Hackaday Links: November 29, 2020

While concerns over COVID-19 probably kept many a guest room empty this Thanksgiving, things were a little different aboard the International Space Station. The four-seat SpaceX Crew Dragon is able to carry one more occupant to the orbiting outpost than the Russian Soyuz, which has lead to a somewhat awkward sleeping arrangement: there are currently seven people aboard a Station that only has six crew cabins. To remedy the situation, Commander Michael Hopkins has decided to sleep inside the Crew Dragon itself, technically giving himself the most spacious personal accommodations on the Station. This might seem a little hokey, but it’s actually not without precedent; when the Shuttle used to dock with the ISS, the Commander would customarily sleep in the cockpit so they would be ready to handle any potential emergency.

Speaking of off-world visitation, the Hayabusa2 spacecraft is nearly home after six years in space. It won’t be staying long though, the deep-space probe is only in the neighborhood to drop off a sample of material collected from the asteroid Ryugu. If all goes according to plan, the small capsule carrying the samples will renter the atmosphere and land in the South Australian desert on December 6th, while Hayabusa2 heads back into the black for an extended mission that would have it chasing down new asteroids into the 2030s.

Moving on to a story that almost certainly didn’t come from space, a crew from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources recently discovered a strange metal monolith hidden in the desert. While authorities were careful not to disclose the exact coordinates of the object, it didn’t take Internet sleuths long to determine its location, in part thanks to radar data that allowed them to plot the flight path of a government helicopters. Up close inspections that popped up on social media revealed that the object seemed to be hollow, was held together with rivets, and was likely made of aluminum. It’s almost certainly a guerrilla art piece, though there are also theories that it could have been a movie or TV prop (several productions are known to have filmed nearby) or even some kind of military IR/radar target. We may never know for sure though, as the object disappeared soon after.

Even if you’re not a fan of Apple, it’s hard not to be interested in the company’s new M1 chip. Hackers have been clamoring for more ARM laptops and desktops for years, and with such a major player getting in the game, it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing less luxurious brands taking the idea seriously. After the recent discovery that the ARM version of Ubuntu can run on the new M1 Macs with a simple virtualization layer, it looks like we won’t have to wait too long before folks start chipping away at the Walled Garden.

In the market for a three phase servo controller? A reader who’s working on a robotics project worth as much as a nice house recently wrote in to tell us about an imported driver that goes for just $35. Technically it’s designed for driving stepper motors, but it can also (somewhat inefficiently) run servos. Our informant tells us that you’d pay at least $2,000 for a similar servo driver from Allen-Bradley, so the price difference certainly seems to make up for the hit in performance.

Finally, some bittersweet news as we’ve recently learned that Universal Radio is closing. After nearly 40 years, proprietors Fred and Barbara Osterman have decided it’s time to start winding things down. The physical store in Worthington, Ohio will be shuttered on Monday, but the online site will remain up for awhile longer to sell off the remaining stock. The Ostermans have generously supported many radio clubs and organizations over the years, and they’ll certainly be missed. Still, it’s a well-deserved retirement and the community wishes them the best.

Short Video Recaps A Long Tradition Of Space Hacks

Human spaceflight has always been, and still remains, a risky endeavor. We mitigate risk by being as prepared as we can. Every activity is planned, reviewed, and practiced long before any rocket engines are ignited. But space has a history of not cooperating with plans, and thus there is a corresponding history of hacks to get missions back on track. YouTube space fan [Scott Manley] recaps some of his favorites in How a $2 Toothbrush Saved the ISS and Other Unbelievable Space Hacks.

The introduction explained this compilation was motivated by the latest International Space Station drama, where an elusive air leak has finally been tracked down. Air leaks are obviously much more worrying in a space station than in, say, a bicycle tire. Thus there exists a wide array of tools to track down leaks but they couldn’t find this one. Reportedly the breakthrough came from an improvised airflow visualization tool: leaves from a cut-open tea bag. Normally small floating particles are forbidden in space because they might end up in troublesome places. (Eyes, noses, onboard equipment…) Apparently the necessity of the hack outweighed the rules here.

Tea leaves are but the latest in a long line of hacks devised in the course of space missions, because things don’t always go according to the original plan. Or even any of the large volume of contingency plans. Solutions have to be cobbled together from resources on hand, because when we’re in space, what we brought is all we have. From directly editing production code during Apollo 14, to a field-built replacement fender for the Apollo 17 Lunar Rover Vehicle (top picture), to the $2 toothbrush pressed into service as metal debris cleaner. The mission must go on!

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Orbital Tracking On The NES

It’s easy to dismiss the original Nintendo Entertainment System as just, well, an entertainment system. But in reality the 6502 based console wasn’t so far removed from early home computers like the Apple II and Commodore 64, and Nintendo even briefly flirted with creating software and accessories geared towards general purpose computing. Though in the end, Mario and friends obviously won out.

Still, we’re willing to bet that nobody at Nintendo ever imagined their plucky little game system would one day be used to track the course of a space station in low Earth orbit. But that’s precisely what [Vi Grey] has done with his latest project, which is part of his overall effort to demonstrate the unexpected capabilities of the iconic NES. While you’ll need a bit of extra hardware to run the program on a real console, there’s no fundamental trickery that would have kept some developer from doing this in 1985 if they’d wanted to.

Raspberry Pi Zero and TAStm32

If you want to see your own 8-bit view of the International Space Station, the easiest way is with an emulator. In that case, [Vi] explains how you can load up his Lua script in Mesen or FCEUX to provide the ROM with the necessary tracking data from the Internet.

To run it on a real NES you’ll not only need some type of flash cart to get the ROM loaded, but also a TAStm32 board that’s used for tool-assisted speedruns. This allows the computer to essentially “type” the orbital data into the NES by emulating rapid controller button presses. That might seem like a tall order, but it’s important to note that neither device requires you to modify the original console; the code itself runs on a 100% stock NES.

If tracking spacecraft isn’t your thing, perhaps you’d be more interested in the some of the work [Vi] has previously done on the NES. We’re particularly fond of his polyglot ROM that is a ZIP file of its own source code.

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SpaceX Sending Tom Cruise To The Space Station In 2021

Several months after NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine confirmed the project was in the works, sources are now reporting that Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman will officially be making the trip to the International Space Station in October of 2021 to film scenes for an as of yet untitled movie. Cruise and Liman previously worked together on the science fiction spectacle Edge of Tomorrow in 2014, which may give us a hint at what the duo are planning for their trip to the final frontier.

Industry insiders claim that the two film makers and potentially a female co-star will fly aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule under the command of Michael López-Alegría, a veteran astronaut who currently holds the American record for number and duration of extra-vehicular activities (EVAs). The mission is being organized by Axiom Space, which previously announced they would perform a series of privately funded flights to the ISS as a precursor to constructing their own commercial expansion to the orbiting laboratory.

Mars One living units under regolith
This never happened.

Of course, with more than a year before liftoff, anything could happen. SpaceX has been linked, officially or otherwise, to several private trips to space that literally and figuratively never got off the ground.

Mars-One was touting concept art that showed a fleet of modified SpaceX Dragons on the Red Planet as far back as 2012, and Elon Musk himself once announced that the Falcon Heavy would send private passengers on a trip around the Moon by the end of 2018. But to date, a pair of NASA astronauts have been the only humans to actually fly on SpaceX hardware.

Undoubtedly, some will see this flight of fancy as a waste of valuable resources. After all, there’s no shortage of scientists and researchers who would be more deserving of trip to a space than Jerry Maguire. But according to Bridenstine, the hope is that a big budget Hollywood film featuring scenes shot on the ISS could do for NASA what Top Gun once did for the Navy:

There was a day when I was in elementary school and I saw Top Gun. From that day, I knew I was going to be a Navy pilot. If we can get Tom Cruise to inspire an elementary kid to join the Navy and be a pilot, why can’t we get Tom Cruise to inspire the next Elon Musk? That’s what we need.

While we might not all agree on who the next generation of engineers should look to for inspiration, the impact that Top Gun had on Navy recruitment in the 80s and 90s is well established. If sending Tom Cruise to space for a few weeks might help inspire more kids to look into a STEM education, it’s probably worth a shot. Though it seems like Tom Hanks and his fellow Apollo 13 crew mates did a respectable enough job celebrating the incredible engineering behind NASA’s greatest triumph without actually going into orbit themselves.

Cousteau’s Proteus Will Be The ISS Of The Seas

The Earth’s oceans are a vast frontier that brims with possibilities for the future of medicine, ocean conservation, and food production. They remain largely unexplored because of the physical limits of scuba diving. Humans can only dive for a few hours each day, and every minute spent breathing compressed air at depth must be paid for with a slower ascent to the surface. Otherwise, divers could develop decompression sickness from nitrogen expanding in the bloodstream.

An illustration of the Conshelf 3 habitat. Image via Medium

In the 1960s, world-famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau built a series of small underwater habitats to extend the time that he and other researchers were able to work. These sea labs were tethered to a support ship with a cable that provided air and power.

Cousteau’s first sea lab, Conshelf 1 (Continental Shelf Station) held two people and was stationed 33 feet deep off the coast of Marseilles, France. Conshelf 2 sheltered six people and spent a total of six weeks under the Red Sea at two different depths.

Conshelf 3 was Cousteau’s most ambitious habitat design, because it was nearly self-sufficient compared to the first two. It accommodated six divers for three weeks at a time and sat 336 feet deep off the coast of France, near Nice. Conshelf 3 was built in partnership with a French petrochemical company to study the viability of stationing humans for underwater oil drilling (before we had robots for that), and included a mock oil rig on the nearby ocean floor for exercises.

Several underwater habitats have come and gone in the years since the Conshelf series, but each has been built for a specific research project or group of tasks. There’s never really been a permanent habitat established for general research into the biochemistry of the ocean.

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The ISS Is Getting A New WC

Every home needs renovations after a few decades, and the International Space Station is no different. This fall, they’ll be getting a new Universal Waste Management System (UWMS), aka a new toilet.

Though the news coincides with increased traffic to the ISS, this move stems from a more serious issue with bacterial contamination during longer-term space travel. Today’s ISS toilets already recycle urine back into potable water and scrub the air reclaimed from solid waste as it gets compacted and stored. The new UWMS will act more like a food dehydrator, reducing the water content as much as possible to save on space, and petrifying the poo to inactivate the bacteria.

The current commode on the American side of the ISS was designed in the 1990s and is based on the Space Shuttle’s facilities. It has a funnel with a hose for urine and a bag-lined canister with a seat for solid waste, both of which are heavily vacuum-assisted.

Though the current toilet still does everything it’s supposed to do, there is room for improvement. For instance, women find it difficult to engage both parts of the system at the same time, and almost everyone prefers the toe bars on the Russian toilet to the more encumbering thigh bars on the American throne. Also, the current commode’s interface is more complicated than it needs to be, which takes up valuable crew time. Continue reading “The ISS Is Getting A New WC”

NASA’s Long-Delayed Return To Human Spaceflight

With the launch of the SpaceX Demo-2 mission, the United States has achieved something it hasn’t done in nearly a decade: put a human into low Earth orbit with a domestic booster and vehicle. It was a lapse in capability that stretched on far longer than anyone inside or outside of NASA could have imagined. Through a series of delays and program cancellations, the same agency that put boot prints on the Moon and built the iconic Space Shuttle had been forced to rely on Russia to carry its astronauts into space since 2011.

NASA would still be waiting to launch its own astronauts had they relied on America’s traditional aerospace giants to get the job done. The inaugural flight of the Boeing CST-100 “Starliner” to the International Space Station in December was an embarrassing failure that came perilously close to losing the unmanned capsule. A later investigation found that sloppy software development and inconsistent testing had caused at least two major failures during the mission, which ultimately had to be cut short as the vehicle couldn’t even reach the altitude of the ISS, to say nothing of making a docking attempt. NASA and Boeing have since agreed to attempt another test of the CST-100 sometime before the end of the year, though a delay into 2021 seems almost inevitable due to the global pandemic.

But America’s slow return to human spaceflight can’t be blamed on the CST-100, or even Boeing, for that matter. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA has been hindered by politics and indecisiveness. With a constantly evolving mandate from the White House, the agency’s human spaceflight program has struggled to make significant progress towards any one goal.

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