The Wright Stuff: First Powered Flight On Mars Is A Success

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.

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Putting Perseverance Rover’s View Into Satellite View Context

It’s always fun to look over aerial and satellite maps of places we know, seeing a perspective different from our usual ground level view. We lose that context when it’s a place we don’t know by heart. Such as, say, Mars. So [Matthew Earl] sought to give Perseverance rover’s landing video some context by projecting onto orbital imagery from ESA’s Mars Express. The resulting video (embedded below the break) is a fun watch alongside the technical writeup Reprojecting the Perseverance landing footage onto satellite imagery.

Some telemetry of rover position and orientation were transmitted live during the landing process, with the rest recorded and downloaded later. Surprisingly, none of that information was used for this project, which was based entirely on video pixels. This makes the results even more impressive and the techniques more widely applicable to other projects. The foundational piece is SIFT (Scale Invariant Feature Transform), which is one of many tools in the OpenCV toolbox. SIFT found correlations between Perseverance’s video frames and Mars Express orbital image, feeding into a processing pipeline written in Python for results rendered in Blender.

While many elements of this project sound enticing for applications in robot vision, there are a few challenges touched upon in the “Final Touches” section of the writeup. The falling heatshield interfered with automated tracking, implying this process will need help to properly understand dynamically changing environments. Furthermore, it does not seem to run fast enough for a robot’s real-time needs. But at first glance, these problems are not fundamental. They merely await some motivated people to tackle in the future.

This process bears some superficial similarities to projection mapping, which is a category of projects we’ve featured on these pages. Except everything is reversed (camera instead of video projector, etc.) making the math an entirely different can of worms. But if projection mapping sounds more to your interest, here is a starting point.

[via Dr. Tanya Harrison @TanyaOfMars]

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A Technical (But Not Too Technical) Explanation Of Landing Perseverance Rover On Mars

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.

NASA’s Perseverance Rover Makes Its First Martian Tracks

There’s a special kind of anxiety that comes from trying out a robotic project for the first time. No matter the size, complexity, or how much design and planning has gone into it, the first time a creation moves under its own power can put butterflies in anyone’s stomach. So we can imagine that many people at NASA are breathing a sigh of relief now that the Perseverance rover has completed its first successful test drive on Mars.

To be fair, Perseverance was tested here on Earth before launch. However, this is the first drive since the roving scientific platform was packed into a capsule, set on top of a rocket, and flung hundreds of millions of miles (or kilometers, take your pick) to the surface of another planet. As such, and true to NASA form, the operators are taking things slow.

This joyride certainly won’t be setting speed records. The atomic-powered vehicle traveled a total of just 21.3 feet (6.5 meters) in 33 minutes, including forward, reverse, and a 150 degree turn in-between. That’s enough for the mobility team to check out the drive systems and deem the vehicle worthy of excursions that could range 656 feet (200 meters) or more. Perseverance is packed with new technology, including an autonomous navigation system for avoiding hazards without waiting for round-trip communication with Earth, and everything must be tested before being put into full use.

A couple weeks have passed since the world was captivated by actual video of the rover’s entry, descent, and landing, and milestones like this mark the end of that flashy, rocket-powered skycrane period and the beginning of a more settled-in period, where the team works day-to-day in pursuit of the mission’s science goals. The robotic arm and several on-board sensors and experiments have already completed their initial checks. In the coming months, we can look forward to tons of data coming back from the red planet, along with breathtaking pictures of its alien surface and what will hopefully be the first aircraft flown on another world.

Stunning Footage Of Perseverance Landing On Mars

The much-anticipated video from the entry descent and landing (EDL) camera suite on the Perseverance rover has been downlinked to Earth, and it does not disappoint. Watch the video below and be amazed.

The video was played at the NASA press conference today, which is still ongoing as we write this. The brief video below has all the highlights, but the good stuff from an engineering perspective is in the full press conference. The level of detail captured by these cameras, and the bounty of engineering information revealed by these spectacular images, stands in somewhat stark contrast to the fact that they were included on the mission mainly as an afterthought. NASA isn’t often in the habit of adding “nice to have” features to a mission, what with the incredible cost-per-kilogram of delivering a package to Mars. But thankfully they did, using mainly off-the-shelf cameras.

The camera suite covered nearly everything that happened during the “Seven Minutes of Terror” EDL phase of the mission. An up-looking camera saw the sudden and violent deployment of the supersonic parachute — we’re told there’s an Easter egg encoded into the red-and-white gores of the parachute — while a down-looking camera on the rover watched the heat shield separate and fall away. Other cameras on the rover and the descent stage captured the skycrane maneuver in stunning detail, both looking up from the rover and down from the descent stage. We were surprised by the amount of dust kicked up by the descent engines, which fully obscured the images just at the moment of “tango delta” — touchdown of the rover on the surface. Our only complaint is not seeing the descent stage’s “controlled disassembly” 700 meters away from the landing, but one can’t have everything.

Honestly, these are images we could pore over for days. The level of detail is breathtaking, and the degree to which they make Mars a real place instead of an abstract concept can’t be overstated. Hats off to the EDL Imaging team for making all this possible.

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Hackaday Links: February 21, 2021

Well, that was quite a show! The Perseverance rover arrived on Mars Thursday. Don’t tell the boss, but we spent the afternoon watching the coverage in the house on the big TV rather than slaving away in the office. It was worth it; for someone who grew up watching Jules Bergman and Frank Reynolds cover the Apollo program and the sometimes cheesy animations provided by NASA, the current coverage is pretty intense. A replay of the coverage is available – skip to about the 1:15:00 mark to avoid all the filler and fluff preceding the “Seven Minutes of Terror” main event. And not only did they safely deliver the package, but they absolutely nailed the landing. Perseverance is only about 2 km away from the ancient river delta it was sent to explore for signs of life. Nice shooting!

We’re also being treated to early images from Jezero crater. The first lowish-rez shots, from the fore and after hazard cameras, popped up just a few seconds after landing — the dust hadn’t even settled yet! Some wags complained about the image quality, apparently without thinking that the really good camera gear was stowed away and a couple of quick check images with engineering cameras would be a good idea while the rover still had contact with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Speaking of which, the HiRISE camera on the MRO managed to catch a stunning view of Perseverance’s descent under its parachute; the taking of that photo is an engineering feat all by itself. But all of this pales in comparison to a shot from one of the down-looking cameras in the descent stage, show Perseverance dangling from the skycrane just before touchdown. It was a really good day for engineering.

Would that our Earthly supply chains were as well-engineered as our Martian delivery systems. We’ve been hearing of issues all along the electronics supply chain, impacting a wide range of industries. Some of the problems are related to COVID-19, which has sickened workers staffing production and shipping lines. Some, though, like a fire at the AKM semiconductor plant in Japan, have introduced another pinch point in an already strained system. The fire was in October, but the impact on the manufacturer depending on the plant’s large-scale integration (LSI) and temperature-compensated crystal oscillators (TCXO) products is only just now being felt in the amateur radio market. The impact is likely not limited to that market, though — TCXOs pop up lots of gear, and the AKM plant made LSI chips for all kinds of applications.

What do you get when you combine a 3D-printer, a laser cutter, a CNC router, and a pick-and-place robot? Drones that fly right off the build plate, apparently. Aptly enough, it’s called LaserFactory, and it comes from MITs Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. By making different “bolt-on” tools for a laser cutter, the CSAIL team has combined multiple next-generation manufacturing methods in one platform. The video below shows a drone frame being laser-cut from acrylic, to which conductive silver paste is added by an extruder. A pick-and-place head puts components on the silver goo, solders everything together with a laser, and away it goes. They also show off ways of building up 3D structures, both by stacking up flat pieces of acrylic and by cutting and bending acrylic in situ. It’s obviously still just a proof of concept, but we really like the ideas presented here.

And finally, as proof that astronomers can both admit when they’re wrong and have fun while doing so, the most remote object in the Solar System has finally received a name. The object, a 400-km diameter object in a highly elliptical orbit that takes it from inside the orbit of Neptune to as far as 175 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun, is officially known as 2018 AG37. Having whimsically dubbed the previous furthest-known object “Farout,” astronomers kept with the theme and named its wayward sister “Farfarout.” Given the rapid gains in technology, chances are good that Farfarout won’t stay the Sun’s remotest outpost for long, and we fear the (Far)nout trend will eventually collapse under its own weight. We therefore modestly propose a more sensible naming scheme, perhaps something along the lines of “Farthest McFaraway.” It may not scale well, but at least it’s stupid.

Hackaday Links: February 16, 2021

This is it; after a relatively short transit time of eight months, the Mars 2020 mission carrying the Perseverance rover has almost reached the Red Planet. The passage has been pretty calm, but that’s all about to end on Thursday as the Entry Descent and Landing phase begins. The “Seven Minutes of Terror”, which includes a supersonic parachute deployment, machine-vision-assisted landing site navigation, and a “sky-crane” to touch the rover down gently in Jezero crater, will all transpire autonomously 480 million km away. We’ll only learn about how it goes after the eleven-minute propagation delay between Mars and Earth, but we’ll be glued to the NASA YouTube live stream nonetheless. Coverage starts on February 18, 2021 at 11:15 AM Pacific Standard Time (UTC-8). We’ve created a handy time zone converter and countdown so you don’t miss the show.

As amazing as the engineering on display Thursday will be, it looks like the US Navy has plans to unveil technology that will make NASA as relevant as a buggy-whip company was at the turn of the last century. That is, if you believe the “UFO Patents” are for real. The inventor listed on these patents, Dr. Salvatore Pais, apparently really exists; he’s had peer-reviewed papers published in mainstream journals as recently as 2019. Patents listed to Dr. Pais stretch back to 2004, when he invented a laser augmented turbojet propulsion system, which was assigned to defense contractor Northrup Grumman. The rest of the patents are more recent, all seemingly assigned to the US Navy, and cover things like a “high-frequency gravitational wave generator” and a “craft using an inertial mass-reduction device”. There’s also a patent that seems to cover a compact fusion generator. If any of this is remotely true, and we remain highly skeptical, the good news is that maybe we’ll get things like the Epstein Drive. Of course, that didn’t end well for Solomon Epstein. Or for ManĂ©o Jung-Espinoza.

Of course, if you’re going to capitalize on all these alien patents, you’re going to need some funding. If you missed out on the GME short squeeze megabucks, fret not — there’s still plenty of speculative froth to go around. You might want to try your hand at cryptocurrency mining, but with GPUs becoming near-unobtainium, you’ll have to get creative, like throwing together a crypto mining farm with a bunch of laptops. It looks like the Weibo user who posted the photos has laptops propped up on every available surface of their apartment, and there’s also a short video showing a more industrial setup with rack after rack of laptops. These aren’t exactly throw-aways from some grade school, either — they appear to be brand new laptops that retail for like $1,300 a pop. The ironic part is that the miner says this is better than the sweatshop he used to work in. Pretty sure with all that power being dissipated in his house, it’ll still be a sweatshop come summer.

A lot of people have recently learned the hard lesson that when the service is free, you’re the product, and that what Google giveth, Google can taketh away in a heartbeat, and for no discernable reason. Indie game studio Re-Logic and its lead developer Andrew Spinks found that out last week when a vaguely worded terms-of-service violation notice arrived from Google. The developer of the popular game Terraria was at a loss to understand the TOS violation, which resulted in a loss of access to all the company’s Google services. He spent three weeks going down the hell hole of Google’s automated support system, getting nothing but canned messages that were either irrelevant to his case or technically impossible; kinda hard to check your Gmail account when Google has shut it down. The lesson here is that building a business around services that can be taken away on a whim is perhaps not the best business plan.

And finally, we watched with great interest Big Clive’s secrets to getting those crisp, clean macro shots that he uses to reverse-engineer PCBs. We’ve always wondered how he accomplished that, and figured it involved some fancy ring-lights around the camera lens or a specialized lightbox. Either way, we figured Clive had to plow a bunch of that sweet YouTube cash into the setup, but we were surprised to learn that in true hacker fashion, it’s really just a translucent food container ringed with an LED strip, with a hole cut in the top for his cellphone camera. It may be simple, but you can’t argue with the results.

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