As Chinese Wheels Touch Martian Soil And Indian Astronauts Walk Towards The Launch Pad, Can We Hope For Another Space Race?

If you were born in the 1960s or early 1970s, the chances are that somewhere in your childhood ambitions lay a desire to be an astronaut or cosmonaut. Once Yuri Gagarin had circled the Earth and Neil Armstrong had walked upon the Moon, millions of kids imagined that they too would one day climb into a space capsule and join that elite band of intrepid explorers. Anything seems possible when you are a five-year-old, but of course the reality remains that only the very fewest of us ever made it to space.

Did You Once Dream Of The Stars?

The Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in Finland in 1961. Arto Jousi, Public domain.
The Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in Finland in 1961. Arto Jousi, Public domain.

The picture may be a little different for the youth of a few decades later though, did kids in the ’90s dream of the stars? Probably not. So what changed as Shuttle and Mir crews were passing overhead?

The answer is that the Space Race between the USA and Soviet Union which had dominated extra-terrestrial exploration from the 1950s to the ’70s had by then cooled down, and impressive though the building of the International Space Station was, it lacked the ability to electrify the public in the way that Sputnik, Vostok, or Apollo had. It was immensely cool to people like us, but the general public were distracted by other things and their political leaders were no longer ready to approve money-no-object budgets. We’d done space, and aside from the occasional bright spot in the form of space telescopes or rovers trundling across Mars, that was it. The hit TV comedy series The Big Bang Theory even had a storyline that found comedy in one of its characters serving on a mission to the ISS and being completely ignored on his return.

A few years ago a Chinese friend at my then-hackerspace was genuinely surprised that I knew the name of Yang Liwei, the Shenzhou 5 astronaut and the first person launched by his country into space. He’s a national hero in China but not so much on the rainy edge of Europe, where the Chinese space programme for all its progress at the time about a decade after Yang’s mission had yet to make a splash beyond a few space watchers and enthusiasts in hackerspaces. But this might be beginning to change.

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Building An Oxygen Concentrator: It Isn’t Rocket Science

Back at the start of the pandemic, a variety of hacker designs for life-saving machinery may have pushed the boundaries of patient safety. There are good reasons that a ventilator must pass extensive safety  testing and certification before it can be attached to a patient, because were it to in some way fail, the patient would die. A year later, we have many much safer and more realistic ways to use our skills as part of the effort.

Probably one of the most ambitious projects comes from a coalition of Indian hackerspaces who are adapting a proven oxygen concentrator for local manufacture. Among them is Hackaday’s own [Anool Mahidharia], who hosts a Maker’s Asylum video (embedded below) explaining how the oxygen concentrator works and how they can be made safely.

The team have proven their ability in manufacturing over the past year, here showing off the M19 motorised air purifying respirator.
The team have proven their ability in manufacturing over the past year, here showing off the M19 motorised air purifying respirator.

An oxygen concentrator is both surprisingly simple and imbued with a touch of magic. At its center are two columns of zeolite, a highly porous aluminosilicate mineral that performs the task of a molecular sieve. When air is pumped into the column, the zeolite traps nitrogen, leaving the oxygen-enriched remnant to be supplied onwards. There are two such columns to allow each to be on an alternate cycle of enrichment or purging to remove the accumulated nitrogen.

The point of the video is to show that such a device can be constructed from readily available parts and with common tools; as the title says it isn’t rocket science. Concentrators produced by the hackerspace coalition won’t save the world on their own, but as a part of the combined effort they can provide a useful and reliable source of oxygen that will make a significant difference in a country whose oxygen distribution network is under severe strain.

We previously covered the Indian oxygen concentrator effort when they launched the project. Their website can be found on the Maker’s Asylum website, and their crowdfunding campaign can be found on the Indian crowdfunding platform, Ketto. They have already proved their ability to coordinate large-scale manufacturing with their previous PPE and respirator projects, so please consider supporting them if you can. Meanwhile, we can’t help a twinge of space envy, from the fleeting glimpse of Maker’s Asylum in the video.

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India’s Moon Mission Is Far From Over

India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission to the Moon was, in a word, ambitious. Lifting off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on July 22nd, the mission hoped to simultaneously deliver an orbiter, lander, and rover to our nearest celestial neighbor. The launch and flight to the Moon went off without a hitch, and while there were certainly some tense moments, the spacecraft ultimately put itself into a stable lunar orbit and released the free-flying lander so it could set off on its independent mission.

Unfortunately, just seconds before the Vikram lander touched down, an anomaly occurred. At this point the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) still doesn’t know exactly what happened, but based on the live telemetry stream from the lander, some have theorized the craft started tumbling or otherwise became unstable between three and four kilometers above the surface.

Telemetry indicates a suboptimal landing orientation

In fact, for a brief moment the telemetry display actually showed the Vikram lander completely inverted, with engines seemingly accelerating the spacecraft towards the surface of the Moon. It’s unclear whether this was an accurate depiction of the lander’s orientation in the final moments before impact or a glitch in the real-time display, but it’s certainly not what you want to see when your craft is just seconds away from touchdown.

But for Chandrayaan-2, the story doesn’t end here. The bulk of the mission’s scientific goals were always to be accomplished by the orbiter itself. There were of course a number of scientific payloads aboard the Vikram lander, and even the Pragyan rover that it was carrying down to the surface, but they were always secondary objectives at best. The ISRO was well aware of the difficulties involved in making a soft landing on the Moon, and planned their mission objectives accordingly.

Rather than feel sorrow over the presumed destruction of Vikram and Pragyan, let’s take a look at the scientific hardware aboard the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter, and the long mission that still lies ahead of it.

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India Launched A Moon Orbiter, Lander, And Rover All In One Shot With Chandrayaan-2

On July 22nd, India launched an ambitious mission to simultaneously deliver an orbiter, lander, and rover to the Moon. Launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on a domestically-built GSLV Mk III rocket, Chandrayaan-2 is expected to enter lunar orbit on August 20th. If everything goes well, the mission’s lander module will touch down on September 7th.

Attempting a multifaceted mission of this nature is a bold move, but the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) does have the benefit of experience. The Chandrayaan-1 mission, launched in 2008, spent nearly a year operating in lunar orbit. That mission also included the so-called Moon Impact Probe (MIP), which deliberately crashed into the surface near the Shackleton crater. The MIP wasn’t designed to survive the impact, but it still secured India a position on the short list of countries that have placed an object on the lunar surface.

If the lander component of Chandrayaan-2, named Vikram after Indian space pioneer Vikram Sarabhai, can safely touch down on the lunar surface it will be a historic accomplishment for the ISRO. To date, the only countries to perform a controlled landing on the Moon are the Soviet Union, the United States, and China. Earlier in the year, it seemed Israel would secure its position as the fourth country to perform the feat with their Beresheet spacecraft, but a last second fault caused the craft to crash into the surface. The loss of Beresheet, while unfortunate, has given India an unexpected chance to take the coveted fourth position despite Israel’s head start.

We have a few months before the big event, but so far, everything has gone according to plan for Chandrayaan-2. As we await word that the spacecraft has successfully entered orbit around the Moon, let’s take a closer look at how this ambitious mission is supposed to work.

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Rapidly Prototyping Prosthetics, Braille, And Wheelchairs

We live in an amazing time where the availability of rapid prototyping tools and expertise to use them has expanded faster than at any other time in human history. We now have an amazing ability to quickly bring together creative solutions — perfect examples of this are the designs for specialized arm prosthetics, Braille printing, and custom wheelchair builds that came together last week.

Earlier this month we published details about the S.T.E.A.M. Fabrikarium program taking place at Maker’s Asylum in Mumbai. The five-day event was designed to match up groups of makers with mentors to build assistive devices which help improve the condition of differently-abled people.

The participants were split into eight teams and they came up with some amazing results at the end of the five-day program.

Hands-On: Prosthetic Designs That Go Beyond

Three teams worked on projects based on Bionico – a myoelectric prosthesis

DIY Prosthetic Socket – a Human Machine Interface : [Mahendra Pitav aka Mahen] lost his left arm during the series of train bomb blasts in Mumbai in 2006, which killed 200 and injured over 700 commuters. He uses a prosthetic arm which is essentially a three-pronged claw that is cable activated using his other good arm. While it is useful, the limited functionality restricted him from doing many simple things. The DIY Prosthetic socket team worked with [Mahen] and [Nico Huchet] from MyHumanKit (who lost his right arm in an accident 16 years back), and fabricated a prosthetic forearm for [Mahen] with a modular, 3D printed accessory socket. Embedded within the arm is a rechargeable power source that provides 5V USB output at the socket end to power the devices that are plugged in. It also provides a second port to help recharge mobile phones. Also embedded in the arm was an IR reflective sensor that can be used to sense muscle movements and help trigger specific functions of add-on circuits, for example servos.

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S.T.E.A.M. Fabrikarium Builds Assistive Tech In Mumbai

Starting this weekend, a group of 65 invited Maker’s from various disciplines, along with 20 awesome Mentors, will gather at the Maker’s Asylum in Mumbai for the five day S.T.E.A.M. Fabrikarium program. The aim is to improve the capabilities of the differently-abled by building and expanding upon existing open source projects. At the same time, the teams will learn more about rapid prototyping techniques.

Among the participants will be at least 15 differently-abled people who will be a part of the whole process of learning as well as providing their inputs on the problems being tackled. Participants have an opportunity to understand how design thinking works and work on improving the existing designs.

Participants will team up and choose from five existing open source projects:

  • Bionico – a myoelectric prosthesis
  • Braille rap – using a 3D printer as a braille embosser.
  • e-Trotti – a low-cost, removable electrical assistance for wheelchair use, made from electric scooter parts.
  • Project Shiva – customized and beautiful upper limb prosthetics.
  • Flying Wheelchair – a wheelchair specially adapted for use while paragliding.

The Asylum’s fully-fledged workshop facilities offer a wood shop, a laser cutter, a CNC, several 3D printers, electronics tools and instruments and an infectious environment that will allow the participants to learn a lot during the five short days. While working on prototyping their projects, all teams will have constant access to a team of mentors and industry experts who will help solve their problems and give guidance when necessary.

The Maker’s Asylum includes fully-fledged workshop facilities for the build process, and the team succeeded in bringing onboard a slew of industrial partners and supporters to ensure that the program can be offered to the participants for free. That is a great way to bring makerspaces, makers, and the industry together in a symbiotic program that benefits society. The program was developed in collaboration with My Human Kit, a company from France who selected the five open-source projects mentioned above. The Fabrikarium is made possible via Bonjour-India, which fosters Indo-French partnerships and exchanges.

Hackaday is proud to be a part of this program and will be present to help document all of the awesome projects. Participants will share their progress on Hackaday.io, so watch for updates over the coming week. To get an idea of what to expect at the S.T.E.A.M. Fabrikarium 2018, check out the video from an earlier version embedded below.

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An Intel 8085 Microprocessor Trainer

The Intel 8085 microprocessor was introduced 40 years back, and along with its contemporaries — the Z80 and the 6502 — is pretty much a dinosaur in terms of microprocessor history. But that doesn’t stop it from still being included in the syllabus for computer engineering students in many parts of the world. The reason why a 40 year old microprocessor is still covered in computer architecture text books instead of computer history is a bit convoluted. But there’s a whole industry that thrives on the requirements of college laboratories and students requiring “8085 Microprocessor Training Kits”. [TisteAndii] just finished college in Nigeria, where these kits are not locally built and need to be imported, usually costing well over a 100 dollars.

Which is why his final year project was a low cost Intel 8085 Microprocessor Trainer. It’s a minimalist design with some basic read/write memory, program execution and register inspection, with no provision for single stepping or interrupts yet. The monitor program isn’t loaded in an EEPROM. Instead, a PIC18 is used and connected to the 8085 address, data and control pins. This makes it easier to write a monitor program in C instead of assembly. And allows use of a 1.8″ LCD with SPI interface instead of the more usual 7-segment displays used for these kind of kits. [TisteAndii] built a 6×4 keyboard for input, but couldn’t solve debounce issues and finally settled on a 5×4 membrane keypad.

Being a rookie, he ended up with a major flaw in his board layout — he missed connecting the SRAM and the PPI devices to the data bus. A bunch of jumper links seemed to solve the issue, but it wasn’t perfect. This, and a few other problems gave him a lot of grief, but towards the end, it all worked, almost. Most importantly, his BoM cost of about $35 makes it significantly cheaper compared to the commercial units available in Nigeria.

While some hackers may consider this a trivial project, it solves a local problem and we hope the next iteration of the design improves the kit and makes it more accessible.