On An Aging Space Station, Air Leaks Become Routine

Anyone who’s ever owned an older car will know the feeling: the nagging worry at the back of your mind that today might be the day that something important actually stops working. Oh, it’s not the little problems that bother you: the rips in the seats, the buzz out of the rear speakers, and that slow oil leak that might have annoyed you at first, but eventually just blend into the background. So long as the car starts and can get you from point A to B, you can accept the sub-optimal performance that inevitably comes with age. Someday the day will come when you can no longer ignore the mounting issues and you’ll have to get a new vehicle, but today isn’t that day.

Looking at developments over the last few years one could argue that the International Space Station, while quite a bit more advanced and costly than the old beater parked in your driveway, is entering a similar phase of its lifecycle. The first modules of the sprawling orbital complex were launched all the way back in 1998, and had a design lifetime of just 15 years. But with no major failures and the Station’s overall condition remaining stable, both NASA and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency have agreed to several mission extensions. The current agreement will see crews living and working aboard the Station until 2030, but as recently as January, NASA and Roscosmos officials were quoted as saying a further extension isn’t out of the question.

Still, there’s no debating that the ISS isn’t in the same shape it was when construction was formally completed in 2011. A perfect case in point: the fact that the rate of air leaking out of the Russian side of the complex has recently doubled is being treated as little more than a minor annoyance, as mission planners know what the problem is and how to minimize the impact is has on Station operations.

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ISS Mimic Brings Space Station Down To Earth

Built at a cost of more than $150 billion over the last twenty-five years, the International Space Station is arguably one of humanity’s greatest engineering triumphs. Unfortunately, unlike Earthly construction feats such as the Hoover Dam, Burj Khalifa, or the Millau Viaduct, you can’t visit it in person to really appreciate its scale and complexity. Well, not unless you’ve got the $50 million or so to spare to buy a seat on a Dragon capsule.

Which is why the team behind the ISS Mimic project are trying to make the ISS a bit more relatable. The open source project consists of a 3D printable 1:100 model of the Station, which is linked to the telemetry coming down from the real thing. A dozen motors in the model rotate the solar arrays and radiators to match the positions of their full-scale counterparts, while LEDs light up to indicate the status of various onboard systems.

To learn more about the ISS Mimic, team members Bryan Murphy, Sam Treadgold, and Tristan Moody stopped by this week’s Hack Chat to bring us up to speed on the past, present, and future of this fascinating project.

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A scale model of the International Space Station

This Model Mimics The International Space Station

It’s not an overstatement to say that the International Space Station (ISS for short) is an amazing feat of engineering, especially considering that it has been going for over two decades. The international collaboration isn’t just for the governments, either, as many images, collected data and even some telemetry have been made available to the public. This telemetry inspired [Bryan Murphy] and his team to create the ISS MIMIC, a 1:100 scale model of the ISS that reflects its space counterpart.

The model, covered by [3D Printing Nerd] after the break, receives telemetry from the real ISS and actually reflects the orientation of the solar panels accordingly! It also uses this entirely public information to show other things like battery charge level, power production, position above the earth and more on a display. An extra detail we appreciated is the LEDs near the solar panels, which are red, blue or white to indicate using battery, charging battery and full battery respectively. The ISS orbits the earth once every 90 minutes, which can be seen by the LEDs changing color as the ISS enters the shadow of the earth, or exits it.

What could you do to make this better you might ask? Make the it open-source of course! The ISS MIMIC is fully open-source and uses common tools like 3D printing with PLA, Raspberry Pis and Arduinos to make it as accessible as possible for education (and hackers). Naturally, the goal of this project is to educate, which is why it’s open-source and aims to teach programming, electronics, mechatronics and problem solving.

Video after the break.
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Listening To The ISS On The Cheap

Like any hobby, amateur radio has no upper bounds on what you can spend getting geared up. Shacks worth tens of thousands of dollars are easy to come by, and we’ll venture a guess that there are hams out there pushing six figures with their investment in equipment. But hands down, the most expensive amateur radio station ever has to be the one aboard theĀ  International Space Station.

So what do you need to talk to a $100 billion space station? As it turns out, about $60 worth of stuff will do, as [saveitforparts] shows us in the video below. The cross-band repeater on the ISS transmits in the 70-cm ham band, meaning all that’s needed to listen in on the proceedings is a simple “handy talkie” transceiver like the $25-ish Baofeng shown. Tuning it to the 437.800-MHz downlink frequency with even a simple whip antenna should get you some reception when the ISS passes over.

In our experience, the stock Baofeng antenna isn’t up to the job, so something better like the Nagoya shown in the video is needed. Better still is a three-element Yagi tuned down slightly with the help of a NanoVNA; coupled with data on when the ISS will be within line-of-sight, picking up the near-constant stream of retransmissions from the station as Earth-based hams work it should be a snap — even though [saveitforparts] only listened to the downlink frequency here, for just a bit more of an investment it’s also possible for licensed hams to uplink to the ISS on 145.900 MHz.

For those who want a slightly higher level of difficulty, [saveitforparts] also has some tips on automating tracking with an old motorized mount for CCTV cameras. Pitchfork notwithstanding, it’s not the best antenna tracker, but it has promise, and we’re eager to see how it pans out — sorry. But in general, the barrier to entry for getting into space communications is so low that you could easily make this a weekend project. We’ve been discussing this and other projects on the new #ham-shack channel over on the Hackaday Discord. You should pop over there and check it out — we’d be happy to see you there.

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Space Shuttle Atlantis connected to Russia's Mir Space Station as photographed by the Mir-19 crew on July 4, 1995. (Credit: NASA)

The Soviet Space Station Program: From Military Satellites To The ISS

When the Space Race kicked off in earnest in the 1950s, in some ways it was hard to pin down where sci-fi began and reality ended. As the first artificial satellites began zipping around the Earth, this was soon followed by manned spaceflight, first in low Earth orbit, then to the Moon with manned spaceflights to Mars and Venus already in the planning. The first space stations were being launched following or alongside Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and countless other books and movies during the 1960s and 1970s such as Moonraker which portrayed people living (and fighting) out in space.

Perhaps ironically, considering the portrayal of space stations in Western media, virtually all of the space stations launched during the 20th century were Soviet, leaving Skylab as the sole US space station to this day. The Soviet Union established a near-permanent presence of cosmonauts in Earth orbit since the 1970s as part of the Salyut program. These Salyut space stations also served as cover for the military Almaz space stations that were intended to be used for reconnaissance as well as weapon platforms.

Although the US unquestionably won out on racing the USSR to the Moon, the latter nation’s achievements granted us invaluable knowledge on how to make space stations work, which benefits us all to this very day.

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The International Space Station Is Always Up There

Thanks to its high orbital inclination, the International Space Station (ISS) eventually passes over most inhabited parts of the Earth. Like other artificial satellites, though, it’s typically only visible overhead during passes at sunrise and sunset. If you’d like to have an idea of where it is beyond the times that it’s directly visible, take a look at this tabletop ISS tracking system created by [dpelgrift].

The tracker uses an Adafruit Feather inside its enclosure along with a Featherwing ESP32 WiFi co-processor. Together they direct a 3D printed rocket-shaped pointing device up and down by way of a SG90 micro-servo, while a 28BYJ-48 stepper motor provides rotation.

This setup allows it to take in all of the information required to calculate the Station’s current position. The device uses the current latitude and longitude, as well as its compass heading, and combines that with data pulled off the net to calculate which direction it should be pointing.

While it might seem like a novelty or programming challenge, this project could be useful for plenty of people who just want to keep track so they know when to run outside and see the Station pass by, or even by those who use the radio repeater aboard the ISS. The repeater on the ISS and plenty of other satellites are available to amateur radio operators for long-distance VHF and UHF communication like we’ve seen in projects like these.

Damaged Soyuz May Leave Crew Without A Ride Home

Though oddly beautiful in its own way, it’s a sight no astronaut wants to see: their spacecraft, the only way they have to return to Earth, ejecting countless iridescent droplets of something into space.

When the crew of Apollo 13 saw their craft literally bleeding out on their trip to the Moon it was clear the mission, and ultimately their lives, were in real jeopardy. Luckily the current situation is not nearly as dire, as the leaking Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft docked to the International Space Station doesn’t pose any immediate danger to those aboard the orbiting laboratory. But it’s still an unprecedented situation, and getting its crew home will require engineers on the ground to make some very difficult decisions.

This situation is still developing, and neither NASA nor their Russian counterpart Roscosmos have released much in the way of specifics. But we can make some educated guesses from the video and images we’ve seen of the stricken Soyuz capsule, and from what’s been shown to the public so far, things aren’t looking good.

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