ESP32 and LoRa module to communicate with matching hardware inside the rover, as well as a smartphone clipped onto the top that’s displaying telemetry and video over WiFi. The controller is actually its own separate project, so even if you aren’t in the market for a scaled down Mars rover, its controller could come in handy for your next robotics project.

Presumably the multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator (MMRTG) on the back of the rover is just pretend….but with this guy, we’re not so sure. Give him another year, and who knows.

Mars 2020 Rover: Curiosity’s Hi-Tech Twin Is Strapped For Science; Includes A Flying Drone

While Mars may be significantly behind its sunward neighbor in terms of the number of motor vehicles crawling over its surface, it seems like we’re doing our best to close that gap. Over the last 23 years, humans have sent four successful rovers to the surface of the Red Planet, from the tiny Sojourner to the Volkswagen-sized Curiosity. These vehicles have all carved their six-wheeled tracks into the Martian dust, probing the soil and the atmosphere and taking pictures galore, all of which contribute mightily to our understanding of our (sometimes) nearest planetary neighbor.

You’d think then that sending still more rovers to Mars would yield diminishing returns, but it turns out there’s still plenty of science to do, especially if the dream of sending humans there to explore and perhaps live is to come true. And so the fleet of Martian rovers will be joined by two new vehicles over the next year or so, lead by the Mars 2020 program’s yet-to-be-named rover. Here’s a look at the next Martian buggy, and how it’s built for the job it’s intended to do.

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