It’s been a long, long time since we heard from Opportunity, the remarkable Mars rover that has shattered all expectations on endurance and productivity but has been silent since a planet-wide dust storm blotted out the Sun and left it starved for power. Right now, it’s perched on the edge of a crater on Mars, waiting for enough sunlight to charge its batteries so it can call home. All we can do is sit, and wait.
To pass the time until Opportunity stirs again, [G4lile0] built this Deep Space Network clock. Built around an ESP32 and a TFT display, the clock monitors the Deep Space Network (DSN) website to see if mission control is using any of the huge antennas at its disposal to listen for signals from the marooned rover. If the DSN is listening, it displays a special animation exhorting the rover to phone home; otherwise, it shows which of the many far-flung probes the network is communicating with, along with a slideshow of Mars mission photos to keep the spirits up. When the day finally comes that Opportunity checks in, an alarm will sound so [G4lile0] can pop the champagne and celebrate with the rest of us.
We realize that the odds that Opportunity will survive this ordeal are decreasing by the Sol. It’s an uphill battle; after all, the machine was 55 times its original 90-day design life when it went dark, so it’s an uphill battle. Then again, it has beaten the odds before, so there’s still hope.
Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise a kid. In fact, it’s cold as hell. There’s no one there to raise them if you did, or is there? Is there life on Mars? That’s the question NASA has been trying to answer for the last forty years, and with the new Mars rover, we might get closer to an answer. For this week’s Hack Chat, we’re going to be talking with the people responsible for some interesting instruments flying on the Mars 2020 rover.
Our guest for this week’s Hack Chat will be [Matteo Borri], an Italian engineer who’s been living in the US for the better part of a decade now. He’s had various projects ranging from robotics — including a BattleBot — AI, and aerospace. [Matteo] is also one of the engineers behind the Vampire Charger, a winner in the Power Harvesting Module Challenge in this year’s Hackaday Prize.
Right now, [Matteo] is working on an interesting project that’s going to fly on the next Mars rover. He’s developed a chlorophyll spectroscope for NASA and the Mars Society. This week, [Matteo] is going to share the details of how this device works and how it was developed.
During this Hack Chat, we’re going to be discussing various technology that’s going into the search for life on Mars and elsewhere in the galaxy such as:
Various other hardware hacks
You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the Hacking with Fire event page and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.
Everyone knows that space is an incredibly inhospitable place, but the surface of Mars isn’t a whole lot better. It’s a dim, cold, and dry world, with a wisp of an atmosphere that provides less than 1% of Earth’s barometric pressure. As the planet’s core no longer provides it with a magnetosphere, cosmic rays and intense solar flares bathe the surface in radiation. Human life on the surface without adequate environmental shielding is impossible, and as NASA’s fleet of rovers can attest, robotic visitors to the planet aren’t completely immune to the planet’s challenges.
As a planet-wide dust storm finally begins to settle, NASA is desperately trying to find out if the Red Planet has claimed yet another victim. The agency hasn’t heard from the Opportunity rover, which landed on Mars in 2004, since before the storm started on June 10th; and with each passing day the chances of reestablishing contact are diminished. While they haven’t completely given up hope, there’s no question this is the greatest threat the go-kart sized rover has faced in the nearly 15 years it has spent on the surface.
Opportunity was designed with several autonomous fail-safe systems that should have activated during the storm, protecting the rover as much as possible. But even with these systems in place, its twin Spirit succumbed to similar conditions in 2010. Will Opportunity make it through this latest challenge? Or has this global weather event brought the long-running mission to a dramatic close?
Few things build excitement like going to space. It captures the imagination of young and old alike. Teachers love to leverage the latest space news to raise interest in their students, and space agencies are happy to provide resources to help. The latest in a long line of educator resources released by NASA is an Open Source Rover designed at Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
JPL is the birthplace of Mars rovers Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity. They’ve been researching robotic explorers for decades, so it’s no surprise they have many rovers running around. The open source rover’s direct predecessor is ROV-E, whose construction process closely followed procedures for engineering space flight hardware. This gave a team of early career engineers experience in the process before they built equipment destined for space. In addition to learning various roles within a team, they also learned to work with JPL resources like submitting orders to the machine shop to make ROV-E parts.
Once completed, ROV-E became a fixture at JPL public events and occasionally visits nearby schools as part of educational outreach programs. And inevitably a teacher at the school would ask “The kids love ROV-E! Can we make our own rover?” Since most schools don’t have 5-axis CNC machines or autoclaves to cure carbon fiber composites, the answer used to be “No.”
If you somehow haven’t read or watched War of the Worlds, here’s a spoiler alert. The Martians are brought down by the common cold. You can argue if alien biology would be susceptible to human pathogens, but if they were, it wouldn’t be surprising if aliens had little defense against our bugs. The worrisome part of that is the reverse. Could an astronaut or a space probe bring back something that would ravage the Earth with some disease? This is not science fiction, it is both a historically serious question and one we’ll face in the near future. If we send people to Mars are they going to come back with something harmful?
A Bit of News: Methane Gas Fluctuations on Mars
What got me thinking about this was the mounting evidence that there could be life on Mars. Not a little green man with a death ray, but perhaps microbe-like life forms. In a recent press release, NASA revealed that they not only found old organic material in rocks, but they also found that methane gas is present on Mars and the amount varies based on the season with more methane occurring in the summer months. There’s some dispute about possible inorganic reasons for this, but it is at least possible that the variation is due to increased biological activity during the summer.
We have a lot of respect for the hackers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). When their stuff has a problem, it is often millions of miles away and yet they often find a way to fix it anyway. Case in point is the Curiosity Mars rover. Back in 2016, the probe’s rock drill broke. This is critical because one of the main things the rover does is drill into rock samples, collect the powder and subject it to analysis. JPL announced they had devised a way to successfully drill again.
The drill failed after fifteen uses. It uses two stabilizers to steady itself against the target rock. A failed motor prevents the drill bit from retracting and extending between the stabilizers. Of course, sending a repair tech 60 million miles is not in the budget, so they had to find another way. You can see a video about the way they found, below.
Unless you’ve got your ear on the launch pad so to speak, you might not be aware that humanity just launched a new envoy towards the Red Planet. Estimated to touch down in Elysium Planitia on November 26th, the InSight lander is relatively low-key as far as interplanetary missions go. Part of the NASA’s “Discovery Program”, it operates on a considerably lower budget than Flagship missions such as the Curiosity rover; meaning niceties like a big advertising and social media campaign to get the public excited doesn’t get a line item.
Which is a shame, because not only are there much worse things to do with tax money than increase public awareness of scientific endeavours, but because InSight frankly deserves a bit more respect than that. Featuring a number of firsts, the engineers and scientists behind InSight might have been short on dollars, but ambition was in ample supply.
So in honor of the successful launch, let’s take a look at the InSight mission, the unique technology onboard, and the answers scientists hope it will be able to find out there in the black.