The big news this week comes from the world of medicine, where a woman has received a 3D-printed ear transplant. The 20-year-old woman suffered from microtia, a rare congenital deformity that left her without a pinna, the external structure of the ear. Using scans of the normal ear, doctors were able to make a 3D model of what the missing pinna should look like. Raw material for the print was taken from the vestigial ear of the patient in the form of cartilage cells, or chondrocytes. The ear was printed using a bioprinter, which is a bit like an inkjet printer. The newly printed ear was placed into a protective structure and transplanted. The operation was done in March, and the results are pretty dramatic. With a little squinting, it does look a bit like there are some printing artifacts in the ear, but we’d imagine that’s more from the protective cage that was over the ear as it healed.
We start this week with news from Mars, because, let’s face it, the news from this planet isn’t all that much fun lately. But a couple of milestones were reached on the Red Planet, the first being the arrival of Perseverance at the ancient river delta it was sent there to explore. The rover certainly took the scenic route to get there, having covered 10.6 km over the last 424 sols to move to a position only about 3.5 km straight-line distance from where it landed. Granted, a lot of that extra driving was in support of the unexpectedly successful Ingenuity demonstration, plus taking time for a lot of pit stops along the way at interesting features. But the rover is now in place to examine sedimentary rocks most likely to harbor the fossil remains of ancient aquatic life — as opposed to the mainly igneous rocks it has studied along the crater floor so far. We’re looking forward to seeing what happens.
A funny thing happened on the way to the delta. The one on Jezero crater on Mars, that is, as the Perseverance rover may have captured a glimpse of the parachute that helped deliver it to the Red Planet a little over a year ago. Getting the rover safely onto the Martian surface was an incredibly complex undertaking, made all the more impressive by the fact that it was completely autonomous. The parachute, which slowed the descent vehicle holding the rover, was jettisoned well before the “Sky Crane” deployed to lower the rover to the surface. The parachute wafted to the surface a bit over a kilometer from the landing zone. NASA hasn’t confirmed that what’s seen in the raw images is the chute; in fact, they haven’t even acknowledged the big white thing that’s obviously not a rock in the picture at all. Perhaps they’re reserving final judgment until they get an overflight by the Ingenuity helicopter, which is currently landed not too far from where the descent stage crashed. We’d love to see pictures of that wreckage.
It looks as though the Mars Ingenuity flight team is starting to press the edge of the envelope a bit. The tiny rotorcraft, already 280-something sols into a mission that was only supposed to last for about 30 sols, is taking riskier flights than ever before, and things got particularly spicy during flight number 17 this past week. The flight was a simple up-over-and-down repositioning of the aircraft, but during the last few meters of descent at its landing zone, Ingenuity dipped behind a small hill and lost line-of-sight contact with Perseverance. Without the 900-MHz telemetry link to the rover, operators were initially unable to find out whether the chopper had stuck the landing, as it had on its previous 16 flights. Thankfully, Perseverance picked up a blip of data packets about 15 minutes after landing that indicated the helicopter’s battery was charging, which wouldn’t be possible if the craft were on its side. But that’s it as far as flight data, at least until they can do something about the LOS problem. Whether that involves another flight to pop up above the hill, or perhaps even repositioning the rover, remains to be decided.
Thinking up strong passwords that are memorable enough to type when they’re needed is never easy, and probably contributes more to the widespread use of “P@$$w0rD123” and the like than just about anything. But we got a tip on a method the musically inclined might find useful — generating passwords using music theory. It uses standard notation for chords to come up with a long, seemingly random set of characters, like “DMaj7|Fsus2|G#9”. It’s pretty brilliant, especially if you’ve got the musical skills to know what that would sound like when played — the rest of us can click here to find out. But since we can’t carry a tune in a bucket, we’ll just stick with the “correct horse battery staple” method.
Looks like you can only light so many roofs on fire before somebody starts to take an interest in what’s going on. At least that seems to be the case with Tesla, which is now under investigation by the US Security and Exchanges Commission for not keeping its shareholders and the public looped in on all those pesky solar array fires it was having back in the day. The investigation stems from a 2019 whistleblower complaint by engineer Steven Henkes, who claims he was fired by Tesla after pointing out that it really would be best not to light their customers’ buildings on fire with poorly installed solar arrays. It’s interesting that the current investigation has nothing to do with the engineering aspects of these fires, but rather the financial implications of disclosure. We discussed some of those problems before, which includes dodgy installation practices and seems to focus on improperly torqued MC4 connectors.
Staying with the Tesla theme, it looks like the Cybertruck is going to initially show up as a four-motor variant. The silly-looking vehicle is also supposed to sport four-wheel steering, which will apparently make it possible to drive diagonally. We’ve been behind the wheel for nearly four decades at this point and can count on no hands the number of times diagonal driving would have helped, and while there might be an edge case we haven’t bumped into yet, we suspect this is more about keeping up with the competition than truly driving innovation. It seems like if they were really serious about actually shipping a product, they’d work on the Cybertruck windshield wiper problem first.
And finally, as I’m sure you’re all aware by now, our longtime boss Mike Szczys is moving on to greener pastures. I have to say the news came as a bit of shock to me, since I’ve worked for Mike for over six years now. In that time, he has put me in the enviable position of having a boss I actually like, which has literally never happened to me before. I just thought I’d take the chance to say how much I appreciate him rolling the dice on me back in 2015 and giving me a chance to actually write for a living. Thanks, Mike, and best of luck with the new gig!
It’s one thing to speculate about what’s happening with the Mars helicopter Ingenuity, but it’s another to get an insider’s view on recent flight problems. As we previously reported, Ingenuity is starting to face a significant challenge, as a seasonal atmospheric pressure drop on Mars threatens to make the already rarefied air too thin to generate useful lift. Mission controllers tested the chopper at higher rotor speeds, and while that worked, later attempts to fly using that higher speed resulted in an abort. The article, written by one of the NASA/JPL engineers, is a deep dive into the problem, which occurred when Ingenuity sensed excessive wiggle in two of the servos controlling the rotor swashplate. The thought is that accumulated wear in the servos and linkages might be causing the problem; after all, Ingenuity has made thirteen flights so far, greatly exceeding the five flights originally programmed for it. Here’s hoping they can adapt and keep the helicopter flying, but whatever they do, it’ll have to wait a few weeks until Mars completes its conjunction and pops back out from behind the Sun.
With all the attention understandably paid to the recent 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, it’s easy to forget that barely a month after that day, a series of what appeared to be follow-on attacks started: the Anthrax Attacks. Members of Congress and media outlets were targeted via the mail with highly refined anthrax spores, leading to the deaths of five people, with dozens more injured and exposed to anthrax. IEEE Spectrum has an interesting article that goes into some of the technology that was rapidly deployed in an attempt to sanitize the mail, including electron beam and X-ray irradiation to kill any spores. The article also points out how this wasn’t the first time people were afraid of the mail; outbreaks of yellow fever in 1899 led to fumigation of the mail with sulfur, after perforating it with a wicked-looking paddle.
Attention PCB-design newbies — now’s your chance to learn the entire PCB design process from the ground up, with the guidance of industry professionals. TeachMePCB is back again this year, offering to teach you everything you need to know about properly laying out a PCB design in pretty much any EDA software you want. The course requires a two- to five-hour commitment every week for two months, after which you’ll have designed a PCB for a macropad using a Raspberry Pi Pico. The course facilitator is Mark Hughes from Royal Circuits, who did a great Hack Chat with us last year on PCB finishes. This seems like a great way to get up to speed on PCB design, so if you’re interested, act soon — 460 people are already signed up, and the deadline is October 10.
Some of us really love factory tours, no matter what the factory is making. All the better when the factory makes cool electronics stuff, and better still when it’s our friends at Adafruit showing us around their New York City digs. True, it’s a virtual tour, but it has pretty much become a virtual world over the last couple of years, and it’s still a great look inside the Adafruit factory. Hackaday got an in-person tour back in 2015, but we didn’t know their building used to be a Westinghouse radio factory. In fact, the whole area was once part of the famed “Radio Row” that every major city seemed to have from the 1920s to the 1960s. It’s good to get a look inside a real manufacturing operation, especially one that’s right in the heart of a city.
And finally, those with a fear of heights might want to avoid watching this fascinating film on the change-out of a TV transmitter antenna. The tower is over 1,500′ (450 m) tall, lofting an aging antenna over the flat Florida terrain. Most of the footage comes from body-mounted cameras on the riggers working the job, including the one very brave soul who climbed up the partially unbolted antenna to connect it to the Sikorsky S64 Skycrane helicopter. It’s a strange combination of a carefully planned and slowly executed ballet, punctuated by moments of frenetic activity and sheer terror. The mishap when releasing the load line after the new antenna was placed could easily have swept the whole rigging crew off the antenna, but luckily nobody was injured.
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.
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.