Sand Hack Boosts Power On InSight Mars Lander

We love that part in Apollo 13 where the NASA engineers have to fit a square carbon dioxide filter in a round hole. We love basically every scene of The Martian where Mark Watney hacks together any piece of hardware he can get his hands on to survive on a hostile planet. What we love even more is watching actual NASA engineers trying out a hack and ordering the InSight lander to scoop sand on itself to increase the power from its solar panels.

InSight, which recently had its two-year mission to study the interior geology of Mars extended, has been suffering from a buildup of dust on its solar panels. This dust is only adding on to the expected power loss which occurs as the red planet approaches aphelion — the maximum distance from the Sun in its orbit. Attempts to shake the panels clear by pulsing their deployment motors were unsuccessful. Other solar-powered missions have experienced a cleaning effect from the Martian winds; however, despite seeing plenty of gusts, InSight has not seen any significant improvement.

Counterintuitively, operators instructed the lander to slowly trickle more dust and sand from its scoop close to (not on top of) one of the solar panels. As the wind blew, larger particles were carried by the breeze across the panels and bounced off the surface, carrying away some accumulated dust. While that may sound like a minuscule effect, the experiment resulted in about 30 extra watt-hours per Sol. Margins are still thin, and science instruments will still need to be disabled to conserve power. But this boost alone was enough to delay the powerdown for a few weeks.

There are so many exciting missions operating on Mars right now. Though, it’s also fun to take a look back at some of the earliest probes. And we’re always amazed at the resources NASA makes available for us to have some DIY fun.

Hackaday Links Column Banner

Hackaday Links: April 18, 2021

More bad news from Mars this week, and this time not just from Perseverance. Last week the eagerly anticipated first flight of the helicopter Ingenuity was delayed for a couple of days after failing a full-speed spin-up test of its rotors. That appears to have been a bigger deal than initially thought, as it required a significant rewrite of the helicopter’s software. That meant testing, of course, and subsequent upload to the UAV, which at 174 million miles away takes a bit of doing. The good news is that they were able to complete the full-speed rotor test without the full program upload, so we’re one step closer to flight, which may take place as early as Monday morning.

Meanwhile, over at Elysium Planitia, the Mars InSight lander has troubles of its own. The geophysical laboratory, which has been trying to explore the inner structure of Mars since landing in 2018, entered an “emergency hibernation” state this week because of a lack of sufficient power generation. Unlike the radioisotope-powered Perseverance rover, InSight relies on a pair of solar panels for its electricity, and those panels are being obscured by Martian dust. The panels normally get blown clean by Martian winds, but things have been calm lately and the dust has really built up. If this seems like deja vu all over again, it’s probably because a planet-wide dust storm is what killed the plucky Opportunity rover back in 2018. Here’s hoping the wind picks up a little and InSight can get back to work.

Funny what crops up in one’s newsfeed, especially when one is responsible for putting out content that populates others’ newsfeeds. We recently took a look at the dangers of “zinc fever”, a flu-like illness that can crop up after inhaling gasses produced by molten zinc. That resulted in stumbling across an article from last year about mild steel welding fumes being classified as a human carcinogen. This comes from the Health and Safety Executive, a UK government agency concerned with workplace health issues. The release is an interesting read, and it suggests that mild steel fumes can cause not only lung cancer but kidney cancer. The announcement is mainly concerned with British workplaces, of course, but there are some interesting tidbits in there, such as the fact that welding fumes make dust particles so small that they can reach down into the very lowest reaches of lungs, the alveoli where gas exchange occurs. It’s enough to make one invest in PAPR or some kind of fume extractor.

For those of a certain vintage, our first computer was probably something that bore little resemblance to a PC or laptop. It was likely a single-board affair or something like a C64, and acquiring the essential bit of hardware usually left little in the budget for a proper monitor. Little 12″ B&W TVs were a dime a dozen, though, and easily — if grainily — enlisted into service as a monitor by way of an RF modulator. To recreate a little of that magic with modern hardware, Hackaday contributor Adam Zeloof came up with the PiMod Zero, an RF-modulator hat for the Raspberry Pi Zero that turns the component video into an NTSC analog signal. He’s open-sourced the design files, or there’s a CrowdSupply campaign for those who prefer to buy.

And finally, if you somehow traveled back in time to the 1940s with a laptop, how long would it have taken you to crack the Enigma code? Longer than you think, at least according to Dr. Mike Pound over at Computerphile, who released a fascinating video on how Enigma worked and what it took for Turing and the gang at Bletchley to crack the code. We knew some of the details of Enigma’s workings before seeing this video, but Mike’s explanation was really good. And, his explanation of the shortcut method he used to decode an Enigma message made the whole process clearer to us than it’s ever been. Interesting stuff.

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: April 18, 2021”

Hackaday Links Column Banner

Hackaday Links: October 18, 2020

Remember subliminal advertising? The idea was that a movie theater operator would splice a single frame showing a bucket of hot buttered popcorn into a movie, which moviegoers would see and process on a subconcious level and rush to the concession stand to buy the tub o’ petrochemical-glazed starch they suddenly craved. It may or may not work on humans, but it appears to work on cars with advanced driver assistance, which can be spoofed by “phantom street signs” flashed on electronic billboards. Security researchers at Ben Gurion University stuck an image of a stop sign into a McDonald’s ad displayed on a large LCD screen by the side of the road. That was enough to convince a Tesla Model X to put on the brakes as it passed by the sign. The phantom images were on the screen anywhere from an eighth of a second to a quarter second, so these aren’t exactly subliminal messages, but it’s still an interesting attack that bears looking into. And while we’re skeptical about the whole subliminal advertising thing in the first place, for some reason we really want a bacon cheeseburger right now.

Score one for the good guys in the battle against patent trolls. Mycroft AI, makers of open-source voice assistants, proudly announced their latest victory against what they claim are patent trolls. This appears to be one of those deals where a bunch of investors get together and buy random patents, and then claim that a company that actually built something infringes on their intellectual property. Mycroft got a letter from one such entity and decided to fight it; they’ve won two battles so far against the alleged trolls and it looks pretty good going forward. They’re not pulling their punches, either, since Mycroft is planning to go after the other parties for legal expenses and punitive damages under the State of Missouri’s patent troll legislation. Here’s hoping this sends a message to IP squatters that it may not be worth the effort and that their time and money are better spent actually creating useful things.

Good news from Mars — The Mole is finally completely buried! We’ve been following the saga of the HP³, or “Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package” aboard NASA’s Mars InSight lander for quite a while. The self-drilling “Mole”, which is essentially the guts of an impact screwdriver inside a streamlined case, has been having trouble dealing with the Martian regolith, which is simultaneously too soft to offer the friction needed to keep the penetrator in its hole, but also too hard to pierce in places where there is a “duricrust” of chemically amalgamated material below the surface. It took a lot of delicate maneuvers with the lander’s robotic arm to get the Mole back on track, and it’s clearly not out of the woods yet — it needs to get down to three meters depth or so to do the full program of science it was designed for.

If watching Martian soil experiments proceed doesn’t scratch your itch for space science, why not try running your own radio astronomy experiments? Sure, you could build your own radio telescope to do that, but you don’t even have to go that far — just log into PICTOR, the free-to-use radio telescope. It’s a 3.2-m parabolic dish antenna located near Athens, Greece that’s geared toward hydrogen line measurements of the galaxy. You can set up an observation run and have the results mailed back to you for later analysis.

Here’s a fun, quick hack for anyone who hates the constant drone of white noise coming from fans. Build Comics apparently numbers themselves among that crowd, and decided to rig up a switch to turn on their fume extractor only when the soldering iron is removed from its holder. This hack was executed on a classic old Weller soldering station, but could easily be adapted to Hakko or other irons

And finally, if you’ve never listened to a Nobel laureate give a lecture, here’s your chance. Andrea Ghez, co-winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics for her work on supermassive black holes, will be giving the annual Maria Goeppert Mayer lecture at the University of Chicago. She’ll be talking about exactly what she won the Nobel for: “The Monster at the Heart of Our Galaxy”, the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A*. We suspect the talk was booked before the Nobel announcement, so in normal times the room would likely be packed. But one advantage to the age of social distancing is that everything is online, so you can tune into a livestream of the lecture on October 22.

Hackaday Links Column Banner

Hackaday Links: March 29, 2020

It turns out that whacking busted things to fix them works as well on Mars as it does on Earth, as NASA managed to fix its wonky “mole” with a little help from the InSight lander’s robotic arm. Calling it “percussive maintenance” is perhaps a touch overwrought; as we explained last week, NASA prepped carefully for this last-ditch effort to salvage the HP³ experiment, and it was really more of a gentle nudge that a solid smack with the spacecraft’s backhoe bucket. From the before and after pictures, it still looks like the mole is a little off-kilter, and there was talk that the shovel fix was only the first step in a more involved repair. We’ll keep an ear open for more details — this kind of stuff is fascinating, and beats the news from Earth these days by a long shot.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic news isn’t all bad. Yes, the death toll is rising, the number of cases is still growing exponentially, and billions of people are living in fear and isolation. But ironically, we’re getting good at community again, and the hacker community is no exception. People really want to pitch in and do something to help, and we’ve put together some resources to help. Check out our Hackaday How You Can Help spreadsheet, a comprehensive list of what efforts are currently looking for help, plus what’s out there in terms of Discord and Slack channels, lists of materials you might need if you choose to volunteer to build something, and even a list of recent COVID-19 Hackaday articles if you need inspiration. You’ll also want to check out our calendar of free events and classes, which might be a great way to use the isolation time to better your lot.

Individual hackers aren’t the only ones pitching in, of course. Maybe of the companies in the hacker and maker space are doing what they can to help, too. Ponoko is offering heavy discounts for hardware startups to help them survive the current economic pinch. They’ve also enlisted other companies, like Adafruit and PCBWay, to join with them in offering similar breaks to certain customers.

More good news from the fight against COVID-19. Folding@Home, the distributed computing network that is currently working on folding models from many of the SARS-CoV-2 virus proteins, has broken the exaFLOP barrier and is now the most powerful computer ever built. True, not every core is active at any given time, but the 4.6 million cores and 400,000-plus GPUs in the network pushed it over from the petaFLOP range of computers like IBM’s Summit, until recently the most powerful supercomputer ever built. Also good news is that Team Hackaday is forming a large chunk of the soul of this new machine, with 3,900 users and almost a million work units completed. Got an old machine around? Read Mike Sczcys’ article on getting started and join Team Hackaday.

And finally, just because we all need a little joy in our lives right now, and because many of you are going through sports withdrawal, we present what could prove to be the new spectator sports sensation: marble racing. Longtime readers will no doubt recognize the mad genius of Martin and his Marble Machine X, the magnificent marble-dropping music machine that’s intended as a follow-up to the original Marble Machine. It’s also a great racetrack, and Martin does an amazing job doing both the color and turn-by-turn commentary in the mock race. It’s hugely entertaining, and a great tour of the 15,000-piece contraption. And when you’re done with the race, it’s nice to go back to listen to the original Marble Machine tune — it’s a happy little song for these trying times.

Interplanetary Whack-A-Mole: NASA’s High-Stakes Rescue Plan For InSight Lander’s Science Mission

People rightly marvel at modern surgical techniques that let surgeons leverage the power of robotics to repair the smallest structures in the human body through wounds that can be closed with a couple of stitches. Such techniques can even be applied remotely, linking surgeon and robot through a telesurgery link. It can be risky, but it’s often a patient’s only option.

NASA has arrived at a similar inflection point, except that their patient is the Mars InSight lander, and the surgical suite is currently about 58 million kilometers away. The lander’s self-digging “mole” probe needs a little help getting started, so they’re planning a high-stakes rescue attempt that would make the most seasoned telesurgeon blanch: they want to use the lander’s robotic arm to press down on the mole to help it get back on track.

Continue reading “Interplanetary Whack-A-Mole: NASA’s High-Stakes Rescue Plan For InSight Lander’s Science Mission”

Don’t Need A Weatherman To Know Which Way The Wind Blows On Mars

NASA’s latest Mars lander has a very precise weather package, and you can check the daily conditions on Elysium Planitia online. The data however has apparently led to a bit of a mystery. According to Ars Technica, every day at 7AM and 7PM local time, there’s an unexplained atmospheric pressure spike.

The TWINS (Temperature and Wind for InSight) package provided by Spain’s Centro de Astrobiología shows the little spikes regularly since the lander hit the ground in November. They seem to correspond to local sunrise and sunset. Keep in mind, the pressure on Mars is very low — about 1% of Earth’s atmosphere — and scientists have already ruled out instrument problems.

Continue reading “Don’t Need A Weatherman To Know Which Way The Wind Blows On Mars”

InSight Brings New Tech To Mars

Unless you’ve got your ear on the launch pad so to speak, you might not be aware that humanity just launched a new envoy towards the Red Planet. Estimated to touch down in Elysium Planitia on November 26th, the InSight lander is relatively low-key as far as interplanetary missions go. Part of the NASA’s “Discovery Program”, it operates on a considerably lower budget than Flagship missions such as the Curiosity rover; meaning niceties like a big advertising and social media campaign to get the public excited doesn’t get a line item.

Which is a shame, because not only are there much worse things to do with tax money than increase public awareness of scientific endeavours, but because InSight frankly deserves a bit more respect than that. Featuring a number of firsts, the engineers and scientists behind InSight might have been short on dollars, but ambition was in ample supply.

So in honor of the successful launch, let’s take a look at the InSight mission, the unique technology onboard, and the answers scientists hope it will be able to find out there in the black.

Continue reading “InSight Brings New Tech To Mars”