When you stop to think about the history of flight, it really is amazing that the first successful flight the Wright brothers made on a North Carolina beach to Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon spanned a mere 66 years. That we were able to understand and apply the principles of aerodynamics well enough to advance from delicate wood and canvas structures to rockets powerful enough to escape from the gravity well that had trapped us for eons is a powerful testament to human ingenuity and the drive to explore.
Ingenuity has again won the day in the history of flight, this time literally as the namesake helicopter that tagged along on the Mars 2020 mission has successfully flown over the Red Planet. The flight lasted a mere 40 seconds, but proved that controlled, powered flight is possible on Mars, a planet with an atmosphere that’s as thin as the air is at 100,000 feet (30 km) above sea level on Earth. It’s an historic accomplishment, and the engineering behind it is worth a deeper look.
Continue reading “The Wright Stuff: First Powered Flight On Mars Is A Success”
There was a lot of enthusiasm surrounding Mars arrival of Perseverance rover, our latest robotic interplanetary explorer. Eager to capitalize on this excitement, NASA JPL released a lot of information to satisfy curiosity of the general public. But making that material widely accessible also meant leaving out many technical details. People who crave just a little more can head over to How NASA’s Perseverance Landed On Mars: An Aerospace Engineer Breaks It Down In Fascinating Detail published by Jalopnik.
NASA JPL’s public materials mostly explained the mission in general terms. Even parts with scientific detail were largely constrained for a target audience of students K-12. Anyone craving more details can certainly find them online, but they would quickly find themselves mired in highly technical papers written by aerospace engineers and planetary geologists for their peers. There is a gap in between those extremes, and this write-up slots neatly in that gap. Author [Brian Kirby] is our helpful aerospace engineer who compiled many technical references into a single narrative of the landing, explained at a level roughly equivalent to undergraduate level math and science courses.
We get more details on why the target landing site is both geologically interesting and technically treacherous, requiring development of new landing smarts that will undoubtedly help future explorers both robotic and human. The complex multi-step transition from orbit to surface is explained in terms of managing kinetic energy. Condensing a wide range of problems to a list of numbers that helps us understand why, for example, a parachute was necessary yet not enough to take a rover all the way to the surface.
Much of this information is known to longtime enthusiasts, but we all had to get our start somewhere. This is a good on-ramp for a new generation of space fans, and together we look forward to Perseverance running down its long and exciting to-do list. Including flying a helicopter, packing up surface samples of Mars, and seeing if we can extract usable oxygen from Martian atmosphere.
For the past seven months, NASA’s newest Mars rover has been closing in on its final destination. As Perseverance eats up the distance and heads for the point in space that Mars will occupy on February 18, 2021, the rover has been more or less idle. Tucked safely into its aeroshell, we’ve heard little from the lonely space traveler lately, except for a single audio clip of the whirring of its cooling pumps.
Its placid journey across interplanetary space stands in marked contrast to what lies just ahead of it. Like its cousin and predecessor Curiosity, Perseverance has to successfully negotiate a gauntlet of orbital and aerodynamic challenges, and do so without any human intervention. NASA mission planners call it the Seven Minutes of Terror, since the whole process will take just over 400 seconds from the time it encounters the first wisps of the Martian atmosphere to when the rover is safely on the ground within Jezero Crater.
For that to happen, and for the two-billion-dollar mission to even have a chance at fulfilling its primary objective of searching for signs of ancient Martian life, every system on the spacecraft has to operate perfectly. It’s a complicated, high-energy ballet with high stakes, so it’s worth taking a look at the Seven Minutes of Terror, and what exactly will be happening, in detail.
Continue reading “Getting Ready For Mars: The Seven Minutes Of Terror”
With the Mars 2020 mission now past the halfway point between Earth and its destination, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab recently released a couple of stories about the 3D-printed parts that made it aboard the Perseverance rover. Tucked into its aeroshell and ready for its high-stakes ride to the Martian surface, Perseverance sports eleven separate parts that we created with additive manufacturing. It’s not the first time a spacecraft has flown with parts made with additive manufacturing technique, but it is the first time JPL has created a vehicle with so many printed parts.
To take a closer look at what 3D-printing for spaceflight-qualified components looks like, and to probe a little into the rationale for additive versus traditional subtractive manufacturing techniques, I reached out to JPL and was put in touch with Andre Pate, Additive Manufacturing Group Lead, and Michael Schein, lead engineer on one of the mission’s main scientific instruments. They both graciously gave me time to ask questions and geek out on all the cool stuff going on at JPL in terms of additive manufacturing, and to find out what the future holds for 3D-printing and spaceflight.
Continue reading “Sending 3D Printed Parts To Mars: A Look Inside JPL’s Additive Manufacturing Center”
The news was recently abuzz with stories of how the Mars 2020 mission, which launched from Cape Canaveral at the end of July, had done something that no other spacecraft had done before: it had successfully charged the batteries aboard a tiny helicopter that is hitching a ride in the belly of the Mars 2020 rover, Perseverance.
Although the helicopter, aptly named Ingenuity, is only a technology demonstrator, and flight operations will occupy but a small fraction of the time Mars 2020 is devoting to its science missions, it has still understandably captured the popular imagination. This will be humanity’s first attempt at controlled, powered flight on another planet, after all, and that alone is enough to spur intense interest in what amounts to a side-project for NASA. So here’s a closer look at Ingenuity, and what it takes to build a helicopter that will explore another world.
Continue reading “An Up-Close Look At The First Martian Helicopter”
When it comes to antenna projects, we usually cover little ones here. From copper traces on a circuit board to hand-made units for ham radio. But every once in a while it’s fun to look at the opposite end of the spectrum, and anyone who craves such change of pace should check out DSS43’s upgrade currently underway.
Part of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) built to communicate with spacecraft that venture far beyond Earth, Deep Space Station 43 is a large dish antenna with a diameter of 70 meters and largest of the Canberra, Australia DSN complex. However, the raw reflective surface area is only as good as the radio equipment at its center, which are now outdated and thus focus of this round of upgrades.
The NASA page linked above offers a few pieces of fun trivia about DSS43 and its capabilities. If that whets an appetite for more, head over to Twitter for a huge treasure trove. Whoever is in charge of Canberra DSN’s Twitter account has an endless fountain of facts and very eager to share them in response to questions, usually tagged with #DSS43. Example: the weight of DSS43 is roughly 8.5 million kilograms, 4 million of which is moving structure. They also shared time lapse video clips of work in progress, one of which is embedded after the break.
Taking the uniquely capable DSS43 offline for upgrades does have some consequences, one of which is losing our ability to send commands to distant interplanetary probe Voyager 2. (Apparently smaller DSN dishes can be arrayed to receive data, but only DSS43 can send commands.) Such sacrifices are necessary as an investment for the future, with upgrade completion scheduled for January 2021. Just in time to help support Perseverance (formerly “Mars 2020”) rover‘s arrival in February and many more missions for years to come.
Continue reading “NASA Making Big Upgrades To Their Big Dish DSS43”
Join us on Wednesday, June 10 at noon Pacific for the Rapid Prototyping Hack Chat with Erika Earl!
When one thinks of the Jet Propulsion Lab, the NASA lab responsible for such amazing feats of engineering as Mars rovers and galaxy-exploring spacecraft like Voyager, one does not necessarily think of it as a hotbed of medical innovation. But when the COVID-19 pandemic started its march around the globe, JPL engineers decided to turn their skills from exploring other worlds to helping keep people alive in this one. Fittingly, the challenge they tackled was perhaps the most technically challenging: to build a ventilator that’s simple enough to be built in large numbers, enough to make a difference to the predicted shortfall, but that does the non-trivial job of keeping people breathing as safely as possible.
The result was VITAL, or Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally. It was designed, prototyped, and tested on an incredibly ambitious timetable: 37 days total. That number alone would be shocking enough, but when one adds in the disruptions and disconnection forced on the team of JPL engineers by the sudden need to self-isolate and work remotely that came up in the middle of the design process, it’s a wonder the team was able to get anywhere. But they worked through the technical and managerial issues and delivered a design that has now been licensed out to eight manufacturers under a no-fee license.
What does it take to bring something as complex as a ventilator to market in so short a time? To delve into that question, Supply Frame’s Erika Earl, who was part of the VITAL team, will stop by the Hack Chat. We’ll talk to her about being on the JPL team, what the design and prototyping process was like, and how the lessons learned here can apply to any team-based rapid-prototyping effort. You may not be building a ventilator in 37 days, but chances are good you can learn something useful from those who did.
Our Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, June 10 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you down, we have a handy time zone converter.
Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.
Continue reading “Rapid Prototyping Hack Chat”