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Hackaday Links: November 7, 2021

More trouble for Hubble this week as the space observatory’s scientific instruments package entered safe mode again. The problems started back on October 25, when the Scientific Instrument Command and Data Handling Unit, or SI C&DH, detect a lack of synchronization messages from the scientific instruments — basically, the cameras and spectrometers that sit at the focus of the telescope. The issue appears to be different from the “payload computer glitch” that was so widely reported back in the summer, but does seem to involve hardware on the SI C&DH. Mission controller took an interesting approach to diagnosing the problem: the dusted off the NICMOS, or Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer, an instrument that hasn’t been used since 1998. Putting NICMOS back into the loop allowed them to test for loss of synchronization messages without risking the other active instruments. In true hacker fashion, it looks like the fix will be to change the software to deal with the loss of sync messages. We’ll keep you posted.

What happened to the good old days, when truck hijackings were for things like cigarettes and booze? Now it’s graphics cards, at least according to a forum post that announced the theft of a shipment of EVGA GeForce RTX 30-series graphics cards from a delivery truck. The truck was moving the cards from San Francisco to the company’s southern California distribution center. No word as to the modus operandi of the thieves, so it’s not clear if the whole truck was stolen or if the cards “fell off the back.” Either way, EVGA took pains to note that receiving stolen goods is a crime under California law, and that warranties for the stolen cards will not be honored. Given the purpose these cards will likely be used for, we doubt that either of these facts matters much to the thieves.

Remember “Jet Pack Man”? We sure do, from a series of reports by pilots approaching Los Angeles International airport stretching back into 2020 and popping up occasionally. The reports were all similar — an object approximately the size and shape of a human, floating aloft near LAX. Sightings persisted, investigations were launched, but nobody appeared to know where Jet Pack Man came from or what he was flying. But now it appears that the Los Angeles Police may have identified the culprit: one Jack Skellington, whose street name is the Pumpkin King. Or at least a helium balloon version of the gangly creature, which is sure what an LAPD helicopter seems to have captured on video. But color us skeptical here; after all, they spotted the Halloween-themed balloon around the holiday, and it’s pretty easy to imagine that the hapless hero of Halloween Town floated away from someone’s front porch. More to the point, video that was captured at the end of 2020 doesn’t look anything like a Skellington balloon. So much for “case closed.”

Speaking of balloons, here’s perhaps a more productive use for them — lifting a solar observatory up above most of the atmosphere. The Sunrise Solar Observatory is designed to be lifted to about 37 km by a balloon, far enough above the Earth’s ozone layer to allow detailed observation of the Sun’s corona and lower atmosphere down into the UV range of the spectrum. Sunrise has already flown two successful missions in 2009 and 2013 which have netted over 100 scientific papers. The telescope has a one-meter aperture and automatic alignment and stabilization systems to keep it pointed the right way. Sunrise III is scheduled to launch in June 2022, and aims to study the flow of material in the solar atmosphere with an eye to understanding the nature of the Sun’s magnetic field.

And finally, what a difference a few feet can make. Some future Starlink customers are fuming after updating the location on their request for service, only to find the estimated delivery date pushed back a couple of years. Signing up for Starlink satellite service entails dropping a pin on a map to indicate your intended service location, but when Starlink put a new, more precise mapping app on the site, some eager pre-order customers updated their location to more accurately reflect where the dish will be installed. It’s not clear if the actual location of the dish is causing the change in the delivery date, or if just the act of updating an order places you at the bottom of the queue. But the lesson here may be that with geolocation, close enough is close enough.

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Hackaday Links: July 18, 2021

Tell the world that something is in short supply, and you can bet that people will start reacting to that news in the ways that make the most sense to them — remember the toilet paper shortage? It’s the same with the ongoing semiconductor pinch, except that since the item in short supply is (arguably) more valuable than toilet paper, the behavior and the risks people are willing to take around it are even more extreme. Sure, we’ve seen chip hoarding, and a marked rise in counterfeit chips. But we’d imagine that this is the first time we’ve seen chip smuggling quite like this. The smuggler was caught at the Hong Kong-Macao border with 256 Core i7 and i9 processors, valued at about $123,000, strapped to his legs and chest. It reminds us more of “Midnight Express”-style heroin smuggling, although we have to say we love the fact that this guy chose a power of 2 when strapping these babies on.

Speaking of big money, let’s say you’ve pulled off a few chip heists without getting caught, and have retired from the smuggling business. What is one to do with the ill-gotten gains? Apparently, there’s a big boom in artifacts from the early days of console gaming, so you might want to start spreading some money around there. But you’d better prepare to smuggle a lot of chips: last week, an unopened Legend of Zelda cartridge for the NES sold for $870,000 at auction. Not to be outdone, two days later someone actually paid $1.56 million for a Super Mario 64 cartridge, this time apparently still in the tamperproof container that displayed it on a shelf somewhere in 1996. Nostalgia can be an expensive drug.

And it’s not just video games that are commanding high prices these days. If you’ve got a spare quarter million or so, why not bid on this real Apollo Guidance Computer and DSKY? The AGC is a non-flown machine that was installed in LTA-8, the “lunar test article” version of the Landing Module (LM) that was used for vacuum testing. If the photos in the auction listing seem familiar, it’s with good reason: this is the same AGC that was restored to operating condition by Carl Claunch, Mike Stewart, Ken Shiriff, and Marc Verdiell. Sotheby’s estimates the value at $200,000 to $300,000; in a world of billionaire megalomaniacs with dreams of space empires, we wouldn’t be surprised if a working AGC went for much, much more than that.

Meanwhile, current day space exploration is going swimmingly. Just this week NASA got the Hubble Space Telescope back online, which is great news for astronomers. And on Mars, the Ingenuity helicopter just keeps on delivering during its “operations demonstration” mission. Originally just supposed to be a technology demonstration, Ingenuity has proven to be a useful companion to the Perseverance rover, scouting out locations of interest to explore or areas of hazard to avoid. On the helicopter’s recent ninth flight, it scouted a dune field for the team, providing photographs that showed the area would be too dangerous for the rover to cross. The rover’s on-board navigation system isn’t great at seeing sand dunes, so Ingenuity’s images are a real boon to mission planners, not to mention geologists and astrobiologists, who are seeing promising areas of the ancient lakebed to explore.

And finally, most of us know all too well how audio feedback works, and all the occasions to avoid it. But what about video feedback? What happens when you point a camera that a screen displaying the image from the camera? Fractals are what happens, or at least something that looks a lot like fractals. Code Parade has been playing with what he calls “analog fractals”, which are generated just by video feedback and not by computational means. While he’d prefer to do this old school with analog video equipment, it easy enough to replicate on a computer; he even has a web page that lets you arrange a series of virtual monitors on your screen. Point a webcam at the screen, and you’re off on a fractal journey that constantly changes and shifts. Give it a try.

The Fix Is In: Hubble’s Troubles Appear Over For Now

Good news this morning from low Earth orbit, where the Hubble Space Telescope is back online after a long and worrisome month of inactivity following a glitch with the observatory’s payload computer.

We recently covered the Hubble payload computer in some depth; at the time, NASA was still very much in the diagnosis phase of the recovery, and had yet to determine a root cause. But the investigation was pointing to one of two possible culprits: the Command Unit/Science Data Formatter (CU/SDF), the module that interfaces the various science instruments, or the Power Control Unit (PCU), which provides regulated power for everything in the payload computer, more verbosely known as the SI C&DH, or Scientific Instrument Command and Data Handling Unit.

In the two weeks since that report, NASA made slow but steady progress, methodically testing every aspect of the SI C&DH. It wasn’t until just two days ago, on July 14, that NASA made a solid determination on root cause: the Power Control Unit, or more specifically, the power supply protection circuit on the PCU’s 5-volt rail. The circuit is designed to monitor the rail for undervoltage or overvoltage conditions, and to order the SI C&DH to shut down if the voltage is out of spec. It’s not entirely clear whether the PCU is actually putting out something other than 5 volts, or if the protection circuit has perhaps degraded since the entire SI C&DH was replaced in the last service mission in 2009. But either way, the fix is the same: switch to the backup PCU, a step that was carefully planned out and executed on July 15th.

To their credit, the agency took pains that everyone involved would be free from any sense of pressure to rush a fix — the 30-year-old spacecraft was stable, its instruments were all safely shut down, and so the imperative was to fix the problem without causing any collateral damage, or taking a step that couldn’t be undone. And further kudos go to NASA for transparency — the web page detailing their efforts to save Hubble reads almost like a build log on one of our projects.

There’s still quite a bit of work to be done to get Hubble back into business — the science instruments have to be woken up and checked out, for instance — but if all goes well, we should see science data start flowing back from the space telescope soon. It’s a relief that NASA was able to pull this fix off, but the fact that Hubble is down to its last backup is a reminder Hubble’s days are numbered, and that the best way to honor the feats of engineering derring-do that saved Hubble this time and many times before is to keep doing great science for as long as possible.

Test Equipment, Shim Washers, And A 30 Year Old Space Telescope

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope. When you see all the great pictures today, it is hard to remember that when it first launched, it was nearly a failure, taking fuzzy pictures. The story of how that problem was fixed while the telescope was whizzing through space is a good one. But there’s another story: how did a $1.5 billion satellite get launched with defective optics? After all, we know space hardware gets tested and retested and, typically, little expense is spared to make sure once a satellite is in orbit, it will work well for a long time.

The problem was with a mirror. You might think mirrors are pretty simple, but it turns out there’s a lot to know about mirrors. For astronomy, you need a first surface mirror which is different from your bathroom mirror which almost certainly reflects off the back of the glass. In addition, the mirrors need a very precise curve to focus light.

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The Spitzer Space Telescope Ends Its Incredible Journey

Today, after 16 years of exemplary service, NASA will officially deactivate the Spitzer Space Telescope. Operating for over a decade beyond its designed service lifetime, the infrared observatory worked in tandem with the Hubble Space Telescope to reveal previously hidden details of known cosmic objects and helped expand our understanding of the universe. In later years, despite never being designed for the task, it became an invaluable tool in the study of planets outside our own solar system.

While there’s been no cataclysmic failure aboard the spacecraft, currently more than 260 million kilometers away from Earth, the years have certainly taken their toll on Spitzer. The craft’s various technical issues, combined with its ever-increasing distance, has made its continued operation cumbersome. Rather than running it to the point of outright failure, ground controllers have decided to quit while they still have the option to command the vehicle to go into hibernation mode. At its distance from the Earth there’s no danger of it becoming “space junk” in the traditional sense, but a rogue spacecraft transmitting randomly in deep space could become a nuisance for future observations.

From mapping weather patterns on a planet 190 light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major to providing the first images of Saturn’s largest ring, it’s difficult to overstate the breadth of Spitzer’s discoveries. But these accomplishments are all the more impressive when you consider the mission’s storied history, from its tumultuous conception to the unique technical challenges of long-duration spaceflight.

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Watching The Watchers: The State Of Space Surveillance

By now you’ve almost certainly heard about the recent release of a high-resolution satellite image showing the aftermath of Iran’s failed attempt to launch their Safir liquid fuel rocket. The geopolitical ramifications of Iran developing this type of ballistic missile technology is certainly a newsworthy story in its own right, but in this case, there’s been far more interest in how the picture was taken. Given known variables such as the time and date of the incident and the location of the launch pad, analysts have determined it was likely taken by a classified American KH-11 satellite.

The image is certainly striking, showing a level of detail that far exceeds what’s available through any of the space observation services we as civilians have access to. Estimated to have been taken from a distance of approximately 382 km, the image appears to have a resolution of at least ten centimeters per pixel. Given that the orbit of the satellite in question dips as low as 270 km on its closest approach to the Earth’s surface, it’s likely that the maximum resolution is even higher.

Of course, there are many aspects of the KH-11 satellites that remain highly classified, especially in regards to the latest hardware revisions. But their existence and general design has been common knowledge for decades. Images taken from earlier generation KH-11 satellites were leaked or otherwise released in the 1980s and 1990s, and while the Iranian image is certainly of a higher fidelity, this is not wholly surprising given the intervening decades.

What we know far less about are the orbital surveillance assets that supersede the KH-11. The satellite that took this image, known by its designation USA 224, has been in orbit since 2011. The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has launched a number of newer spacecraft since then, with several more slated to be lifted into orbit between now and 2021.

So let’s take a closer look at the KH-11 series of reconnaissance satellites, and compare that to what we can piece together about the next generation or orbital espionage technology that’s already circling overhead might be capable of.

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Kepler Closes Eyes After A Decade Of Discovery

Since its launch in March 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope has provided us with an incredible amount of data about exoplanets within our galaxy, proving these worlds are more varied and numerous than we could ever have imagined. Before its launch we simply didn’t know how common planets such as ours were, but today we know the Milky Way contains billions of them. Some of these worlds are so hot they have seas of molten rock, others experience two sunsets a day as they orbit a pair of stars. Perhaps most importantly, thousands of the planets found by Kepler are much like our own: potentially playing host to life as we know it.

Kepler lived a fruitful life by any metric, but it hasn’t been an easy one. Too far into deep space for us to repair it as we did Hubble, hardware failures aboard the observatory nearly brought the program to a halt in 2013. When NASA announced the spacecraft was beyond hope of repair, most assumed the mission would end. Even by that point, Kepler was an unqualified success and had provided us with enough data to keep astronomers busy for years. But an ingenious fix was devised, allowing it to continue collecting data even in its reduced capacity.

Leaning into the solar wind, Kepler was able to use the pressure of sunlight striking its solar panels to steady itself. Kepler’s “eyesight” was never quite the same after the failure of its reaction wheels, and it consumed more propellant than originally intended to maintain this careful balancing act, but the science continued. The mission that had already answered many of our questions about our place in the galaxy would push ahead in spite of a failure which should have left it dead in space.

As Kepler rapidly burned through its supply of propellant, it became clear the mission was on borrowed time. It was a necessary evil, as the alternative was leaving the craft tumbling through space, but mission planners understood that the fix they implemented had put an expiration date on Kepler. Revised calculations could provide an estimate as to when the vehicle would finally run its tanks dry and lose attitude control, but not a definitive date.

For the last several months NASA has known the day was approaching, but they decided to keep collecting data until the vehicle’s thrusters sputtered and failed. So today’s announcement that Kepler has at long last lost the ability to orient itself came as no surprise. Kepler has observed its last alien sunset, but the search for planets, and indeed life, in our corner of the galaxy doesn’t end today.

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