Hackaday Links Column Banner

Hackaday Links: May 8, 2022

Russia’s loose cannon of a space boss is sending mixed messages about the future of the International Space Station. Among the conflicting statements from Director-General Dmitry Rogozin, the Roscosmos version of Eric Cartman, is that “the decision has been made” to pull out of the ISS over international sanctions on Russia thanks to its war on Ukraine. But exactly when would this happen? Good question. Rogozin said the agency would honor its commitment to give a year’s notice before pulling out, which based on the current 2024 end-of-mission projections, means we might hear something definitive sometime next year. Then again, Rogozin also said last week that Roscosmos would be testing a one-orbit rendezvous technique with the ISS in 2023 or 2024; it currently takes a Soyuz about four orbits to catch up to the ISS. So which is it? Your guess is as good as anyones at this point.

At what point does falsifying test data on your products stop being a “pattern of malfeasance” and become just the company culture? Apparently, something other than the 40 years that Mitsubishi Electric has allegedly been doctoring test results on some of their transformers. The company has confessed to the testing issue, and also to “improper design” of the transformers, going back to the 1980s and covering about 40% of the roughly 8,400 transformers it made and shipped worldwide. The tests that were falsified were to see if the transformers could hold up thermally and withstand overvoltage conditions. The good news is, unless you’re a power systems engineer, these aren’t transformers you’d use in any of your designs — they’re multi-ton, multi-story beasts that run the grid. The bad news is, they’re the kind of transformers used to run the grid, so nobody’s stuff will work if one of these fails. There’s no indication whether any of the sketchy units have failed, but the company is “considering” contacting owners and making any repairs that are necessary.

For your viewing pleasure, you might want to catch the upcoming documentary series called “A League of Extraordinary Makers.” The five-part series seeks to explain the maker movement to the world, and features quite a few of the luminaries of our culture, including Anouk Wipprecht, Bunnie Huang, Jimmy DiResta, and the gang at Makers Asylum in Mumbai, which we assume would include Anool Mahidharia. It looks like the series will focus on the real-world impact of hacking, like the oxygen concentrators hacked up by Makers Asylum for COVID-19 response, and the influence the movement has had on the wider culture. Judging by the trailer below, it looks pretty interesting. Seems like it’ll be released on YouTube as well as other channels this weekend, so check it out.

But, if you’re looking for something to watch that doesn’t require as much commitment, you might want to check out this look at the crawler-transporter that NASA uses to move rockets to the launch pad. We’ve all probably seen these massive beasts before, moving at a snail’s pace along a gravel path with a couple of billion dollars worth of rocket stacked up and teetering precariously on top. What’s really cool is that these things are about as old as the Space Race itself, and still going strong. We suppose it’s easier to make a vehicle last almost 60 years when you only ever drive it at half a normal walking speed.

And finally, if you’re wondering what your outdoor cat gets up to when you’re not around — actually, strike that; it’s usually pretty obvious what they’ve been up to by the “presents” they bring home to you. But if you’re curious about the impact your murder floof is having on the local ecosystem, this Norwegian study of the “catscape” should be right up your alley. They GPS-tagged 92 outdoor cats — which they dryly but hilariously describe as “non-feral and food-subsidized” — and created maps of both the ranges of individual animals, plus a “population-level utilization distribution,” which we think is a euphemism for “kill zone.” Surprisingly, the population studied spent almost 80% of their time within 50 meters of home, which makes sense — after all, they know where those food subsidies are coming from.

Axiom’s Private ISS Mission Was No Space Vacation

In an era where anyone with deep enough pockets can hitch a ride to the edge of space and back, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Axiom’s Ax-1 mission to the International Space Station was little more than a pleasure cruise for the four crew members. Granted it’s a higher and faster flight than the suborbital hops that the likes of William Shatner and Jeff Bezos have been embarking on, but surely it must still be little more than a publicity stunt organized by folks with more money than they know what to do with?

Thankfully, there’s a bit more to it than that. While the mission was privately funded, the Ax-1 crew weren’t just orbital sightseers. For one thing, there was plenty of real-world experience packed into the SpaceX Dragon: the mission was commanded by Michael López-Alegría, a veteran NASA astronaut, and crew members Larry Connor and Eytan Stibbe are both accomplished pilots, with the latter clocking in thousands of hours on various fighter jets during his time with the Israeli Air Force.

But more importantly, they had work to do. Each member of the crew was assigned a list of experiments they were to conduct, ranging from medical observations to the testing of new hardware. Of course there was some downtime — after all, if you spent $50 million on a ticket to space, you’d expect to have at least a little fun — but this wasn’t just a photo op: Axiom was looking for results. There was no hiding from the boss either, as López-Alegría is not just the Mission Commander, he’s also Axiom’s Vice President of Business Development.

Which makes sense when you consider the company’s ultimate goal is to use the ISS as a springboard to accelerate the development of their own commercial space station. The data collected during Ax-1 is going to be critical to Axiom’s path forward, and with their first module already under construction and expected to launch by 2025, there’s no time to waste.

So what did the crew members of the this privately funded mission to the International Space Station accomplish? Let’s take a look at a few of the more interesting entries from the docket.

Continue reading “Axiom’s Private ISS Mission Was No Space Vacation”

NASA Sets Eyes On Deep Space With Admin Shuffle

Since the Apollo 17 crew returned from the Moon in 1972, human spaceflight has been limited to low Earth orbit (LEO). Whether they were aboard Skylab, Mir, the Space Shuttle, a Soyuz capsule, or the International Space Station, no crew has traveled more than 600 kilometers (372 miles) or so from the Earth’s surface in nearly 50 years. Representatives of the world’s space organizations would say they have been using Earth orbit as a testing ground for the technology that will be needed for more distant missions, but those critical of our seemingly stagnated progress into the solar system would say we’ve simply been stuck.

Many have argued that the International Space Station has consumed an inordinate amount of NASA’s time and budget, making it all but impossible for the agency to formulate concrete plans for crewed missions beyond Earth orbit. The Orion and SLS programs are years behind schedule, and the flagship deep space excursions that would have utilized them, such as the much-touted Asteroid Redirect Mission, never materialized. The cracks are even starting to form in the Artemis program, which appears increasingly unlikely to meet its original goal of returning astronauts to the Moon’s surface by 2024.

But with the recent announcement that NASA will be splitting the current Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate into two distinct groups, the agency may finally have the administrative capacity it needs to juggle their existing LEO interests and deep space aspirations. With construction of the ISS essentially complete, and the commercial spaceflight market finally coming together, the reorganization will allow NASA to start shifting the focus of their efforts to more distant frontiers such as the Moon and Mars.

Continue reading “NASA Sets Eyes On Deep Space With Admin Shuffle”

Astro Pi Mk II, The New Raspberry Pi Hardware Headed To The Space Station

Back in 2015, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Tim Peake brought a pair of specially equipped Raspberry Pi computers, nicknamed Izzy and Ed, onto the International Space Station and invited students back on Earth to develop software for them as part of the Astro Pi Challenge. To date, more than 50,000 young people have had their code run on one of the single-board computers; making them arguably the most popular, and surely the most traveled, Raspberry Pis in the solar system.

While Izzy and Ed are still going strong, the ESA has decided it’s about time these veteran Raspberries finally get the retirement they’re due. Set to make the journey to the ISS in December aboard a SpaceX Cargo Dragon, the new Astro Pi MK II hardware looks quite similar to the original 2015 version at first glance. But a peek inside its 6063-grade aluminium flight case reveals plenty of new and improved gear, including a Raspberry Pi 4 Model B with 8 GB RAM.

The beefier hardware will no doubt be appreciated by students looking to push the envelope. While the majority of Python programs submitted to the Astro Pi program did little more than poll the current reading from the unit’s temperature or humidity sensors and scroll messages for the astronauts on the Astro Pi’s LED matrix, some of the more advanced projects were aimed at performing legitimate space research. From using the onboard camera to image the Earth and make weather predictions to attempting to map the planet’s magnetic field, code submitted from teams of older students will certainly benefit from the improved computational performance and expanded RAM of the newest Pi.

As with the original Astro Pi, the ESA and the Raspberry Pi Foundation have shared plenty of technical details about these space-rated Linux boxes. After all, students are expected to develop and test their code on essentially the same hardware down here on Earth before it gets beamed up to the orbiting computers. So let’s take a quick look at the new hardware inside Astro Pi MK II, and what sort of research it should enable for students in 2022 and beyond.

Continue reading “Astro Pi Mk II, The New Raspberry Pi Hardware Headed To The Space Station”

Hackaday Links Column Banner

Hackaday Links: September 12, 2021

The last thing an astronaut or cosmonaut on the International Space Stations wants to hear from one of their crewmates is, “Do you smell plastic burning?” But that’s apparently what happened this week aboard the increasingly problematic spacecraft, as the burning smell and visible smoke spread from the Russian Zvezda module to the American side of town. The reports say it occurred while charging the station’s batteries, and we all know how dicey that can get. But apparently, the situation resolved itself somehow, as normal operations continued soon after the event. Between reports of cracks, air leaks, problems with attitude control, and even accusations of sabotage, the ISS is really starting to show its age.

Speaking of burning and batteries, normally a story about burning Tesla batteries wouldn’t raise our eyebrows much. But this story out of California introduces a potential failure mode for Tesla batteries that we hadn’t considered before. It seems a semi-truck with a load of Tesla batteries lost its brakes on Interstate 80 in the Sierra Nevada mountains and ended up flipping across the highway. Video from the scene shows the cargo, which looks like replacement batteries or perhaps batteries salvaged from wrecked cars, scattered across the highway on their shipping pallets. A fire was reported, but it’s not clear whether it was one of the batteries which had gotten compromised in the crash, or if it was something other than the batteries. Still, we hadn’t considered the potential for disaster while shipping batteries like that.

Attention all GNURadio fans — GRCon21 is rapidly approaching. Unlike most of the conferences over the last year and half, GRCon21 will actually be both live and online. We always love the post-conference dump of talks, which cover such a wide range of topics and really dive deeply into so many cool areas. We’re especially looking forward to the SETI talks, and we’re pleased to see our friend Hash, who was on the Hack Chat a while back, scheduled to talk about his smart-meter hacking efforts. The conference starts on September 20 and is being held in Charlotte, North Carolina, and virtually of course. If you attend, make sure to drop tips to your favorite talks in the tips line so we can share them with everyone.

We got a tip this week on a video about how 1/4-wave tuning stubs work. It’s a simple demonstration using a length of coax, a signal generator, and an oscilloscope to show how an unterminated feedline can reflect RF back to the transmitter, and how that can be used to build super-simple notch filters and impedance transformers. We love demos that make the mysteries of RF a little simpler — W2AEW’s videos come to mind, like this one on standing waves.

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: September 12, 2021”

As ISS Enters Its Final Years, Politics Take Center Stage

There was a time when the idea of an international space station would have been seen as little more than fantasy. After all, the human spaceflight programs of the United States and the Soviet Union were started largely as a Cold War race to see which country would be the first to weaponize low Earth orbit and secure what military strategists believed would be the ultimate high ground. Those early rockets, not so far removed from intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), were fueled as much by competition as they were kerosene and liquid oxygen.

Space Shuttle docked to Mir space station in 1995.
Atlantis docked to Mir in 1995.

Luckily, cooler heads prevailed. The Soviet Almaz space stations might have carried a 23 mm cannon adapted from tail-gun of the Tu-22 bomber to ward off any American vehicles that got too close, but the weapon was never fired in anger. Eventually, the two countries even saw the advantage of working together. In 1975, a joint mission saw the final Apollo capsule dock with a Soyuz by way of a special adapter designed to make up for the dissimilar docking hardware used on the two spacecraft.

Relations further improved following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, with America’s Space Shuttle making nine trips to the Russian Mir space station between 1995 and 1997. A new era of cooperation had begun between the world’s preeminent space-fairing countries, and with the engineering lessons learned during the Shuttle-Mir program, engineers from both space agencies began laying the groundwork for what would eventually become the International Space Station.

Unfortunately after more than twenty years of continuous US and Russian occupation of the ISS, it seems like the cracks are finally starting to form in this tentative scientific alliance. With accusations flying over who should take the blame for a series of serious mishaps aboard the orbiting laboratory, the outlook for future international collaboration in Earth orbit and beyond hasn’t been this poor since the height of the Cold War.

Continue reading “As ISS Enters Its Final Years, Politics Take Center Stage”

ISS Gets Roll-Out Solar Panels In Post-Shuttle Fix

Astronauts are currently installing the first of six new solar arrays on the International Space Station (ISS), in a bid to bolster the reduced power generation capability of the original panels which have now been in space for over twenty years. But without the Space Shuttle to haul them into orbit, developing direct replacements for the Stations iconic 34 meter (112 foot) solar “wings” simply wasn’t an option. So NASA has turned to next-generation solar arrays that roll out like a tape measure and are light and compact enough for the SpaceX Dragon to carry them into orbit.

Space Shuttle Atlantis carrying part of the ISS truss.

Considering how integral the Space Shuttle was to its assembly, it’s hardly a surprise that no major modules have been added to the ISS since the fleet of winged spacecraft was retired in 2011. The few small elements that have been installed, such as the new International Docking Adapters and the Nanoracks “Bishop” airlock, have had to fit into the rear unpressurized compartment of the Dragon capsule. While a considerable limitation, NASA had planned for this eventuality, with principle construction of the ISS always intended to conclude upon the retirement of the Shuttle.

But the International Space Station was never supposed to last as long as it has, and some components are starting to show their age. The original solar panels are now more than five years beyond their fifteen year service life, and while they’re still producing sufficient power to keep the Station running in its current configuration, their operational efficiency has dropped considerably with age. So in January NASA announced an ambitious timeline for performing upgrades the space agency believes are necessary to keep up with the ever-increasing energy demands of the orbiting laboratory.

Continue reading “ISS Gets Roll-Out Solar Panels In Post-Shuttle Fix”