Spacing Out: Rocks From The Moon, Rocks From Mars, A Near Miss, And Some Interesting Launches

Sure, the SpaceX crew made it safely to the ISS, but there’s plenty happening beyond just that particular horizon. The Chinese National Space Administration have launched their Chang’e 5 mission to collect and return lunar rock samples, a collaboration between NASA and ESA to do the same with samples from Mars has passed its review, and a pair of satellites came uncomfortably close to each other in a near-miss that could have had significant orbital debris consequences. It’s time for Spacing Out!

Bringing Alien Rocks to Earth

The Chang'e 5 mission on the launch pad. China News Service, CC BY 3.0.
The Chang’e 5 mission on the launch pad. China News Service, CC BY 3.0.

Ever since the NASA and Soviet lunar launches at the height of the Space Race, there have been no new missions to collect material from the Lunar surface and return it to Earth. That changed last week.

The Chang’e 5 mission launched in China on November 23rd will deliver moon rocks to earth, and as this is being written it has already entered Lunar orbit and separated into its constituent parts in preparation for landing. It’s a four-craft mission, with a lunar lander and ascent module going to the surface, and a service module and Earth return craft remaining in orbit to receive the samples and send them back to the planet for re-entry and retrieval. The hurdles facing the mission scientists and engineers are immense, and a safe sample return in mid-December will be an extremely impressive achievement.

Happily Chang’e 5 even has a hacker angle, as its telemetry has offered a bonanza to satellite-watchers who have turned their dishes skyward to capture the event. Daniel Estévez EA4GPZ has posted a collected analysis of data telemetry work by a variety of people worldwide, but the eye-candy prize goes to r00t.cz, who has successfully decoded image stream data to the extent that they have assembled a fragment of video captured from the craft during its journey.

Not to be outdone in the field of ambitious sample return missions, NASA and ESA’s joint plan to collect and return rock core samples from Mars has met with the approval of the independent review board set up to examine it. This will involve multiple craft from both agencies, with NASA’s already launched Perseverance rover collecting and containing the samples before leaving them on the surface for eventual collection by a future ESA rover. This will then pass them to a NASA ascent craft which will take them to Martian orbit and rendezvous with an ESA craft that will return them to Earth. We space-watchers are in for an exciting decade.

That Was a Close One!

Anyone who has seen the film Gravity will be familiar with the Kessler syndrome, in which collisions between spacecraft and or debris could create a chain reaction of further collisions and render entire orbital spheres unusable to future craft because of the collision hazard presented by the resulting cloud of space debris. Because of this, spacecraft operators devote considerable resources towards avoiding such collisions, and it is not uncommon for slight orbital adjustments to be made to avoid proximity with other orbiting man-made objects.

On the 27th of November it seems that these efforts failed, with a terse announcement from Roscosmos of a near-miss between their Kanopus-V craft and the Indian CARTOSAT 2F. The two remote-imaging satellites passed as close as 224 metres from each other, which in space terms given their likely closing speeds would have been significantly too close for comfort. The announcement appears worded to suggest that the Indian craft was at fault, however it’s probably a fairer conclusion that both space agencies should have seen the other’s satellite coming. Fortunately we escaped a catastrophe this time, but it is to be hoped that all operators of such satellites will take note.

RocketLab Joins the Reusable Booster Club

Other recent launches that might excite the interest of readers are the New Zealand-based RocketLab launching their Electron rocket with  30 small satellites on board before for the first time retrieving their booster stage, and the Japanese Mitsubish Electric sending their JDRS-1 satellite to geosynchronous orbit. This last craft is of interest because it carries an optical data link rather than the more usual RF, and could prove the technology for future launches.

The coming weeks should be full of news from China on Chang’e 5’s progress. Getting a craft to the moon and returning it will be a huge achievement, and we hope nothing fails and we’ll see pictures of the first new Moon rocks on Earth since the 1970s. We don’t know how to say “Good luck and a successful mission!” in Chinese, so we’ll say it in English.

Hackaday Links: November 22, 2020

Remember DSRC? If the initialism doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry — Dedicated Short-Range Communications, a radio service intended to let cars in traffic talk to each other, never really caught on. Back in 1999, when the Federal Communications Commission set aside 75 MHz of spectrum in the 5.9-GHz band, it probably seemed like a good idea — after all, the flying cars of the future would surely need a way to communicate with each other. Only about 15,000 vehicles in the US have DSRC, and so the FCC decided to snatch back the whole 75-MHz slice and reallocate it. The lower 45 MHz will be tacked onto the existing unlicensed 5.8-GHz band where WiFi now lives, providing interesting opportunities in wireless networking. Fans of chatty cars need not fret, though — the upper 30 MHz block is being reallocated to a different Intelligent Transportation System Service called C-V2X, for Cellular Vehicle to Everything, which by its name alone is far cooler and therefore more likely to succeed.

NASA keeps dropping cool teasers of the Mars 2020 mission as the package containing the Perseverance rover hurtles across space on its way to a February rendezvous with the Red Planet. The latest: you can listen to the faint sounds the rover is making as it gets ready for its date with destiny. While we’ve heard sounds from Mars before — the InSight lander used its seismometer to record the Martian windPerseverance is the first Mars rover equipped with actual microphones. It’s pretty neat to hear the faint whirring of the rover’s thermal management system pump doing its thing in interplanetary space, and even cooler to think that we’ll soon hear what it sounds like to land on Mars.

Speaking of space, back at the beginning of 2020 — you know, a couple of million years ago — we kicked off the Hack Chat series by talking with Alberto Caballero about his “Habitable Exoplanets” project, a crowd-sourced search for “Earth 2.0”. We found it fascinating that amateur astronomers using off-the-shelf gear could detect the subtle signs of planets orbiting stars half a galaxy away. We’ve kept in touch with Alberto since then, and he recently tipped us off to his new SETI Project. Following the citizen-science model of the Habitable Exoplanets project, Alberto is looking to recruit amateur radio astronomers willing to turn their antennas in the direction of stars similar to the Sun, where it just might be possible for intelligent life to have formed. Check out the PDF summary of the project which includes the modest technical requirements for getting in on the SETI action.

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Sending 3D Printed Parts To Mars: A Look Inside JPL’s Additive Manufacturing Center

With the Mars 2020 mission now past the halfway point between Earth and its destination, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab recently released a couple of stories about the 3D-printed parts that made it aboard the Perseverance rover. Tucked into its aeroshell and ready for its high-stakes ride to the Martian surface, Perseverance sports eleven separate parts that we created with additive manufacturing. It’s not the first time a spacecraft has flown with parts made with additive manufacturing technique, but it is the first time JPL has created a vehicle with so many printed parts.

To take a closer look at what 3D-printing for spaceflight-qualified components looks like, and to probe a little into the rationale for additive versus traditional subtractive manufacturing techniques, I reached out to JPL and was put in touch with Andre Pate, Additive Manufacturing Group Lead, and Michael Schein, lead engineer on one of the mission’s main scientific instruments. They both graciously gave me time to ask questions and geek out on all the cool stuff going on at JPL in terms of additive manufacturing, and to find out what the future holds for 3D-printing and spaceflight.

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Hackaday Links: October 18, 2020

Remember subliminal advertising? The idea was that a movie theater operator would splice a single frame showing a bucket of hot buttered popcorn into a movie, which moviegoers would see and process on a subconcious level and rush to the concession stand to buy the tub o’ petrochemical-glazed starch they suddenly craved. It may or may not work on humans, but it appears to work on cars with advanced driver assistance, which can be spoofed by “phantom street signs” flashed on electronic billboards. Security researchers at Ben Gurion University stuck an image of a stop sign into a McDonald’s ad displayed on a large LCD screen by the side of the road. That was enough to convince a Tesla Model X to put on the brakes as it passed by the sign. The phantom images were on the screen anywhere from an eighth of a second to a quarter second, so these aren’t exactly subliminal messages, but it’s still an interesting attack that bears looking into. And while we’re skeptical about the whole subliminal advertising thing in the first place, for some reason we really want a bacon cheeseburger right now.

Score one for the good guys in the battle against patent trolls. Mycroft AI, makers of open-source voice assistants, proudly announced their latest victory against what they claim are patent trolls. This appears to be one of those deals where a bunch of investors get together and buy random patents, and then claim that a company that actually built something infringes on their intellectual property. Mycroft got a letter from one such entity and decided to fight it; they’ve won two battles so far against the alleged trolls and it looks pretty good going forward. They’re not pulling their punches, either, since Mycroft is planning to go after the other parties for legal expenses and punitive damages under the State of Missouri’s patent troll legislation. Here’s hoping this sends a message to IP squatters that it may not be worth the effort and that their time and money are better spent actually creating useful things.

Good news from Mars — The Mole is finally completely buried! We’ve been following the saga of the HP³, or “Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package” aboard NASA’s Mars InSight lander for quite a while. The self-drilling “Mole”, which is essentially the guts of an impact screwdriver inside a streamlined case, has been having trouble dealing with the Martian regolith, which is simultaneously too soft to offer the friction needed to keep the penetrator in its hole, but also too hard to pierce in places where there is a “duricrust” of chemically amalgamated material below the surface. It took a lot of delicate maneuvers with the lander’s robotic arm to get the Mole back on track, and it’s clearly not out of the woods yet — it needs to get down to three meters depth or so to do the full program of science it was designed for.

If watching Martian soil experiments proceed doesn’t scratch your itch for space science, why not try running your own radio astronomy experiments? Sure, you could build your own radio telescope to do that, but you don’t even have to go that far — just log into PICTOR, the free-to-use radio telescope. It’s a 3.2-m parabolic dish antenna located near Athens, Greece that’s geared toward hydrogen line measurements of the galaxy. You can set up an observation run and have the results mailed back to you for later analysis.

Here’s a fun, quick hack for anyone who hates the constant drone of white noise coming from fans. Build Comics apparently numbers themselves among that crowd, and decided to rig up a switch to turn on their fume extractor only when the soldering iron is removed from its holder. This hack was executed on a classic old Weller soldering station, but could easily be adapted to Hakko or other irons

And finally, if you’ve never listened to a Nobel laureate give a lecture, here’s your chance. Andrea Ghez, co-winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics for her work on supermassive black holes, will be giving the annual Maria Goeppert Mayer lecture at the University of Chicago. She’ll be talking about exactly what she won the Nobel for: “The Monster at the Heart of Our Galaxy”, the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A*. We suspect the talk was booked before the Nobel announcement, so in normal times the room would likely be packed. But one advantage to the age of social distancing is that everything is online, so you can tune into a livestream of the lecture on October 22.

ExoMy Is A Miniature European Mars Rover With A Friendly Face

Over the past few weeks, a new season of Mars fever kicked off with launches of three interplanetary missions. And since there’s a sizable overlap between fans of spaceflight and those of electronics and 3D printing, the European Space Agency released the ExoMy rover for those who want to experience a little bit of Mars from home.

ExoMy’s smiling face and cartoonish proportions are an adaptation of ESA’s Rosalind Franklin (formerly the ExoMars) rover which, if 2020 hadn’t turned out to be 2020, would have been on its way to Mars as well. While Rosalind Franklin must wait for the next Mars launch window, we can launch ExoMy missions to our homes now. Like the real ESA rover, ExoMy has a triple bogie suspension design distinctly different from the rocker-bogie design used by NASA JPL’s rover family. Steering all six wheels rather than just four, ExoMy has maneuvering chops visible in a short Instagram video clip (also embedded after the break).

ExoMy’s quoted price of admission is in the range of 250-500€. Perusing instructions posted on GitHub, we see an electronics nervous system built around a Raspberry Pi. Its published software stack is configured for human remote control, but as it is already running ROS (Robot Operating System), it should be an easy on-ramp for ExoMars builders with the ambition of adding autonomy.

ExoMy joins the ranks of open source rover designs available to hackers with 3D printing, electronics, and software skills. We recently covered a much larger rover project modeled after Curiosity. Two years ago NASA JPL released an open source rover of their own targeting educators, inspiring this writer’s own Sawppy rover project, which is in turn just one of many projects tagged “Rover” on Hackaday.io. Hackers love rovers!


An Up-Close Look At The First Martian Helicopter

The news was recently abuzz with stories of how the Mars 2020 mission, which launched from Cape Canaveral at the end of July, had done something that no other spacecraft had done before: it had successfully charged the batteries aboard a tiny helicopter that is hitching a ride in the belly of the Mars 2020 rover, Perseverance.

Although the helicopter, aptly named Ingenuity, is only a technology demonstrator, and flight operations will occupy but a small fraction of the time Mars 2020 is devoting to its science missions, it has still understandably captured the popular imagination. This will be humanity’s first attempt at controlled, powered flight on another planet, after all, and that alone is enough to spur intense interest in what amounts to a side-project for NASA. So here’s a closer look at Ingenuity, and what it takes to build a helicopter that will explore another world.

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What Is The Tianwen-1 Probe Saying?

A few days ago, the Chinese National Space Administration launched their Tianwen-1 mission to Mars from their launch site in the province of Hainan. It should arrive at the Red Planet in April 2021, when it will face the daunting task of launching a surface probe from its orbiting component, which will release a rover once it has reached the surface. Like all such missions it’s in constant contact with its controllers on the ground, and as with any radio transmissions floating through the aether its telemetry has been received by the radio hacker community and analaysed by [r00t].

Straight away there’s something interesting in the modulation scheme, instead of a carrier with modulation applied to it there is a main unmodulated centre carrier, and the data appears instead on a series of subcarriers. Is this a feature of its being a space probe, the unmodulated carrier making it easier to find and track in deep space?

They quickly find the telemetry carrier, and decode its frames. It carries a series of data sets, including positional and instrumentation data. From the positional data they can tell when the craft has made any course changes, and from the sensor data such as the solar sensor its movement can be deduced and graphed. It makes for a fascinating insight into the mission, and we’re grateful for the analysis.

Mars is a notoriously difficult target for space probes, somewhere that multiple missions have for various reasons failed to reach. We hope the Tianwen-1 mission is ultimately successful and that in time the Chinese space people will in due course be showing us some of the fruits of their labours. They’re not alone in launching this month, so we’ve got a plethora of Mars-related stories to look forward to next year.

Header image: Tianwen-1 rover mockup. Pablo de León‎ / CC BY-SA 3.0