Can You Help NASA Build A Mars Sim In VR?

No matter your project or field of endeavor, simulation is a useful tool for finding out what you don’t know. In many cases, problems or issues aren’t obvious until you try and do something. Where doing that thing is expensive or difficult, a simulation can be a low-stakes way to find out some problems without huge costs or undue risks.

Going to Mars is about as difficult and expensive as it gets. Thus, it’s unsurprising that NASA relies on simulations in planning its missions to the Red Planet. Now, the space agency is working to create a Mars sim in VR for training and assessment purposes. The best part is that you can help!

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Classic Chat: Arko Takes Us Inside NASA’s Legendary JPL

Started by graduate students from the California Institute of Technology in the late 1930s, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) was instrumental in the development of early rocket technology in the United States. After being tasked by the Army to analyze the German V2 in 1943, the JPL team expanded from focusing purely on propulsion systems to study and improve upon the myriad of technologies required for spaceflight. Officially part of NASA since December of 1958, JPL’s cutting edge research continues to be integral to the human and robotic exploration of space.

For longtime friend of Hackaday Ara “Arko” Kourchians, getting a job JPL as a Robotics Electrical Engineer was a dream come true. Which probably explains why he applied more than a dozen times before finally getting the call to join the team. He stopped by the Hack Chat back in August of 2019 to talk about what it’s like to be part of such an iconic organization, reminisce about some of his favorite projects, and reflect on the lessons he’s learned along the way.

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Martian Wheel Control Algorithms Gain Traction

Imagine the scene: You’re puttering along in your vehicle when, at least an hour from the nearest help, one of your tires starts losing air. Not to worry! You’ve got a spare tire along with the tools and knowhow to change it. And if that fails, you can call roadside assistance. But what if your car isn’t a car, has metal wheels for which no spares are available, and the nearest help is 200 million miles away? You just might be a Jet Propulsion Laboratory Engineer on the Curiosity Mars Rover mission, who in 2017 was charged with creating a new driving algorithm designed to extend the life of the wheels.

High Performance Rock Crawler, Courtesy Spidertrax.com License: CC BY 3.0

You could say that the Curiosity Mars rover is the ultimate off-road vehicle, and as such it has to deal with conditions that are in some ways not that different from some locations here on Earth. Earth bound rock crawlers use long travel suspensions, specialized drivetrains, and locking differentials to keep the tires on the ground and prevent a loss of traction.

On Mars, sand and rocks dominate the landscape, and a rover must navigate around the worst of it. It’s inevitable that, just like a terrestrial off-roader, the Mars rovers will spin a tire now and then when a wheel loses traction. The Mars rovers also have a specialized drivetrain and long travel suspensions. They don’t employ differentials, though, so how are they to prevent a loss of traction and the damaging wheel spin that ensues? This where the aforementioned traction control algorithm comes in.

By controlling the rotation of the wheels with less traction, they can still contribute to the motion of the vehicle while avoiding rock rash. Be sure to check out the excellent article at JPL’s website for a full explanation of their methodology and the added benefits of uploading new traction control algorithms from 200 million miles away! No doubt the Perseverance Mars rover has also benefited from this research.

But why should NASA get to have all the fun? You can join them by 3d printing your own Mars rover and just maybe some Power Wheels derived traction control. What fun!

2021: As The Hardware World Turns

Well, that didn’t go quite as we expected, did it? Wind the clock back 365 days, and the world seemed to be breathing a collective sigh of relief after making it through 2020 in one piece. Folks started getting their COVID-19 vaccines, and in-person events started tentatively putting new dates on the calendar. After a rough year, it seemed like there was finally some light at the end of the tunnel.

Turns out, it was just a another train. New variants of everyone’s favorite acute respiratory syndrome have kept the pandemic rolling, and in many parts of the world, the last month or so has seen more new cases of the virus than at any point during 2020. This is the part of the Twilight Zone episode were we realize that not only have we not escaped the danger, we didn’t even understand the scope of it to begin with.

Case in point, the chip shortages. We can’t blame it entirely on the pandemic, but it certainly hasn’t helped matters. From video game systems to cars, production has crawled to a standstill as manufacturers fight to get their hands on integrated circuits that were once plentiful. It’s not just a problem for industry either, things have gotten so bad that there’s a good chance most of the people reading this have found themselves unable to get their hands on a part or two these last few months. If you were working on a hobby project, it’s a temporary annoyance. But for those who planned on finally bringing their latest big idea to market, we’ve heard tales of heartbreaking delays and costly redesigns.

It would be easy to look at the last twelve months and see nothing but disappointment, but that’s hardly the attitude you want to have at the beginning of the year. So let’s take the high road, and look back on some of the highlights from 2021 as we turn a hopeful eye towards the future.

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China’s Mars Rover Goes Exploring

China’s space program has big goals and is already starting to achieve them. Recently, the China National Space Administration has landed its first rover on Mars, and begun to explore the surface of the red planet.

It’s a huge step, and something only previously achieved successfully by NASA. Let’s take a look at the Chinese project, its goals, and see how it compares to the American rovers that have also roamed so far away.

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3D Printed Mars Rover Smiles For The Camera

You’d be forgiven for thinking these pictures of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover were renderings of the real deal on the Red Planet, if it wasn’t for the golf ball tucked in for scale, anyway. What you’re actually looking at is a 3D printed model made by [Alex Givens] that he brought out to the desert for a photo shoot by his friend [Josh Jalil].

[Alex] printed the parts for the model on the Ender 5 Pro, while [Josh] snapped the shots using a Canon EOS 90D. The realism of the final shots serves as a testament to how well they’ve honed their respective tools, but credit for the 3D model itself has to go to the good folks over at NASA.

The highly detailed Perseverance model came from the space agency’s extensive “3D Resources” collection, which has models for an incredible array of present and historical spacecraft. They’ve also got models for a number of interesting astronomical objects, just in case you’re in the market for a 3D printed asteroid or two.

We know, this isn’t exactly a hack in the traditional sense. But it’s a fantastic reminder of a great resource from NASA, as well as a practical demonstration of how high quality photographs can really bring a project to life.

A Look At The “Risky” Tech In NASA’s Martian Helicopter

On February 18th, the Perseverance rover safely touched down on the Martian surface. In the coming days and weeks, the wide array of instruments and scientific payloads tucked aboard the robotic explorer will spring to life; allowing us to learn more about the Red Planet. With a little luck, it may even bring us closer to determining if Mars once harbored life as we know it.

Among all of the pieces of equipment aboard the rover, one of the most intriguing must certainly be Ingenuity. This small helicopter will become the first true aircraft to take off and fly on another planet, and in a recent interview with IEEE Spectrum, operations lead [Tim Canham] shared some fascinating details about the vehicle and some of the unorthodox decisions that went into its design.

Ingenuity’s downward facing sensors.

[Tim] explains that, as a technology demonstrator, the team was allowed to take far more risks in developing Ingenuity than they would have been able to otherwise. Rather than sticking with legacy hardware and software, they were free to explore newer and less proven technology.

That included off-the-shelf consumer components, such as a laser altimeter purchased from SparkFun. It also means that the computational power packed into Ingenuity far exceeds that of Perseverance itself, though how well the helicopter’s smartphone-class Snapdragon 801 processor will handle the harsh Martian environment is yet to be seen.

On the software side, we also learn that Ingenuity is making extensive use of open source code. Not only is the onboard computer running Linux, but the vehicle is being controlled by an Apache 2.0 licensed framework developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for CubeSats and other small spacecraft. The project is available on GitHub for anyone who wants it, and according to the changelog, the fixes and improvements required for the “Mars Helicopter Project” were merged in a few releases ago.

The fact that code currently ticking away on the surface of Mars can be downloaded and implemented into your own DIY project is a revelation that’s not lost on [Tim]. “It’s kind of an open-source victory because we’re flying an open-source operating system and an open-source flight software framework and flying commercial parts that you can buy off the shelf if you wanted to do this yourself someday.”

Of course, it took a whole lot more than some Python libraries and a handful of sensors from SparkFun to design and build the first space-going helicopter. But the fact that even a small slice of the technology inside of a project like Ingenuity is now available to the average hacker and maker is a huge step towards democratizing scientific research here on Earth.

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