Hackaday Links: November 15, 2020

Now that we drive around cars that are more like mobile data centers than simple transportation, there’s a wealth of data to be harvested when the inevitable crashes occur. After a recent Tesla crash on a California highway, a security researcher got a hold of the car’s “black box” and extracted some terrifying insights into just how bad a car crash can be. The interesting bit is the view of the crash from the Tesla’s forward-facing cameras with object detection overlays. Putting aside the fact that the driver of this car was accelerating up to the moment it rear-ended the hapless Honda with a closing speed of 63 MPH (101 km/h), the update speeds on the bounding boxes and lane sensing are incredible. The author of the article uses this as an object lesson in why Level 2 self-driving is a bad idea, and while I agree with that premise, the fact that self-driving had been disabled 40 seconds before the driver plowed into the Honda seems to make that argument moot. Tech or not, someone this unskilled or impaired was going to have an accident eventually, and it was just bad luck for the other driver.

Last week I shared a link to Scan the World, an effort to 3D-scan and preserve culturally significant artifacts and create a virtual museum. Shortly after the article ran we got an email from Elisa at Scan the World announcing their “Unlocking Lockdown” competition, which encourages people to scan cultural artifacts and treasures directly from their home. You may not have a Ming Dynasty vase or a Grecian urn on display in your parlor, but you’ve probably got family heirlooms, knick-knacks, and other tchotchkes that should be preserved. Take a look around and scan something for posterity. And I want to thank Elisa for the link to the Pompeiian bread that I mentioned.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)has been running an interesting challenge for the last couple of years: The Subterranean (SubT) Challenge. The goal is to discover new ways to operate autonomously below the surface of the Earth, whether for mining, search and rescue, or warfare applications. They’ve been running different circuits to simulate various underground environments, with the most recent circuit being a cave course back in October. On Tuesday November 17, DARPA will webcast the competition, which features 16 teams and their autonomous search for artifacts in a virtual cave. It could make for interesting viewing.

If underground adventures don’t do it for you, how about going upstairs? LeoLabs, a California-based company that specializes in providing information about satellites, has a fascinating visualization of the planet’s satellite constellation. It’s sort of Google Earth but with the details focused on low-earth orbit. You can fly around the planet and watch the satellites whiz by or even pick out the hundreds of spent upper-stage rockets still up there. You can lock onto a specific satellite, watch for near-misses, or even turn on a layer for space debris, which honestly just turns the display into a purple miasma of orbiting junk. The best bit, though, is the easily discerned samba-lines of newly launched Starlink satellites.

A doorbell used to be a pretty simple device, but like many things, they’ve taken on added complexity. And danger, it appears, as Amazon Ring doorbell users are reporting their new gadgets going up in flame upon installation. The problem stems from installers confusing the screws supplied with the unit. The longer wood screws are intended to mount the device to the wall, while a shorter security screw secures the battery cover. Mix the two up for whatever reason, and the sharp point of the mounting screw can find the LiPo battery within, with predictable results.

And finally, it may be the shittiest of shitty robots: a monstrous robotic wolf intended to scare away wild bears. It seems the Japanese town of Takikawa has been having a problem with bears lately, so they deployed a pair of these improbable looking creatures to protect themselves. It’s hard to say what’s the best feature: the flashing LED eyes, the strobe light tail, the fact that the whole thing floats in the air atop a pole. Whatever it is, it seems to work on bears, which is probably good enough. Take a look in the video below the break.

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Getting Rid Of All The Space Junk In Earth’s Backyard

Space, as the name suggests, is mostly empty. However, since the first satellite launch in 1957, mankind began to populate the Earth orbit with all kinds of spacecraft. On the downside, space also became more and more cluttered with trash from defunct or broken up rocket stages and satellites. Moving at speeds of nearly 30,000 km/h, even the tiniest object can pierce a hole through your spacecraft. Therefore, space junk poses a real threat for both manned and unmanned spacecraft and that is why space agencies are increasing their efforts into tracking, avoiding, and getting rid of it.
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Developing Guidelines For Sustainable Spaceflight

In the early days of spaceflight, when only the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union had the ability to put an object into orbit, even the most fanciful of futurists would have had a hard time believing that commercial entities would one day be launching sixty satellites at a time. What once seemed like an infinite expanse above our heads is now starting to look quite a bit smaller, and it’s only going to get more crowded as time goes on. SpaceX is gearing up to launch nearly 12,000 individual satellites for their Starlink network by the mid-2020s, and that’s just one of the “mega constellations” currently in the works.

Just some of the objects in orbit around the Earth

It might seem like overcrowding of Earth orbit is a concern for the distant future, but one needs only look at recent events to see the first hints of trouble. On September 2nd, the European Space Agency announced that one of its research spacecraft had to perform an evasive maneuver due to a higher than acceptable risk of colliding with one of the first-generation Starlink satellites. Just two weeks later, Bigelow Aerospace were informed by the United States Air Force that there was a 1 in 20 chance that a defunct Russian Cosmos 1300 satellite would strike their Genesis II space station prototype.

A collision between two satellites in orbit is almost certain to be catastrophic, ending with both spacecraft either completely destroyed or severely damaged. But in the worst case, the relative velocity between the vehicles can be so great that the impact generates thousands of individual fragments. The resulting cloud of shrapnel can circle the Earth for years or even decades, threatening to tear apart any spacecraft unlucky enough to pass by.

Fortunately avoiding these collisions shouldn’t be difficult, assuming everyone can get on the same page before it’s too late. The recently formed Space Safety Coalition (SSC) is made up of more than twenty aerospace companies that realize the importance of taking proactive steps to ensure humanity retains the unfettered access to outer space by establishing some common “Rules of the Road” for future spacecraft.

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Everything We Know About SpaceX’s Starlink Network

When it comes to SpaceX, or perhaps more accurately its somewhat eccentric founder and CEO Elon Musk, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. For as many incredible successes SpaceX has had, there’s an equal number of projects or ideas which get quietly delayed or shelved entirely once it becomes clear the technical challenges are greater than anticipated. There’s also Elon’s particular brand of humor to contend with; most people assumed his claim that the first Falcon Heavy payload would be his own personal Tesla Roadster was a joke until he Tweeted the first shots of it being installed inside the rocket’s fairing.

So a few years ago when Elon first mentioned Starlink, SpaceX’s plan for providing worldwide high-speed Internet access via a mega-constellation of as many as 12,000 individual satellites, it’s no surprise that many met the claims with a healthy dose of skepticism. The profitability of Starlink was intrinsically linked to SpaceX’s ability to substantially lower the cost of getting to orbit through reusable launch vehicles, a capability the company had yet to successfully demonstrate. It seemed like a classic cart before the horse scenario.

But today, not only has SpaceX begun regularly reusing the latest version of their Falcon 9 rocket, but Starlink satellites will soon be in orbit around the Earth. They’re early prototypes that aren’t as capable as the final production versions, and with only 60 of them on the first launch it’s still a far cry from thousands of satellites which would be required for the system to reach operational status, but there’s no question they’re real.

During a media call on May 15th, Elon Musk let slip more technical information about the Starlink satellites than we’ve ever had before, giving us the first solid details on the satellites themselves, what the company’s goals are, and even a rough idea when the network might become operational.

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Humanity Creates A Cloud Of Space Garbage, Again

With the destruction of the Microsat-R reconnaissance satellite on March 27th, India became the fourth country in history to successfully hit an orbiting satellite with a surface-launched weapon. While Microsat-R was indeed a military satellite, there was no hostile intent; the spacecraft was one of India’s own, launched earlier in the year. This follows the examples of previous anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons tests performed by the United States, Russia, and China, all of which targeted domestic spacecraft.

Yet despite the long history of ASAT weapon development among space-fairing nations, India’s recent test has come under considerable scrutiny. Historically, the peak of such testing was during the 1970’s as part of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and then Soviet Union. Humanity’s utilization of space in that era was limited, and the clouds of debris created by the destruction of the target spacecraft were of limited consequence. But today, with a permanently manned outpost in low Earth orbit and rapid commercial launches, space is simply too congested to risk similar experiments. The international community has strongly condemned the recent test as irresponsible.

For their part, India believes they have the right to develop their own defensive capabilities as other nations have before them, especially in light of their increasingly active space program. Prime Minister Narendra Modi released a statement reiterating that the test was not meant to be a provocative act:

Today’s anti-satellite missile will give a new strength to the country in terms of India’s security and a vision of developed journey. I want to assure the world today that it was not directed against anybody.

India has always been against arms race in space and there has been no change in this policy. This test of today does not violate any kind of international law or treaty agreements. We want to use modern technology for the protection and welfare of 130 million [1.3 Billion] citizens of the country.

Further, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) rejects claims that the test caused any serious danger to other spacecraft. They maintain that the test was carefully orchestrated to that any debris created would renter the Earth’s atmosphere within a matter of months; an assertion that’s been met with criticism by NASA.

So was the Indian ASAT test, known as Mission Shakti, really a danger to international space interests? How does it differ from the earlier tests carried out by other countries? Perhaps most importantly, why do we seem so fascinated with blowing stuff up in space?

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