Do Space Probes Fail Because Of Space Weather?

Over the past few decades, numerous space probes sent to the far-flung reaches of the Solar System have fallen silent. These failures weren’t due to communications problems, probes flying into scientifically implausible anomalies, or little green men snatching up the robotic scouts we’ve sent out into the Solar System. No, these space probes have failed simply because engineers on Earth can’t point them. If you lose attitude control, you lose the ability to point a transmitter at Earth. If you’re managing a space telescope, losing the ability to point a spacecraft turns a valuable piece of scientific equipment into a worthless, spinning pile of junk.

The reasons for these failures is difficult to pin down, but now a few people have an idea. Failures of the Kepler, Dawn, Hayabusa, and FUSE space probes were due to failures of the reaction wheels in the spacecraft. These failures, in turn, were caused by space weather. Specifically, coronal mass ejections from the Sun. How did this research come about, and what does it mean for future missions to deep space?

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Sonoff Postmortem Finds Bugs, Literally

While nobody is exactly sure on the exact etymology of the term, Thomas Edison mentioned some of his inventions being riddled with “bugs” in a letter he wrote all the way back to 1878. In the context of computers, any loyal Hackaday reader should know Grace Hopper’s infamous account of a moth being caught in an early electromechanical computer’s relays. To this pantheon of troublesome insects, we would humbly summit the story of a Sonoff TH16 switch being destroyed by a lowly ant.

According to [CNX Software], the Sonoff TH16 had been working perfectly for a year and a half before the first signs of trouble. One day the switch wouldn’t respond to commands, and a power cycle didn’t seem to clear the issue. Upon opening up the device to see what had gone amiss, it was clearly apparent something had burned up. But upon closer inspection, it wasn’t a fault with the design or even a shoddy component. It was the product of an overly curious ant who got a lot more than he bargained for.

Consulting the wiring diagram of the Sonoff, it appears this poor ant had the terrible misfortune of touching the pins of a through hole capacitor on the opposite side of the board. Bridging this connection not only gave him a lethal jolt, but apparently caused enough current to surge through a nearby resistor that it went up in smoke.

Now, some might wonder (reasonably so) about the conditions in which this switch was operating. If bugs could climb into it, it’s not unreasonable to assume it wasn’t well protected from the elements. Perhaps damp conditions were to blame for the failure, and the image of the ant “riding the lighting” is nothing more than a coincidence. Maybe. But sometimes you just gotta believe.

Incidentally, if you’d like to learn more about the woman who helped secure “bugs” in the IT lexicon, here’s a good place to start.

Ed Note: If you think you’re having deja vu all over again, we did point to this story in the Sunday Links roundup, but the graphics are just so good we couldn’t resist running it in full.

World’s Largest Telescope Stopped by LED

Earlier this year a simple indicator LED brought the Keck 1 telescope, a 370 tons mass, to a halting stop. How exactly did an LED do this? Simple: it did nothing.

As it so happens, [Andrew Cooper] was just about the leave the summit of Mauna Kea (in Hawaii) when his radio instructed him otherwise: there was an issue. Upon returning, [Andrew] was met by a room of scientists and summit supervisors. “Yeah, this was not good, why are they all looking at me? Oh, h%#*!” The rotor wasn’t moving the telescope, and “no rotator equals no science data.” After being briefed on the problem, [Andrew] got to work. Was it a mechanical issue? No: manual mode worked quite fine, also indicating that the amplifiers and limit switches are functional as well.

Jumping from chip to chip, [Andrew] came across an odd voltage: 9.36V. In the CMOS [Andrew] was investigating, this voltage should have High (15V) or Low (0v) and nowhere in between. Judging by the 9.36V [Andrew] decided to replace the driving IC. One DS3632 later, nothing had changed. Well, maybe is one of the loads pulling the line low? With only two choices, [Andrew] eliminated that possibility quickly. Likely feeling as if he was running out of proverbial rope, [Andrew] remembered something important: “the DS3236 driving this circuit is an open collector output, it needs a pull-up to go high.”

Reviewing the schematic, [Andrew] identified the DS3236’s pull-up: an LED and its current limiting resistor. While the carbon composition resistor was “armageddon proof,” [Andrew] was suspicious of the LED. “Nick, can you get me a 5k resistor from the lab?” Hold the resistor on the pins of the chip and the amplifiers immediately enabled.

[Andrew] summarizes things quite well: “yes… One of the world’s largest telescopes, 370 tons of steel and glass, was brought to a halt because of a bad indicator LED”. It stopped things by doing nothing, or rather, by not turning on.

We love it when we get troubleshooting stories, and if you share our interest in problem-solving, check out this broken power supply troubleshooting or learn what could go wrong with I2C.

Edit: Keck 1 is one of the largest optical telescopes in the world. Thanks to [Josh] for noticing our error.

A Thoughtful Variety of Projects and Failures

Our friends at [The Thought Emporium] have been bringing us delightful projects but not all of them warrant a full-fledged video. What does anyone with a bevy of small but worthy projects do? They put them all together like so many mismatched LEGO blocks. Grab Bag #1 is the start of a semi-monthly video series which presents the smaller projects happening behind the scenes of [The Thought Emporium]’s usual video presentations.

Solar eclipse? There are two because the first was only enough to whet [The Thought Emporium]’s appetite. Ionic lifters? Learn about the favorite transformer around the shop and see what happens when high voltage wires get too close. TEA lasers? Use that transformer to make a legitimate laser with stuff around your house. Bismuth casting? Pet supply stores may have what you need to step up your casting game and it’s a total hack. Failures? We got them too.

We first covered ionocraft (lifters) awhile back. TEA lasers have been covered before. Casting is no stranger to hackaday but [The Thought Emporium] went outside the mold with their technique.

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Unlikely Cascade of Failures Leads to Microwave’s Demise

Surely a blown light bulb can’t kill a microwave oven, right? You might not expect it to, but that was indeed the root cause of a problem that [mikeselecticstuff] recently investigated; the cascade of failures is instructive to say the least.

While the microwave that made its way to [mike]’s bench wasn’t exactly engineered to fail, it surely was not designed to succeed. We won’t spoil the surprise, but suffice it to say that his hopes for a quick repair after the owner reported a bang before it died were dashed by an arc across the interior light bulb that put a pulse of mains voltage in places it didn’t belong. That the cascade of failures killed the appliance is a testament to how designing to a price point limits how thoroughly devices can be tested before production runs in the millions are stuffed into containers for trips to overseas markets.

Even though [mike] made his best effort to adhere to the Repair Manifesto, the end result was a scrapped microwave. It wasn’t a total loss given the interesting parts inside, but a disappointment nonetheless unless it forces us to keep in mind edge-case failure modes in our designs.

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When the Grid Goes Dark

If you lived through the Y2K fiasco, you might remember a lot of hype with almost zero real-world ramifications in the end. As the calendar year flipped from 1999 to 2000 many forecast disastrous software bugs in machines controlling our banking and infrastructure. While this potential disaster didn’t quite live up to its expectations there was another major infrastructure problem, resulting in many blackouts in North America, that reared its head shortly after the new millennium began. While it may have seemed like Y2K was finally coming to fruition based on the amount of chaos that was caused, the actual cause of these blackouts was simply institutional problems with the power grid itself.

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Life on Contract: How to Fail at Contracting Regardless of Skill

I believe higher quality learning happens from sharing failure than from sharing stories of success. If you have set your mind to living on contract, I present this cheat sheet of some of the most simple and effective ways to muck it all up that have surprisingly little or nothing to do with your technical skill, knowledge, or even deliverables.

The previous installment of Life on Contract discussed how one might find clients as an engineering contractor or consultant while also taking a bit of time to pull apart the idea of whether life on contract is appropriate as opposed to, for example, bootstrapping a business instead. Assuming you are set on working as a contractor, let’s talk about what happens after you have found a prospective client (or perhaps more likely: after they have found you.)

WARNING: this article features an utter lack of success tips and tricks. Partly because those can be found in any seminar or business self-help book, but mostly because I do not have a foolproof recipe for success, and cheat codes to unlock easy mode still elude me. But I have witnessed (or committed) and reflected on many excellent ways to fail at contracting; or at the very least succeed in not being invited back.

Just because I won’t be sharing success stories doesn’t mean success has no learning value. Got a success story, or a better way to fail? Tell us about it in the comments!

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