Life At JPL Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, August 21st at noon Pacific for the Life at JPL Hack Chat with Arko!

There’s a reason why people use “rocket science” as a metaphor for things that are hard to do. Getting stuff from here to there when there is a billion miles away and across a hostile environment of freezing cold, searing heat, and pelting radiation isn’t something that’s easily accomplished. It takes a dedicated team of scientists and engineers working on machines that can reach out into the vastness of space and work flawlessly the whole time, and as much practice and testing as an Earth-based simulation can provide.

Arko, also known as Ara Kourchians, is a Robotics Electrical Engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of NASA’s research and development centers. Nestled at the outskirts of Pasadena against the flanks of the San Gabriel Mountains, JPL is the birthplace of the nation’s first satellite as well as the first successful interplanetary probe. They build the robots that explore the solar system and beyond for us; Arko gets to work on those space robots every day, and that might just be the coolest job in the world.

Join us on the Hack Chat to get your chance to ask all those burning questions you have about working at JPL. What’s it like to build hardware that will leave this world and travel to another? Get the inside story on how NASA designs and tests systems for space travel. And perhaps get a glimpse at what being a rocket scientist is all about.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, August 21 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got 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.

Hacking When It Counts: The Pioneer Missions

If the heady early days of space exploration taught us anything, it was how much we just didn’t know. Failure after failure mounted, often dramatic and expensive and sometimes deadly. Launch vehicles exploded, satellites failed to deploy, or some widget decided to give up the ghost at a crucial time, blinding a multi-million dollar probe and ending a mission long before any useful science was done. For the United States, with a deadline to meet for manned missions to the moon, every failure in the late 1950s and early 1960s was valuable, though, at least to the extent that it taught them what not to do next time.

For the scientists planning unmanned missions, there was another, later deadline looming that presented a rare opportunity to expand our knowledge of the outer solar system, a strange and as yet unexplored wilderness with the potential to destroy anything humans could build and send there. Before investing billions in missions to take a Grand Tour of the outer planets, they needed more information. They needed to send out some Pioneers.

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Budget Astrophotography With A Raspberry Pi

New to astrophotography, [Jason Bowling] had heard that the Raspberry Pi’s camera module could be used as a low-cost entry into the hobby. Having a Raspberry Pi B+ and camera module on hand from an old project, he dove right in, detailing the process for any other newcomers.

Gingerly removing the camera’s lens, the module fit snugly into a 3D printed case — courtesy of a friend — and connected it to a separate case for the Pi. [Bowling] then mounted he camera directly on the telescope — a technique known as prime-focus photography, which treats the telescope like an oversized camera lens. A USB battery pack is perfect for powering the Pi for several hours.

When away from home, [Bowling] has set up his Pi to act as a wireless access point; this allows the Pi to send a preview to his phone or tablet to make adjustments before taking a picture. [Bowling] admits that the camera is not ideal, so a little post-processing is necessary to flesh out a quality picture, but you work with what you have.
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Listening To Jupiter On A DIY Radio

By Jove, he built a radio!

If you want to get started with radio astronomy, Jupiter is one of the easiest celestial objects to hear from Earth. [Vasily Ivanenko] wanted to listen, and decided to build a modular radio receiver for the task. So far he’s written up six of the eight planned blog posts.

The system uses an LNA, a direct conversion receiver block, and provides audio output to a speaker, output to a PC soundcard, and a processed connection for an analog to digital converter. The modules are well-documented and would be moderately challenging to reproduce.

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Hackaday Links: July 3, 2016

This week, Popular Mechanics published cutaway diagrams of ships that will be seen in Star Trek: Beyond, released later this month. This is your cue for spoilers for the remainder of this paragraph. The USS Franklin looks suspiciously like – and was likely built after – the NX-01, the titular ship of Star Trek: Enterprise. The Abrams-verse Franklin was the first Warp 4 ship, yet the prime universe NX-01 was the first Warp 5 ship, with previous ships having trouble reaching Warp 2. We must now consider the Abrams-verse Trek is not a parallel universe to prime-universe Trek and should therefore be considered a completely separate canon (yes, even the destruction of Vulcan. If you see the new Star Trek movie, the NX-01 launched in 2151, and your suggested viewing beforehand is ST:ENT, S02E24, First Flight.

The Mechaduino is a Hackaday Prize entry that turns steppers into closed-loop servos. It’s a phenomenal idea, and now it’s a Kickstarter.

Walk into a dollar store, and you’ll find stupid solar powered electronic flower pots. They’re bits of plastic that shake a plastic flower back and forth when placed in the sun. They’re selling millions, and I have no idea why. [Scott] put a jolly wrencher on one of these flower pots. Really, this is just an exercise in 3D printing, but [Scott] printed the jolly wrencher. We don’t see a lot of that, due to how difficult it is to render the wrencher in OpenSCAD.

In just a few hours, Juno will perform an insertion burn around Jupiter. Does this mean pretty pictures? Not quite yet. This is the closest a spacecraft has ever gotten to Jupiter, and over thirty or forty orbits, Juno will fly between Jupiter’s massive radiation belts. Here’s the NASA trailer.

This video recently caught the Internet’s attention. It’s squares and circles that when put next to a mirror look like circles and squares. Yes, it’s weird. People have 3D printers, so of course these ambiguous objects were quickly reverse engineered and printed. Here’s how they work

It looks like Brexit has caught up to Mouser. Here’s their country select dialog for eu.mouser.com. Thanks [Tom] for the screencap.

Hackaday 10th Anniversary: Hacking Your Way To NASA

[Steve] drives spacecraft for a living. As an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he’s guided probes to comets, asteroids, Mars, and Jupiter, figured out what happens when telemetry from these probes starts looking weird, and fills the role of the Space Hippy whenever NASA needs some unofficial PR.

Like most people who are impossibly cool, [Steve]’s career isn’t something he actively pursued since childhood. Rather, it’s something that fell in his lap. With qualifications like building a robotic computer to typewriter interface, a custom in-car navigation system in the late 80s, and a lot of work with an Amiga, we can see where [Steve] got his skills.

The earliest ‘hack’ [Steve] can remember was just that – an ugly, poorly welded sidecar for his bicycle made in his early teens. From there, he graduated to Lasertag landmines, Tesla coils, and building camera rigs, including a little bit of work on Octopussy, and a rig for a Miata. It helps when your dad is a cinematographer, it seems.

In college, [Steve] used his experience with 6502 assembler to create one of the first computerized lighting controllers (pre-DMX). After reading a biography on [Buzz Aldrin], [Steve] realized doing his thesis on orbital rendezvous would at least be interesting, if not an exceptionally good way to get the attention of NASA.

Around this time, [Steve] ran into an engineering firm that was developing, ‘something like Mathematica’ for the Apple II, and knowing 6502 assembly got him in the door. This company was also working to get the GPS constellation up and running, and [Steve]’s thesis on orbital mechanics eventually got him a job at JPL.

There’s several lifetimes worth of hacks and builds [Steve] went over at the end of his talk. The highlights include a C64 navigation system for a VW bug, a water drop high voltage machine, and a video editing system built from a few optical encoders. This experience with hacking and modding has served him well at work, too: when the star sensor for Deep Space 1 failed, [Steve] and his coworkers used the science camera as a stand in navigation aid.

One final note: Yes, I asked [Steve] if he played Kerbal Space Program. He’s heard of it, but hasn’t spent much time in it. He was impressed with it, though, and we’ll get a video of him flying around the Jool system eventually.