Rocket Lab Sets Their Sights On Rapid Reusability By Snagging Rockets In Mid-Air With A Helicopter

Not so very long ago, orbital rockets simply didn’t get reused. After their propellants were expended on the journey to orbit, they petered out and fell back down into the ocean where they were obliterated on impact. Rockets were disposable because, as far as anyone could tell, building another one was cheaper and easier than trying to reuse them. The Space Shuttle had proved that reuse of a spacecraft and its booster was possible, but the promised benefits of reduced cost and higher launch cadence never materialized. If anything, the Space Shuttle was often considered proof that reusability made more sense on paper than it did in the real-world.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck with Electron rocket

But that was before SpaceX started routinely landing and reflying the first stage of their Falcon 9 booster. Nobody outside the company really knows how much money is being saved by reuse, but there’s no denying the turn-around time from landing to reflight is getting progressively shorter. Moreover, by performing up to three flights on the same booster, SpaceX is demonstrating a launch cadence that is simply unmatched in the industry.

So it should come as no surprise to find that other launch providers are feeling the pressure to develop their own reusability programs. The latest to announce their intent to recover and eventually refly their vehicle is Rocket Lab, despite CEO Peter Beck’s admission that he was originally against the idea. He’s certainly changed his tune. With data collected over the last several flights the company now believes they have a reusability plan that’s compatible with the unique limitations of their diminutive Electron launch vehicle.

According to Beck, the goal isn’t necessarily to save money. During his presentation at the Small Satellite Conference in Utah, he explained that what they’re really going after is an increase in flight frequency. Right now they can build and fly an Electron every month, and while they eventually hope to produce a rocket a week, even a single reuse per core would have a huge impact on their annual launch capability:

If we can get these systems up on orbit quickly and reliably and frequently, we can innovate a lot more and create a lot more opportunities. So launch frequency is really the main driver for why Electron is going reusable. In time, hopefully we can obviously reduce prices as well. But the fundamental reason we’re doing this is launch frequency. Even if I can get the stage back once, I’ve effectively doubled my production ratio.

But, there’s a catch. Electron is too small to support the addition of landing legs and doesn’t have the excess propellants to use its engines during descent. Put simply, the tiny rocket is incapable of landing itself. So Rocket Lab believes the only way to recover the Electron is by snatching it out of the air before it gets to the ground.

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Cold Plasma Torch Produces A Cleansing Flame That Never Consumes

It’s basically a lightsaber. Except smaller. And with an invisible blade. And cold to the touch. But other than that, this homebrew cold plasma torch (YouTube, embedded below) is just like the Jedi’s choice in elegant weaponry.

Perhaps we shouldn’t kid [Justin] given how hard he worked on this project – seventeen prototypes before hitting on the version seen in the video below – but he himself notes the underwhelming appearance of the torch without the benefit of long-exposure photography. That doesn’t detract from how cool this build is, pun intended. As [Justin] explains, cold plasma or non-equilibrium plasma is an ionized stream of gas where the electron temperature is much hotter than the temperature of the heavier, more thermally conductive species in the stream. It’s pretty common stuff, seen commercially in everything from mercury vapor lamps to microbial sterilization.

It’s the latter use that piqued [Justin]’s interest and resulted in a solid year of prototyping before dialing in a design using a flyback transformer to delivery the high voltage to a stream of argon flowing inside a capillary tube. The quartz tube acts as a dielectric that keeps electrons from escaping and allows argon to be ionized and wafted gently from the tube before it can reach thermal equilibrium. The result is a faint blue glowing flame that’s barely above room temperature but still has all the reactive properties of a plasma. The video shows all the details of construction and shows the torch in action.

Hats off to [Justin] for sticking with a difficult build and coming through it with an interesting and useful device. We’ve no doubt he’ll put it to good use in his DIY biohacking lab in the coming months.

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Pathio: New 3D Slicer From E3D

Having a great word processor won’t actually help you write the next bestselling novel. It might make it easier, but if you have a great novel in you, you could probably write it on paper towels with a crayon if you had to. A great 3D printer isn’t all you need to make great 3D prints. A lot depends on the model you start with and that software known as a slicer. You have several choices, and now you have one more: PathIO, a slicer sponsored by E3D, is out in beta. You can see a video about its features below.

The software has a few rough edges as you might expect from a beta. The slicer doesn’t feed Gcode to a printer directly, although Octoprint integration is forthcoming. Developers say they are focusing on the slicing engine which is totally new. According to their website, conventional slicers immediately cut a model into 2D slices and then decide how to realize each slice with respect to the shell and infill. Pathio works in 3D space and claims this has benefits for producing correct wall thickness and an increase in self-supporting geometries.

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[Ben Krasnow] Gasses MEMS Chips, For Science

Why in the world does helium kill iPhones and other members of the Apple ecosystem? Enquiring minds want to know, and [Ben Krasnow] has obliged with an investigation of the culprit: the MEMS oscillator. (YouTube, embedded below.)

When we first heard about this, courtesy in part via a Hackaday post on MRI-killed iPhones, we couldn’t imagine how poisoning a micro-electromechanical system (MEMS) part could kill a phone. We’d always associated MEMS with accelerometers and gyros, important sensors in the smartphone suite, but hardly essential. It turns out there’s another MEMS component in many Apple products: an SiT 1532 oscillator, a tiny replacement for quartz crystal oscillators.

[Ben] got a few from DigiKey and put them through some tests in a DIY gas chamber. He found that a partial pressure of helium as low as 2 kPa, or just 2% of atmospheric pressure, can kill the oscillator. To understand why, and because [Ben] has a scanning electron microscope, he lapped down some spare MEMS oscillators to expose their intricate innards. His SEM images are stunning but perplexing, raising questions about how such things could be made which he also addresses.

The bottom line: helium poisons MEMS oscillators in low enough concentrations that the original MRI story is plausible. As a bonus, we now understand MEMS devices a bit better, and have one more reason never to own an iPhone.

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Portable Photo Booth Named Buzz

We’re all used to posing for a picture — or a selfie — but there’s something about photo booths that make getting your photo taken an exciting and urgent affair. To make this experience a bit easier to tote about, Redditor [pedro_g_s] has laboriously built, from the ground up, a mobile photo booth named Buzz.

He needed a touchscreen, a Raspberry Pi, almost definitely a webcam, and a 3D printer to make a case — although any medium you choose will do — to build this ‘booth.’ That said, he’s built the app in a way that a touchscreen isn’t necessary, but carting around a mouse to connect to and operate your portable photo booth seems a bit beside the point. On the back end, he used Electron to code the photo booth app, React helped him build a touchscreen UI, and Yarn kept the necessary dependencies in order.

Operation is simple, and every time a photo is taken it is sent to and collated within a previously set-up email service. To set it up, [pedro_g_s] is here to guide you through the process.

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Smaller And Smarter: The Electron Rocket Takes Flight

On January 21st, 2018 at 1:43 GMT, Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket lifted off from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. Roughly eight minutes later ground control received confirmation that the vehicle entered into a good orbit, followed shortly by the successful deployment of the payload. On only their second attempt, Rocket Lab had become the latest private company to put a payload into orbit. An impressive accomplishment, but even more so when you realize that the Electron is like no other rocket that’s ever flown before.

Not that you could tell from the outside. If anything, the external appearance of the Electron might be called boring. Perhaps even derivative, if you’re feeling less generous. It has the same fin-less blunted cylinder shape of most modern rockets, a wholly sensible (if visually unexciting) design. The vehicle’s nine first stage engines would have been noteworthy 15 years ago, but today only serve to draw comparisons with SpaceX’s wildly successful Falcon 9.

But while the Electron’s outward appearance is about as unassuming as they come, under that jet-black outer skin is some of the most revolutionary rocket technology seen since the V-2 first proved practical liquid fueled rockets were possible. As impressive as its been watching SpaceX teach a rocket to fly backwards and land on its tail, their core technology is still largely the same as what took humanity to the Moon in the 1960’s.

Vehicles that fundimentally change the established rules of spaceflight are, as you might expect, fairly rare. They often have a tendency to go up in a ball of flames; figuratively if not always literally. Now that the Electron has reached space and delivered its first payload, there’s no longer a question if the technology is viable or not. But whether anyone but Rocket Lab will embrace all the changes introduced with Electron may end up getting decided by the free market.

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Conventional Current Vs. Electron Current

Electric current comes in many forms: current in a wire, flow of ions between the plates of a battery and between plates during electrolysis, as arcs, sparks, and so on. However, here on Hackaday we mostly deal with the current in a wire. But which way does that current flow in that wire? There are two possibilities depending on whether you’re thinking in terms of electron current or conventional current.

Electron current vs. conventional current
Electron current vs. conventional current

In a circuit connected to a battery, the electrons are the charge carrier and flow from the battery’s negative terminal, around the circuit and back to the positive terminal.

Conventional current takes just the opposite direction, from the positive terminal, around the circuit and back to the negative terminal. In that case there’s no charge carrier moving in that direction. Conventional current is a story we tell ourselves.

But since there is such a variety of forms that current comes in, the charge carrier sometimes does move from the positive to the negative, and sometimes movement is in both directions. When a lead acid battery is in use, positive hydrogen ions move in one direction while negative sulfate ions move in the other. So if the direction doesn’t matter then having a convention that ignores the charge carrier makes life easier.

Saying that we need a convention that’s independent of the charge carrier is all very nice, but that seems to be a side effect rather than the reason we have the convention. The convention was established long before there was a known variety of forms that current comes in — back even before the electron, or even the atom, was discovered. Why do we have the convention? As you’ll read below, it started with Benjamin Franklin.

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