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Hackaday Links: November 12, 2023

Somebody must really have it in for Cruise, because the bad press just keeps piling up for the robo-taxi company. We’ve highlighted many of the company’s woes in this space, from unscheduled rendezvous with various vehicles to random acts of vandalism and stupid AI pranks. The hits kept coming as California regulators pulled the plug on testing, which finally convinced parent company General Motors to put a halt to the whole Cruise testing program nationwide. You’d think that would be enough, but no — now we learn that Cruise cars had a problem recognizing children, to the point that there was concern that one of their autonomous cars could clobber a kid under the right conditions. The fact that they apparently knew this and kept sending cars out for IRL testing is a pretty bad look, to say the least. Sadly but predictably, Cruise has announced layoffs, starting with the employees who supported the now-mothballed robo-taxi fleet, including those who had the unenviable job of cleaning the cars after, err, being enjoyed by customers. It seems a bit wrongheaded to sack people who had no hand in engineering the cars, but then again, there seems to be a lot of wrongheadedness to go around.

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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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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 the  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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Launching Paper Planes From Way, Waaaaaay Up

Every now and again we stumble across something a bit unexpected, and today that’s the fact that there have been quite a few efforts at launching paper planes from as close to space as possible. The current record for the highest paper plane launch is a whopping altitude of 35,043 meters.

That altitude is considerably short of what would be called “space”, but it’s still an awfully long way up and the air there is very thin compared to on the surface. Space is generally (but not universally) considered to be beyond 100 km above sea level, a human-chosen boundary known as the Kármán line. 35 km is a long ways into the stratosphere, but still within Earth’s atmosphere.

Even so, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been efforts to go considerably higher. There was a Japanese proposal to drop airplanes made from special heat-resistant paper from the International Space Station, roughly 400 km above Earth. Success would show that low-speed, low-friction atmospheric reentry is feasible — for pieces of paper, anyway. But one of the challenges is the fact that there is no practical way to track such objects on their way down, and therefore no way to determine where or when they would eventually land.

There have been many other high-altitude paper plane launches, but the current record of 35,043 meters was accomplished by David Green in the United Kingdom as part of a school project. Such altitudes are in the realm of things like weather balloons, and therefore certainly within the reach of hobbyists.

As for the airplanes themselves, the basic design pictured here probably won’t cut it, so why not brush up on designs with the Paper Airplane Design Database? Even if you don’t send them into the stratosphere (or higher), you might find something worth putting through a DIY wind tunnel to see how they perform.

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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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.