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Hackaday Links: September 19, 2021

Things might be getting a bit dicey out in Jezero crater for Ingenuity. The little helicopter that could is starting to have trouble dealing with the thinning Martian atmosphere, and may start pressing against its margin of safety for continued operation. Ingenuity was designed for five flights that would all take place around the time its mothership Perseverance touched down on Mars back in February, at which time the mean atmospheric pressure was at a seasonal high. Over the last few months, the density of the Martian atmosphere has decreased a wee bit, but when you’re starting with a plan for a pressure that’s only 1.4% of Earth’s soupy atmosphere, every little bit counts. The solution to keeping Ingenuity flying is simple: run the rotors faster. NASA has run a test on that, spinning the rotors up to 2,800 RPM, and Ingenuity handled the extra stresses and power draw well. A 14th flight is planned to see how well the rotors bite into the rarefied air, but Ingenuity’s days as a scout for Perseverance could be numbered.

If you thought privacy concerns and government backdoors into encryption technology were 21st-century problems, think again. IEEE Spectrum has a story about “The Scandalous History of the Last Rotor Cipher Machine,” and it’s a great read — almost like a Tom Clancy novel. The story will appeal to crypto — not cryptocurrency — fans, especially those fascinated by Enigma machines, because it revolves around a Swiss rotor cipher machine called the HX-63, which was essentially a refinement of the original Enigma technology. With the equivalent of 2,000-bit encryption, it was considered unbreakable, and it was offered for sale to any and all — at least until the US National Security Agency sprung into action to persuade the inventor, Boris Hagelin, to shelve the HX-63 project in favor of electronic encryption. The NSA naturally helped Hagelin design this next generation of crypto machines, which of course all had backdoors built into them. While the cloak and dagger aspects of the story — including a possible assassination of Boris Hagelin’s son in 1970, when it became clear he wouldn’t “play ball” as his father had — are intriguing, the peek inside the HX-63, with its Swiss engineering, is the real treat.

One of the great things about the internet is how easy it is to quickly answer completely meaningless questions. For me, that usually involves looking up the lyrics of a song I just heard and finding out that, no, Robert Plant didn’t sing “Whoopie Cat” during Misty Mountain Hop. But it also let me answer a simple question the other day: what’s the largest single-piece metal object ever created? I figured it would have to be a casting of some sort, and likely something from the middle of the previous century. But as it turns out, the largest casting ever appears to have been manufactured in Sheffield, England in 2015. The company, Sheffield Forgemaster International, produced eleven castings for the offshore oil industry, each weighing in at over 320 tonnes. The scale of each piece is mind-boggling, and the technology that went into making them would be really interesting to learn about. And it goes without saying that my search was far from exhaustive; if you know of a single-piece metal part larger than 320 tonnes, I’ll be glad to stand corrected.

Have you heard about “teledriving” yet? On the face of it, a remote-controlled car where a qualified driver sits in an office somewhere watching video feeds from the car makes little sense. But as you dig into the details, the idea of remotely piloted cars starts to look like one of those “Why didn’t I think of that?” ideas. The company behind this is called Vay, and the idea is to remotely drive a ride-share vehicle to its next customer. Basically, when you hail a ride, a remote driver connects to an available car and drives it to your location. You get in and take over the controls to drive to your destination. When you arrive, another remote drive pilots the car to its next pickup. There are obvious problems to work out, but the idea is really the tacit admission that all things considered, humans are way better at driving than machines are, at least right now.

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Hackaday Links: September 12, 2021

The last thing an astronaut or cosmonaut on the International Space Stations wants to hear from one of their crewmates is, “Do you smell plastic burning?” But that’s apparently what happened this week aboard the increasingly problematic spacecraft, as the burning smell and visible smoke spread from the Russian Zvezda module to the American side of town. The reports say it occurred while charging the station’s batteries, and we all know how dicey that can get. But apparently, the situation resolved itself somehow, as normal operations continued soon after the event. Between reports of cracks, air leaks, problems with attitude control, and even accusations of sabotage, the ISS is really starting to show its age.

Speaking of burning and batteries, normally a story about burning Tesla batteries wouldn’t raise our eyebrows much. But this story out of California introduces a potential failure mode for Tesla batteries that we hadn’t considered before. It seems a semi-truck with a load of Tesla batteries lost its brakes on Interstate 80 in the Sierra Nevada mountains and ended up flipping across the highway. Video from the scene shows the cargo, which looks like replacement batteries or perhaps batteries salvaged from wrecked cars, scattered across the highway on their shipping pallets. A fire was reported, but it’s not clear whether it was one of the batteries which had gotten compromised in the crash, or if it was something other than the batteries. Still, we hadn’t considered the potential for disaster while shipping batteries like that.

Attention all GNURadio fans — GRCon21 is rapidly approaching. Unlike most of the conferences over the last year and half, GRCon21 will actually be both live and online. We always love the post-conference dump of talks, which cover such a wide range of topics and really dive deeply into so many cool areas. We’re especially looking forward to the SETI talks, and we’re pleased to see our friend Hash, who was on the Hack Chat a while back, scheduled to talk about his smart-meter hacking efforts. The conference starts on September 20 and is being held in Charlotte, North Carolina, and virtually of course. If you attend, make sure to drop tips to your favorite talks in the tips line so we can share them with everyone.

We got a tip this week on a video about how 1/4-wave tuning stubs work. It’s a simple demonstration using a length of coax, a signal generator, and an oscilloscope to show how an unterminated feedline can reflect RF back to the transmitter, and how that can be used to build super-simple notch filters and impedance transformers. We love demos that make the mysteries of RF a little simpler — W2AEW’s videos come to mind, like this one on standing waves.

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Hackaday Links: September 5, 2021

Good news from Jezero crater as the Mars rover Perseverance manages to accomplish for the first time what it was sent to do: collect and cache core samples from rocks. Space buffs will no doubt recall that Perseverance’s first attempt at core sampling didn’t go as planned — the rock that planetary scientists selected ended up being too soft, and the percussive coring bit just turned the core sample into powder. The latest attempt went exactly as planned: the cylindrical coring bit made a perfect cut, the core slipped into the sample tube nested inside the coring bit, and the core broke off cleanly inside the sample tube when it was cammed off-axis. Operators were able to provide visible proof that the core sample was retained this time using the Mastcam-Z instrument, which clearly shows the core in the sample tube. What’s neat is that they then performed a “percuss to ingest” maneuver, where the coring bit and sample tube are vibrated briefly, so that the core sample and any dust grains left around the sealing rim slide down into the sample tube. The next step is to transfer the sample tube to the belly of the rover where it’ll be hermetically sealed after some basic analysis.

Did any Android users perhaps oversleep this week? If you did, you’re not alone — lots of users of the Google Clock app reported that their preset alarms didn’t go off. Whether it was an actual issue caused by an update or some kind of glitch is unclear, but it clearly didn’t affect everyone; my phone mercilessly reminded me when 6:00 AM came around every day last week. But it apparently tripped up some users, to the point where one reported losing his job because of being late for work. Not to be judgmental, but it seems to me that if your job is so sensitive to you being late, it might make sense to have a backup alarm clock of some sort. We all seem to be a little too trusting that our phones are going to “just work,” and when they don’t, we’re surprised and appalled.

There seem to be two kinds of people in the world — those who hate roller coasters, and those who love them. I’m firmly in the latter camp, and will gladly give any coaster, no matter how extreme, a try. There have been a few that I later regretted, of course, but by and large, the feeling of being right on the edge of bodily harm is pretty cool. Crossing over the edge, though, is far less enjoyable, as the owners of an extreme coaster in Japan are learning. The Dodon-pa coaster at the Fuji-Q Highland amusement park is capable of hitting 112 miles (180 km) per hour and has racked up a sizable collection of injuries over the last ten months, including cervical and thoracic spine fractures. The ride is currently closed for a safety overhaul; one has to wonder what they’re doing to assess what the problem areas of the ride are. Perhaps they’re sending crash test dummies on endless rides to gather data, a sight we’d like to see.

And finally, you may have thought that phone phreaking was a thing of the past; in a lot of ways, you’d be right. But there’s still a lot to be learned about how POTS networks were put together, and this phone switch identification guide should be a big help to any phone geeks out there. Be ready to roll old school here — nothing but a plain text file that describes how to probe the switch that a phone is connected just by listening to things like dial tones and ring sounds. What’s nice is that it describes why the switches sound the way they do, so you get a lot of juicy technical insights into how switches work.

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Hackaday Links: August 29, 2021

If you thought that COVID-19 couldn’t possibly impact space travel, think again. The ongoing pandemic is having unexpected consequences for companies like SpaceX, who are worried about liquid oxygen shortages due to increased demand for medical oxygen. Massive amounts of liquid oxygen are used as the oxidizer for each rocket launch, of course, as well as in hospitals, which have giant tanks of liquid oxygen somewhere on site. Whether destined for space or for patient care, liquid oxygen comes from cryogenic separation plants, and SpaceX fears that they would have to delay or even cancel launches if manufacturers can’t keep up with demand and have to prioritize their healthcare customers. We’re actually not sure if this is a concern, though, since there are usually separate supply chains for medical and industrial gasses. Then again, we’d suspect a rocket engine might prefer to breathe ultra-pure LOX too.

Speaking of space, if you want to be an astronaut, perhaps the first skill you need to develop is patience. Not only might your ride not be ready to go when you are, but at least in the EU, you’ve got a long line of applicants in front of you. The European Space Agency announced this week that they’re working through a backlog of 23,000 applications for astronaut positions. About 20% of those will apparently be dropped in the pre-screening process, but the rest will (eventually) get an invitation to a full-day test at one of the ESA’s facilities. We imagine the attrition rate from there increases dramatically; either that or the ESA intends to hire a lot of astronauts.

Back here on Earth, Google this week did what it seems to do a lot of, and killed off one of its popular apps. This time the victim is the Android Auto phone app, although we have to admit the whole thing is confusing. The app allows you to connect your phone to the infotainment system in a compatible late-model car, letting you access all your apps without having to fiddle with your phone while driving. But Google also had an app that offered the same experience directly on the phone, for cars without a compatible display. As far as we can tell, the on-phone app is the only thing that’s going away in Android 12; the app for in-car displays will continue to be supported. Former users of the phone-only app are being encouraged to migrate to Google Assistant’s Driving Mode. Or, you know, you could just drive the car instead.

So your brand-new video card is running hot, and you can’t figure out why. At your wit’s end, you crack open the card’s cover and find the reason — a somewhat suspicious-looking foreign object. That’s what happened to Antony ter Horst and his Nvidia RTX 3090, which had a finger cot wedged inside it. It would appear to have slipped off the finger of some assembly worker, and it was clearly interfering with heat flow inside the card. Antony posted the pictures on reddit, which of course found much humor in the finger cot’s resemblance to another latex object. For our part, it put us in mind of some other stories of foreign objects found in common products — there’s a reason why we always check a loaf of bread before using it.

And finally, in a lot of ways YouTube has become the new “vast wasteland” of useless content. But like television before it, there are occasional gems to be found, especially to those of us who love to learn a little something as we watch. And so when we stumbled upon a video with the title “Hot Tap and Stopple Bypass at Smoky Lake” we had to check it out just to find out what each of those words meant. It turned out to be a great video on pipeline construction methods. The “hot tap” refers to cutting into the pipeline, containing high-pressure diluted bitumen from the shale oil fields near Smoky Lake, Alberta, without interrupting the flow of product. The “stopple” is a device that can be threaded into the pipe to permanently seal it, diverting the flow to a newly installed bypass. The whole process is fascinating, so we thought we’d share. Enjoy.

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Hackaday Links: August 22, 2021

It’s usually pretty hard to miss when Boston Dynamics drops a new video of one or more of their robots doing something flashy. But in case you’ve been under a rock the last few days, you might want to check out the Atlas parkour video. We last saw a pair of Atlas robots busting some dance moves with a few other Boston Dynamics robots, and while that was an incredible demonstration of the level of control they’ve engineered, they really were just playing back a series of preprogrammed moves. The obstacle course demo, though, seems like something different. There’s a good overview of the demo in IEEE Spectrum, where they point out that this is the first time we’ve seen Atlas show off using all four limbs at once for coordinated motion — that sweet vault over the fence. And really, it’s hard not to watch such human-like moves and not think that it’s just somebody in a robot suit. Even the stumbles feel human. What’s even more fun, though, is the behind-the-scenes look at Atlas. Especially for the face-plants and fails.

August 19 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek. In the process of just trying to build a fictional universe to tell some interesting stories and make a little money, he managed to spawn not only an enduring science-fiction franchise but also to inspire generations of future scientists and engineers. The number of things that Star Trek writers invented to move their stories along that later showed up as actual products is astonishing, as are the weird coincidences like placing the fictional planet Vulcan in orbit around star 40 Eridani, only to find out that there’s actually a potentially habitable exoplanet circling that star. As a salute to Roddenberry, the Deep Space Network was used last week to send a message to 40 Eridani. One of the big dishes at the Goldstone DSN site in California blasted the 20-kW signal out on Thursday, starting it on its 16.5-year journey to the stars. We looked for details on what was sent, but the only description was that it contained a 1976 recording by the Great Bird of the Galaxy himself. Whatever it was, it’ll take at least 33 years to see if we get a response. Mark your calendars.

I’ve been doing a lot of work on cars lately, a task made considerably more approachable by the fact that the newest vehicle in the family fleet is from 2004. I find working on cars very satisfying, and I’m dreading the day when we’re forced to replace one of our old-timers with something more modern and less amenable to driveway repairs. That said, there’s also a lot to like about newer vehicles, particularly electric vehicles. It would be nice to have a way to move away from ICE vehicles while still being able to work on your ride. But if Ford’s tease this week of an EV crate motor comes to pass, it just might be the best of both worlds. The motor, bearing the unfortunate moniker “Eluminator” — just can’t resist putting that “E” in there, can they? — is supposed to be a drop-in replacement for an internal combustion engine, suitable for a “restomod” project. These car builds aim to make a car look as vintage as possible, but radically change the guts to add functionality — think a Raspberry Pi running a Spotify client that’s stuffed into a vintage Atwater Kent cathedral radio. We like the idea of electrifying an old car, but it seems to us that a crate motor is only part of the answer. Is there such thing as a crate battery?

And finally, there was an interesting article detailing a new approach to repairing ruptured eardrums using 3D printing. The tympanic membrane is a thin, delicate sheet of tissue that is easily punctured, whether by blunt-force trauma, infections, or even by loud sounds like gunshots or explosions. Hearing is compromised when an eardrum is damaged, and the hole can serve as a route for pathogenic microorganisms to get into the inner ear. Fixing the hole usually requires a graft from the patient’s own tissues, often sourced from the little dongle covering the ear canal. But this tissue isn’t nearly as thin as the natural eardrum, and while hearing can be restored, it’s often muddy and muffled. The new technique is to 3D-print a custom graft for the patient, using a special polymer and printer. The artificial membrane mimics the structure of the natural tympanic membrane and restores more natural hearing immediately. It also serves as a scaffold for the body to fill in with natural cells, hopefully returning natural function as the 3D-printed part is absorbed. It’s interesting work, and the video in the linked article is pretty fascinating too.

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Hackaday Links: August 15, 2021

Unless you’re in the market for a new car, household appliance, or game console, or if you’re involved in the manufacture of these things, chances are pretty good that the global semiconductor shortage hasn’t directly impacted you yet. But we hobbyists might be due for a comeuppance as the chip shortage starts to impact our corner of the market. We suppose it’s natural that supplies of the chips needed to build Arduinos and Raspberry Pis would start to dry up, as semiconductor manufacturers realign their resources to service their most lucrative markets. Still, it was all sort of abstract until now, but seeing dire quotes from the likes of Adafruit, Pololu, and Sparkfun about the long lead times they’re being quoted — some chips won’t be seen until 2023! — is disheartening. As are the reports of price gouging and even hoarding; when a $10 part can suddenly command $350, you know something has gone seriously wrong.

But have no fear — we’re certain the global chip shortage will have no impact on the planned 2027 opening of the world’s first space hotel. Voyager Station — once dubbed Von Braun Station but renamed for some reason — looks for all the world like Space Station V in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, or at least half of it. The thing is enormous — witness the Starship docked in the center hub, as well as the several dozen shuttle-like craft — escape pods, perhaps? — attached to the outer rim. The renders are imaginative, to say the least — the station looks very sleek, completely unfettered by such banalities as, say, solar panels. We get that a private outfit needs to attract deep-pocketed investors, and that one doesn’t do that by focusing on the technical details when they can sell a “premium experience”. But really, if you’re going to space, do you want basically the same look and feel as a premium hotel on Earth, just with a better view? Or would you rather feel like you’ve actually traveled to space?

Speaking of space, did you ever wonder what the first programmable calculator in space was? Neither did we, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t find this detailed story about the HP-65 that was sent up on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975 pretty fascinating. The ASTP was the last hurrah of Apollo, and an often underappreciated engineering challenge. Linking up the two spacecraft safely was not trivial, and a fair number of burn calculations had to be made in orbit to achieve rendezvous and docking, as well as to maintain orbit. The HP-65, a programmable calculator that went for about $750 at the time (for the non-space-rated version, of course) had several programs loaded onto its removable magnetic cards, and the Apollo crew used it to verify the results calculated by the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC).

Facebook, a company that exists by providing people with a product they don’t need but now somehow can’t live without, is now dipping a toe into weird, weird waters: reverse-passthrough virtual reality. The idea, we take it, is that as users more widely adopt VR and integrate it into their daily lives, the VR headsets everyone will be wearing will make face-to-face contact more difficult. So what better way to solve that problem than by projecting a live image of the VR user’s eyes onto a screen outside the VR rig, for any and all to see? Pure genius, and not the least bit creepy. They’ve perhaps got a bit of work to go before achieving their goal of “seamless social connection between real and virtual worlds”.

And speaking of eyes, it’s good to know that developers are still hard at work keeping the most vital applications running at peak efficiency on today’s hardware. Yes, the venerable XEyes, a program for the X Window System on Unix-like operating systems that draws a pair of googly eyes on the screen to follow your mouse movements, has finally moved to version 1.2.0. It’s been 11 years since the 1.1.0 upgrade, so it was a long time coming. If you haven’t had the chance to play with XEyes, fear not — just about any Linux machine should be able to show you what you’ve been missing. Or, you know, you could even run it on a camera as the video below the break shows.

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Hackaday Links: August 1, 2021

Amateur radio operators have a saying: When all else fails, there’s ham radio. And that’s true, at least to an extent — knock out the power, tear down the phone lines, and burn up all the satellites in orbit, and there will still be hams talking about politics on 40 meters. The point is, as long as the laws of physics don’t change, hams will figure out a way to send and receive messages. In honor of that fact, the police in the city of Pune in Maharashtra, India, make it a point to exchange messages with their headquarter using Morse code once a week. The idea is to maintain a backup system, in case they can’t get a message through any other way. It’s a good idea, especially since they rotate all their radio operators through the Sunday morning ritual. We can’t imagine that most emergency services dispatchers would be thrilled about learning Morse, though.

Just because you’re a billionaire with a space company doesn’t mean you’re an astronaut. At least that’s the view of the US Federal Aviation Administration, which issued guidelines pretty much while Jeff Bezos and his merry band of cohorts were floating about above the 100-km high Kármán line in a Blue Origin “New Shepard” rocket. The FAA guidelines make it clear that those making the trip need to have actually done something to qualify as an astronaut, by “demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.” That’s good news to the “Old Shepard”, who clearly was in control of “Freedom 7” during the Mercury program. But the Bezos brothers, teenager Oliver Daemen, and Wally Funk, one of the “Mercury 13” group of women who trained to be NASA astronauts but never got to fly, were really just along for the ride, as the entire flight was automated. It doesn’t take away from the fact that they’ve been to space and you haven’t, of course, but they can’t officially call themselves astronauts. This goes to show that even billionaires can just be ballast too.

Good news, everyone — if you had anything that was being transported aboard the Ever Given, your stuff is almost there. The Suez Canal-occluding container ship finally made it to its original destination in Rotterdam, approximately four months later than originally predicted.  After plugging up the vital waterway for six days last March, the ship along with her cargo and her crew were detained in Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake, perhaps the coolest sounding body of water in the world next to the Dead Sea. Legal squabbling ensued at that point, all the while rendering whatever was in the 20,000-odd containers aboard the ship pretty much pointless. We’d imagine that even with continuous power, whatever was in the refrigerated containers must be pretty nasty by now, so there’s probably a lot of logistics and clean-up left to sort out.

I have to admit that I have a weird love of explosive bolts. I don’t know what it is, but the idea of fasteners engineered to fail in a predictable way under the influence of pyrotechnic charges just tickles something in me. I mean, I even wrote a whole article on the subject once. So when I came across this video explaining how the Space Shuttles were held to the launch pad, I really had to watch it. Surprisingly, the most interesting part of this story was not the explosive aspect, but the engineering problem of supporting the massive vehicle on the launch pad. For as graceful as the Shuttles seemed once they got into orbit, they really were ungainly beasts, especially strapped to the external fuel tank and booster. The scale of the eight frangible nuts used to secure the boosters to the pad is just jaw-dropping. We also liked the idea that NASA decided to catch the debris from the explosions in a container filled with sand.