Hackaday Links: March 15, 2020

Just a few weeks ago in the Links article, we ran a story about Tanner Electronics, the Dallas-area surplus store that was a mainstay of the hacker and maker scene in the area. At the time, Tanner’s owners were actively looking for a new, downsized space to move into, and they were optimistic that they’d be able to find something. But it appears not to be, as we got word this week from James Tanner that the store would be shutting its doors after 40 years in business. We’re sad to see anyone who’s supported the hardware hacking scene be unable to make a go of it, especially after four decades of service. But as we pointed out in “The Death of Surplus”, the center of gravity of electronics manufacturing has shifted dramatically in that time, and that’s changed the surplus market forever. We wish the Tanner’s the best of luck, and ask those in the area to stop by and perhaps help them sell off some of their inventory before they close the doors on May 31.

Feel like getting your inner Gollum on video but don’t know where to begin? Open source motion capture might be the place to start, and Chordata will soon be here to help. We saw Chordata as an entry in the 2018 Hackaday Prize; they’ve come a long way since then and are just about to open up their Kickstarter. Check out the video for an overview of what Chordata can do.

Another big name in the open-source movement has been forced out of the organization he co-founded. Eric S. Raymond, author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar and co-founder and former president of the Open Source Initiative has been removed from mailing lists and banned from communicating with the group. Raymond, known simply as ESR, reports that this was in response to “being too rhetorically forceful” in his dissent from proposed changes to OSD, the core documents that OSI uses to determine if software is truly open source. Nobody seems to be saying much about the behavior that started the fracas.

COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the newly emerged SARS-CoV-2 virus, has been spreading across the globe, causing panic and claiming lives. It’s not without its second-order effects either, of course, as everything from global supply chains to conferences and meetings have been disrupted. And now, coronavirus can be blamed for delaying the ESA/Russian joint ExoMars mission. The mission is to include a Russian-built surface platform for meteorological and biochemical surveys, plus the ESA’s Rosalind Franklin rover. Program scientists are no longer able to travel and meet with their counterparts to sort out issues, severely crimping productivity and forcing the delay. Social distancing and working from home can only take you so far, especially when you’re trying to get to Mars. We wonder if NASA’s Perseverance will suffer a similar fate.

Speaking of social distancing, if you’ve already decided to lock the doors and hunker down to wait out COVID-19, you’ll need something to keep you from going stir crazy. One suggestion: learn a new skill, like PCB design. TeachMePCB is offering a free rigid PCB design course starting March 28. If you’re a newbie, or even if you’ve had some ad hoc design experience, this could be a great way to productively while away some time. And if that doesn’t work for you, check out Bartosz Ciechanowski’s Gears page. It’s an interactive lesson on why gears look like they do, and the math behind power transmission. Ever wonder why gear teeth have an involute shape? Bartosz will fix you up.

Stay safe out there, everyone. And wash those hands!

Interplanetary Whack-A-Mole: NASA’s High-Stakes Rescue Plan For InSight Lander’s Science Mission

People rightly marvel at modern surgical techniques that let surgeons leverage the power of robotics to repair the smallest structures in the human body through wounds that can be closed with a couple of stitches. Such techniques can even be applied remotely, linking surgeon and robot through a telesurgery link. It can be risky, but it’s often a patient’s only option.

NASA has arrived at a similar inflection point, except that their patient is the Mars InSight lander, and the surgical suite is currently about 58 million kilometers away. The lander’s self-digging “mole” probe needs a little help getting started, so they’re planning a high-stakes rescue attempt that would make the most seasoned telesurgeon blanch: they want to use the lander’s robotic arm to press down on the mole to help it get back on track.

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Hacking Mars: InSight Mole Is On The Move Again

Your job might be tough, but spare a thought for any of the engineers involved in the Mars InSight lander mission when they learned that one of the flagship instruments aboard the lander, indeed the very instrument for which the entire mission was named, appeared to be a dud. That’s a bad day at work by anyone’s standards, and it happened over the summer when it was reported that the Mars Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport lander’s Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP³), commonly known as “The Mole”, was not drilling itself into the Martian regolith as planned.

But now, after months of brainstorming and painstaking testing on Earth and on Mars, it looks as if the mole is working again. NASA has announced that, with a little help from the lander’s backhoe bucket, the HP³ penetrator has dug itself 2 cm into the soil. It’s a far cry from the 5-meter planned depth for its heat-transfer experiments, but it’s progress, and the clever hack that got the probe that far might just go on to salvage a huge chunk of the science planned for the $828 million program.

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Off-World Cement Tested For The First Time

If the current Administration of the United States has their way, humans will return to the surface of the Moon far sooner than many had expected. But even if NASA can’t meet the aggressive timeline they’ve been given by the White House, it seems inevitable that there will be fresh boot prints on the lunar surface within the coming decades. Between commercial operators and international competition, we’re seeing the dawn of a New Space Race, with the ultimate goal being the long-term habitation of our nearest celestial neighbor.

Schmitt's dusty suit while retrieving samples from the Moon
An Apollo astronaut covered in lunar dust

But even with modern technology, it won’t be easy, and it certainly won’t be cheap. While commercial companies such as SpaceX have significantly reduced the cost of delivering payloads to the Moon, we’ll still need every advantage to ensure the economical viability of a lunar outpost. One approach is in situ resource utilization, where instead of transporting everything from Earth, locally sourced materials are used wherever possible. This technique would not only be useful on the Moon, but many believe it will be absolutely necessary if we’re to have any chance of sending a human mission to Mars.

One of the most interesting applications of this concept is the creation of a building material from the lunar regolith. Roughly analogous to soil here on Earth, regolith is a powdery substance made up of grains of rock and micrometeoroid fragments, and contains silicon, calcium, and iron. Mixed with water, or in some proposals sulfur, it’s believed the resulting concrete-like material could be used in much the same way it is here on Earth. Building dwellings in-place with this “lunarcrete” would be faster, cheaper, and easier than building a comparable structure on Earth and transporting it to the lunar surface.

Now, thanks to recent research performed aboard the International Space Station, we have a much better idea of what to expect when those first batches of locally-sourced concrete are mixed up on the Moon or Mars. Of course, like most things related to spaceflight, the reality has proved to be a bit more complex than expected.

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Kilopower: NASA’s Offworld Nuclear Reactor

Here on Earth, the ability to generate electricity is something we take for granted. We can count on the sun to illuminate solar panels, and the movement of air and water to spin turbines. Fossil fuels, for all their downsides, have provided cheap and reliable power for centuries. No matter where you may find yourself on this planet, there’s a way to convert its many natural resources into electrical power.

But what happens when humans first land on Mars, a world that doesn’t offer these incredible gifts? Solar panels will work for a time, but the sunlight that reaches the surface is only a fraction of what the Earth receives, and the constant accumulation of dust makes them a liability. In the wispy atmosphere, the only time the wind could potentially be harnessed would be during one of the planet’s intense storms. Put simply, Mars can’t provide the energy required for a human settlement of any appreciable size.

The situation on the Moon isn’t much better. Sunlight during the lunar day is just as plentiful as it is on Earth, but night on the Moon stretches for two dark and cold weeks. An outpost at the Moon’s South Pole would receive more light than if it were built in the equatorial areas explored during the Apollo missions, but some periods of darkness are unavoidable. With the lunar surface temperature plummeting to -173 °C (-280 °F) when the Sun goes down, a constant supply of energy is an absolute necessity for long-duration human missions to the Moon.

Since 2015, NASA and the United States Department of Energy have been working on the Kilopower project, which aims to develop a small, lightweight, and extremely reliable nuclear reactor that they believe will fulfill this critical role in future off-world exploration. Following a series of highly successful test runs on the prototype hardware in 2017 and 2018, the team believes the miniaturized power plant could be ready for a test flight as early as 2022. Once fully operational, this nearly complete re-imagining of the classic thermal reactor could usher in a whole new era of space exploration.

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Life At JPL Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, August 21st at noon Pacific for the Life at JPL Hack Chat with Arko!

There’s a reason why people use “rocket science” as a metaphor for things that are hard to do. Getting stuff from here to there when there is a billion miles away and across a hostile environment of freezing cold, searing heat, and pelting radiation isn’t something that’s easily accomplished. It takes a dedicated team of scientists and engineers working on machines that can reach out into the vastness of space and work flawlessly the whole time, and as much practice and testing as an Earth-based simulation can provide.

Arko, also known as Ara Kourchians, is a Robotics Electrical Engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of NASA’s research and development centers. Nestled at the outskirts of Pasadena against the flanks of the San Gabriel Mountains, JPL is the birthplace of the nation’s first satellite as well as the first successful interplanetary probe. They build the robots that explore the solar system and beyond for us; Arko gets to work on those space robots every day, and that might just be the coolest job in the world.

Join us on the Hack Chat to get your chance to ask all those burning questions you have about working at JPL. What’s it like to build hardware that will leave this world and travel to another? Get the inside story on how NASA designs and tests systems for space travel. And perhaps get a glimpse at what being a rocket scientist is all about.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, August 21 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Why Spacecraft Of The Future Will Be Extruded

It’s been fifty years since man first landed on the Moon, but despite all the incredible advancements in technology since Armstrong made that iconic first small step, we’ve yet to reach any farther into deep space than we did during the Apollo program. The giant leap that many assumed would naturally follow the Moon landing, such as a manned flyby of Venus, never came. We’ve been stuck in low Earth orbit (LEO) ever since, with a return to deep space perpetually promised to be just a few years away.

Falcon Heavy Payload Fairing

But why? The short answer is, of course, that space travel is monstrously expensive. It’s also dangerous and complex, but those issues pale in comparison to the mind-boggling bill that would be incurred by any nation that dares to send humans more than a few hundred kilometers above the surface of the Earth. If we’re going to have any chance of getting off this rock, the cost of putting a kilogram into orbit needs to get dramatically cheaper.

Luckily, we’re finally starting to see some positive development on that front. Commercial launch providers are currently slashing the cost of putting a payload into space. In its heyday, the Space Shuttle could carry 27,500 kg (60,600 lb) to LEO, at a cost of approximately $500 million per launch. Today, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy can put 63,800 kg (140,700 lb) into the same orbit for less than $100 million. It’s still not pocket change, but you wouldn’t be completely out of line to call it revolutionary, either.

Unfortunately there’s a catch. The rockets being produced by SpaceX and other commercial companies are relatively small. The Falcon Heavy might be able to lift more than twice the mass as the Space Shuttle, but it has considerably less internal volume. That wouldn’t be a problem if we were trying to hurl lead blocks into space, but any spacecraft designed for human occupants will by necessity be fairly large and contain a considerable amount of empty space. As an example, the largest module of the International Space Station would be too long to physically fit inside the Falcon Heavy fairing, and yet it had a mass of only 15,900 kg (35,100 lb) at liftoff.

To maximize the capabilities of volume constrained boosters, there needs to be a paradigm shift in how we approach the design and construction of crewed spacecraft. Especially ones intended for long-duration missions. As it so happens, exciting research is being conducted to do exactly that. Rather than sending an assembled spacecraft into orbit, the hope is that we can eventually just send the raw materials and print it in space.

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