Spacing Out: Launch Successes And Failures, Next Stop Mars, Rocket Catching, & Space Stations

As large sections of the globe have seen themselves plunged into further resurgences of the pandemic over the past few weeks there has been no let-up in the world of space exploration even for the Christmas holidays, so here we are with another Spacing Out column in which we take a look at what’s going up, what’s flying overhead, and what’s coming down.

Not today, Paul. r2hox from Madrid, Spain, CC BY-SA 2.0.
Not today, Paul. r2hox from Madrid, Spain, CC BY-SA 2.0.

December was eventful, with China returning lunar samples and Japan doing the same with asteroid dust. And it was reported that we  might just possibly have detected radio waves from ET. The truth may be out there and we sincerely want to believe, but this widely reported signal from Proxima Centauri probably isn’t the confirmation of alien life we’ve all been waiting for.

There has been no shortage of launches over the last month from the usual agencies and companies, with a first launch from China of their Long March 8 heavy lift rocket from the Wenchang launch site in Hainan Province. Its payload of five satellites made it safely to orbit, and we expect the rocket will be a workhorse of their future exploration programme. Meanwhile SpaceX conducted a high-altitude test of their Starship SN8 vehicle, which proceeded according to plan until the craft was approaching the landing pad, at which point the failure of one of its engines to fire caused a spectacular crash. This does not equate to an unsuccessful test flight as it performed faultlessly in the rest of its manoeuvres, but it certainly made for some impressive video.

On the subject of SpaceX and Starship, Elon Musk has said he will sell all his personal property to fund a Martian colony. This will require a fleet of up to 1000 Starships, with three launches a day to ferry both colonists and supplies to the Red Planet. He attracted controversy though by saying that interplanetary immigration would be open to people of all means with loans available for the estimated $50,000 one-way travel cost, and Martian jobs on offer to enable the debt to be paid. Many critics replied to his Tweets likening the idea to indentured servitude. It’s worth remembering that Musk is the master of the grand publicity stunt, and while it seems a good bet that SpaceX will indeed reach Mars, it’s also not inconceivable that his timeline and plans might be somewhat optimistic.

A more tangible story from SpaceX comes in their super heavy booster rocket, which is to be reusable in the same manner as their existing Falcon 9, but not landing on its own legs in the manner of the earlier rocket. It will instead dock with its launch tower, being caught by the same support structures used to stabilise it before launch. At first glance this might seem too difficult to succeed, but no doubt people expressed the same doubts before the Falcon 9s performed their synchronised landings.

Finally away from more troubling developments in the political field, The Hill takes a look at some of those likely to have a hand in providing a commercial replacement for the ISS when it eventually reaches the end of its life. They examine the likely funding for NASA’s tenancy on the station, and looked at the cluster of Texas-based companies gearing up for space station manufacture. That’s right — space station modules from the likes of Axiom Space will become a manufactured assembly rather than one-off commissions. The decades beyond the ISS’s current 2030 projected end of life are likely to have some exciting developments in orbit.

The coming year is likely to be an exciting one, with a brace of missions heading to Mars for February as well as a new space station to catch our attention. The Chinese aren’t content to stop at the Moon, with their Tianwen-1 Mars mission due to start exploring our planetary neighbour, and the first Tianhe module of what will become their much larger space station taking to the skies in the coming year. Meanwhile the Red planet will see NASA’s Perseverance rover also reaching its surface, taking with it the Ingenuity helicopter. Finally, the United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe will go into orbit, making the second month one that should have plenty of news.

Wherever you are, keep yourself safe from Earth-bound viruses, and keep looking at the skies in 2021.

HOPE 2020 Delivers Historic Marathon Of Hacking

Anyone who’s ever attended a hacker conference knows that the talks and workshops are only part of the reason that people travel from all over the country (and indeed, the world) to be there. The social and extracurricular aspects of these events are just as important as the scheduled content, if not more so. After all, you can always watch the recorded version of any presentation you missed when you get back home; but there’s only a relatively short window for drinking Club-Mate, driving a Segway at unreasonable speeds, and hanging out with other people in the community.

So I don’t mind admitting that I was extremely skeptical when it was announced that the Hackers On Planet Earth (HOPE) conference was going virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Especially since the decision came just a few months before the event was set to kick off in New York. Trying to recreate the experience of a large scale hacker con as an online-only event is hard enough, but doing it on such short notice seemed like a recipe for disaster. Particularly for an event like HOPE that had always crammed the historic Hotel Pennsylvania to the rafters (and sometimes, above) with content and activities.

Which is not to say they didn’t have some interesting ideas. Since so many people were stuck at home anyway, they decided there wasn’t much point limiting HOPE to a single weekend. For 2020, the event would instead run for nine continuous days. Prerecorded talks and interactive workshops would start at 9 AM Eastern and run right up until the wee hours of the morning, often concluding with a live musical performance.

As founder Emmanuel Goldstein described it, the idea was to turn this year’s HOPE into a 24 hour hacker television channel that could beam a diverse array of ideas and opinions into homes all over the planet. Rather than pretending that the classic hacker convention experience could be fully replicated online, they would fully embrace the possibilities offered by the Internet and create something completely different. But could they pull it off?

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Stay At Home, HOPE And DEF CON Will Come To You

We’ve often heard conferences like HOPE and DEF CON called Hacker Summer Camp (although there are certainly more camp-like camps that also fit the bill). As we get into the hot parts of the summer, heading indoors for security talks, workshops, and untold shenanigans sounds like a good idea… if it weren’t for an ongoing pandemic. The good news is that you can still get a strong dose of these cons over the next three weekends as they’re being offered virtually.

Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE) is a biennial conference hosted in NYC. After much drama about the dank Hotel Pennsylvania hiking prices astronomically for the con, a new venue was found and we all breathed a sigh of relief. The best laid plans, etc. etc. — you know how this turns out. But beginning this Saturday, July 25th, over 100 speakers will present in HOPE’s first-ever live online presentation. Hackaday is a proud sponsor of HOPE 2020.

DEF CON happens every year, and every year we tell you that DEF CON has been cancelled. What do you do if it has actually been cancelled when the boy constantly cries wolf? Well it’s not cancelled, it’s morphed into what is called DEF CON Safe Mode — an online offering for all to enjoy. Go head, hook your computer up to the online version of DEF CON, what could go wrong? Find out when the virtual con goes live starting August 6th.

These are not the same as meeting up IRL. There are so many chance interactions and spectacles to see that you simply cannot spark with a virtual offering. However, the platform for presenters, the coming together to talk, learn, and share about privacy, security, and internet freedom are meaningful and worth our time. So support your favorite cons by joining in, even when it’s from the comfort of your own couch.

Hackaday Links: August 4, 2019

Is the hacking community facing a HOPEless future? It may well be, if this report from 2600 Magazine is any indication. The biennial “Hackers On Planet Earth” conference is in serious financial jeopardy after the venue that’s hosted it for years, the Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan, announced a three-fold increase in price. Organizers are scrambling to save the conference and they’re asking for the community’s help in brainstorming solutions. Hackaday was at HOPE XI in 2016 and HOPE XII in 2018; let’s HOPE we get to see everyone again in 2020.

If you’ve ever been curious about how a 1970s PROM chip worked, Ken Shirriff has you covered. Or uncovered, as he popped the top off a ceramic MMI 5300 DIP to look at the die within. Closeups of the somewhat cockeyed die reveal its secrets – 1,024 tiny fusible links. Programming was a matter of overloading a particular fuse, turning a 1 into a 0 permanently. It’s a fascinating look at how it used to be done, with Ken’s usual attention to detail in the documentation department.

We had a great Hack Chat this week with Mihir Shah from Royal Circuits. Royal is one of the few quick-turn PCB fabs in the USA, and they specialize in lightning-fast turnaround on bare PCBs and assembled boards. He told us all about this fascinating business, and dropped a link to a side project of his. Called DebuggAR, it’s an augmented reality app that runs on a smartphone and overlays component locations, signal traces, pinouts, and more right over a live image of your board. He’s got a beta going now for iPhone users and would love feedback, so check it out.

With all the cool things you can do with LoRa radios, it’s no wonder that wireless hobbyists have taken to pushing the limits on what the technology can do. The world record distance for a LoRa link was an astonishing 702 km (436 miles). That stood for two years until it was topped, twice in the same day. On July 13th, the record was pushed to 741 km, and a mere five hours later to 766 km. All on a scant 25 mW of power.

Linux distro Manjaro made an unconventional choice regarding which office suite to include, and it’s making some users unhappy. It appears that they’ve dumped LibreOffice from the base install, opting instead to include the closed-source FreeOffice. Worse, FreeOffice doesn’t have support for saving .doc and OpenDocument files; potentially leaving LibreOffice users stranded. Paying for an upgrade to SoftMaker’s Office product can fix that, but that’s hardly free-as-in-beer free. It’s kind of like saying the beer is free, but the mug is an upgrade. UPDATE: It looks like the Manjaro team heard all the feedback and are working on a selector so you can install the office suite of your choice.

Tragic news out of New Hampshire, as amateur radio operator Joe Areyzaga (K1JGA) was killed while trying to dismantle an antenna tower. Local news has coverage with no substantial details, however the hams over on r/amateurradio seem to have the inside line on the cause. It appears the legs of the tower had filled with water over the years, rusting them from the inside out. The tower likely appeared solid to Joe and his friend Mike Rancourt (K1EEE) as they started to climb, but the tower buckled at the weak point and collapsed. K1EEE remains in critical condition after the 40′ (12 m) fall, but K1JGA is now a silent key. The tragedy serves as a reminder to everyone who works on towers to take nothing for granted before starting to climb.

And finally, just for fun, feast your eyes on this movie of the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft as is makes its flyby of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. It’s stitched together from thousands of images and really makes 67P look like a place, not just a streak of light in the night sky.

HOPE XII: A FOSS Operating System For E-Readers

Free and open source software (FOSS) was a recurring theme during many of the talks during the HOPE XII conference, which should probably come as no surprise. Hackers aren’t big fans of being monitored by faceless corporate overlords or being told what they can and cannot do on the hardware they purchased. Replacing proprietary software with FOSS alternatives is a way to put control back into the hands of the user, so naturally many of the talks pushed the idea.

In most cases that took the form of advising you to move your Windows or Mac OS computer over to a more open operating system such as GNU/Linux. Sound advice if you’re looking for software freedom, but it’s a bit quaint to limit such thinking to the desktop in 2018. We increasingly depend on mobile computing devices, and more often than not those are locked down hard with not only a closed proprietary operating system but also a “Walled Garden” style content delivery system. What’s the point of running all FOSS software at home on your desktop if you’re carrying a proprietary mobile device around?

That’s precisely the thinking that got Marc Juul interested in the possibility of bringing a FOSS operating system to e-reader devices. During his talk “Liberate Your E-book Reader with fread.ink!”, he gave examples such as Amazon’s infamous remote deletion of 1984 off of users’ Kindles as a perfect example of the sort of control these companies exert on our personal devices. Marc believes the goal should be to completely replace the operating system on these devices with a free software alternative that still retains the ability to open electronic book formats. Not only would this keep the likes of Amazon or Barnes and Noble out of our reading habits, but turn these cheap readers into more capable devices in the bargain.

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HOPE XII: Time Travel With Software Defined Radio

It’s easy to dismiss radio as little more than background noise while we drive.  At worst you might even think it’s just another method for advertisers to peddle their wares. But in reality it’s a snapshot of the culture of a particular time and place; a record of what was in the news, what music was popular, what the weather was like, basically what life was like. If it was important enough to be worth the expense and complexity of broadcasting it on the radio, it’s probably worth keeping for future reference.

But radio is fleeting, a 24/7 stream of content that’s never exactly the same twice. Yet while we obsessively document music and video, nobody’s bothering to record radio. You can easily hop online and watch a TV show that originally aired 50 years ago, but good luck finding a recording of what your local radio station was broadcasting last week. All that information, that rich tapestry of life, is gone and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Or can we? At HOPE XII, Thomas Witherspoon gave a talk called “Creating a Radio Time Machine: Software-Defined Radios and Time-Shifted Recordings”, an overview of the work he’s been doing recording and cataloging the broadcast radio spectrum. He demonstrated how anyone can use low cost SDR hardware to record, and later play back, whole chunks of the AM and shortwave bands. Rather than an audio file containing a single radio station, the method he describes allows you to interactively tune in to different stations and explore the airwaves as if it were live.

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Hackaday Links: June 24, 2018

What do you do if you’re laying out a PCB, and you need to jump over a trace, but don’t want to use a via? The usual trick is using a zero Ohm resistor to make a bridge over a PCB trace. Zero Ohm resistors — otherwise known as ‘wire’ — are a handy tool for PCB designers who have backed themselves into a corner and don’t mind putting another reel on the pick and place machine. Here’s a new product from Keystone that is basically wire on a tape and reel. It’s designed to jump traces on a PCB where SMD zero ohm resistors and through-hole jumpers aren’t possible. I suppose you could also use it as a test point. They’re designed for high current applications, but before we get to that, let’s consider how much power is dissipated into a zero ohm resistor.

By the way, as of this writing, Mouser is showing 1,595 for Keystone’s 5100TR PCB jumpers in stock. They come on a reel of 1,000, and a full reel will cost you $280. This is significantly more expensive than any SMD zero ohm resistor, and it means someone bought four hundred of them. The electronic components industry is weird and you will never understand it.

There’s a new product from ODROID, and you want it. The ODROID-GO is a Game Boy and Sega Master System emulator running on an ESP-32, has a fantastic injection molded case, and looks phenomenal.  You can buy it now for $32. Does this sound familiar? Yes, a few months ago, the PocketSprite was released. The PocketSprite is the tiniest Game Boy ever, and a project [Sprite_TM] introduced to the world at the 2016 Hackaday Superconference.

This week, the speaker schedules for two awesome cons were announced. The first is HOPE, at the Hotel Penn on July 20th. Highlights of this year? [Mitch Altman] is talking about DSP, [Chelsea Manning] will be on stage, someone is talking about HAARP (have fun with the conspiracy theorists), and someone is presenting an argument that [Snowden] is an ideological turd. The speaker schedule for DEF CON was also announced. The main takeaway: god bless the CFP board for reigning in all the blockchain talks, the Nintendo Switch was broken wide open this year, but there’s only a talk on the 3DS, and there’s more than enough talks on election hacking, even though that was a success of propaganda instead of balaclava-wearing hackers.

The C.H.I.P. is no more, or at least that’s the rumor we’re running with until we get some official confirmation. When it was introduced, the C.H.I.P. was a Linux system on a chip with complete register documentation. It appears the end of C.H.I.P. is upon us, but have no fear: there’s a community building the PocketC.H.I.P., or the C.H.I.PBeagle. It’s a single board computer based around the OSD3358 from Octavo, the same system found in the PocketBeagle. Source in KiCAD, and people are working on it. Thanks [smerrett79] for the tip.