Inside Globus, A Soviet-Era Analog Space Computer

Whenever [Ken Shirriff] posts something, it ends up being a fascinating read. Usually it’s a piece of computer history, decapped and laid bare under his microscope where it undergoes reverse engineering and analysis to a degree that should be hard to follow, but he still somehow manages to make it understandable. And the same goes for this incredible Soviet analog flight computer, even though there’s barely any silicon inside.

The artifact in question was officially designated the “Индикатор Навигационный Космический,” which roughly translates to “space navigation indicator.” It mercifully earned the nickname “Globus” at some point, understandable given the prominent mechanized globe the device features. Globus wasn’t actually linked to any kind of inertial navigation inputs, but rather was intended to provide cosmonauts with a visual indication of where their spacecraft was relative to the surface of the Earth. As such it depended on inputs from the cosmonauts, like an initial position and orbital altitude. From there, a complicated and absolutely gorgeous gear train featuring multiple differential gears advanced the globe, showing where the spacecraft currently was.

Those of you hoping for a complete teardown will be disappointed; the device, which bears evidence of coming from the time of the Apollo-Soyuz collaboration in 1975, is far too precious to be taken to bits, and certainly looks like it would put up a fight trying to get it back together. But [Ken] still manages to go into great depth, and reveals many of its secrets. Cool features include the geopolitically fixed orbital inclination; the ability to predict a landing point from a deorbit burn, also tinged with Cold War considerations; and the instrument’s limitations, like only supporting circular orbits, which prompted cosmonauts to call for its removal. But versions of Globus nonetheless appeared in pretty much everything the Soviets flew from 1961 to 2002. Talk about staying power!

Sure, the “glass cockpit” of modern space vehicles is more serviceable, but just for aesthetics alone, we think every crewed spacecraft should sport something like Globus. [Ken] did a great job reverse-engineering this, and we really appreciate the tour. And from the sound of it, [Curious Marc] had a hand in the effort, so maybe we’ll get a video too. Fingers crossed.

Thanks to [saintaardvark] for the tip.

Navigating The Oceans Is Deadly Without A Clock

I came across an interesting question this weekend: how do you establish your East/West location on the globe without modern technology? The answer depends on what you mean by “modern”, it turns out you only have to go back about three centuries to find there was no reliable way. The technology that changed that was a clock; a very special one that kept accurate time despite changing atmospheric conditions and motion. The invention of the Harrison H1 revolutionized maritime travel.

We can thank Andy Weir for getting me onto this topic. I just finished his amazing novel The Martian and I can confirm that George Graves’ opinion of the high quality of that novel is spot on. For the most part, Andy lines up challenges that Mark Watney faces and then engineers a solution around them. But when it came to plotting location on the surface of Mars he made just a passing reference to the need to have accurate clocks to determine longitude. I had always assumed that a sextant was all you needed. But unless you have a known landmark to sight from this will only establish your latitude (North/South position).

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Two-Axis Solar Tracker

Solar panels are an amazing piece of engineering, but without exactly the right conditions they can be pretty fickle. One of the most important conditions is that the panel be pointed at the sun, and precise aiming of the panel can be done with a solar tracker. Solar trackers can improve the energy harvesting ability of a solar panel by a substantial margin, and now [Jay] has a two-axis tracker that is also portable.

The core of the project is a Raspberry Pi, chosen after [Jay] found that an Arduino didn’t have enough memory for all of the functionality that he wanted. The Pi and the motor control electronics were stuffed into a Pelican case for weatherproofing. The actual solar tracking is done entirely in software, only requiring a latitude and longitude in order to know where the sun is. This is much easier (and cheaper) than relying on GPS or an optical system for information about the location of the sun.

Be sure to check out the video below of the solar tracker in action. Even without the panel (or the sun, for that matter) the tracker is able to precisely locate the panel for maximum energy efficiency. And, if you’d like to get even MORE power from your solar panel, you should check out a maximum power point tracking system as well.

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