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Hackaday Links: September 19, 2021

Things might be getting a bit dicey out in Jezero crater for Ingenuity. The little helicopter that could is starting to have trouble dealing with the thinning Martian atmosphere, and may start pressing against its margin of safety for continued operation. Ingenuity was designed for five flights that would all take place around the time its mothership Perseverance touched down on Mars back in February, at which time the mean atmospheric pressure was at a seasonal high. Over the last few months, the density of the Martian atmosphere has decreased a wee bit, but when you’re starting with a plan for a pressure that’s only 1.4% of Earth’s soupy atmosphere, every little bit counts. The solution to keeping Ingenuity flying is simple: run the rotors faster. NASA has run a test on that, spinning the rotors up to 2,800 RPM, and Ingenuity handled the extra stresses and power draw well. A 14th flight is planned to see how well the rotors bite into the rarefied air, but Ingenuity’s days as a scout for Perseverance could be numbered.

If you thought privacy concerns and government backdoors into encryption technology were 21st-century problems, think again. IEEE Spectrum has a story about “The Scandalous History of the Last Rotor Cipher Machine,” and it’s a great read — almost like a Tom Clancy novel. The story will appeal to crypto — not cryptocurrency — fans, especially those fascinated by Enigma machines, because it revolves around a Swiss rotor cipher machine called the HX-63, which was essentially a refinement of the original Enigma technology. With the equivalent of 2,000-bit encryption, it was considered unbreakable, and it was offered for sale to any and all — at least until the US National Security Agency sprung into action to persuade the inventor, Boris Hagelin, to shelve the HX-63 project in favor of electronic encryption. The NSA naturally helped Hagelin design this next generation of crypto machines, which of course all had backdoors built into them. While the cloak and dagger aspects of the story — including a possible assassination of Boris Hagelin’s son in 1970, when it became clear he wouldn’t “play ball” as his father had — are intriguing, the peek inside the HX-63, with its Swiss engineering, is the real treat.

One of the great things about the internet is how easy it is to quickly answer completely meaningless questions. For me, that usually involves looking up the lyrics of a song I just heard and finding out that, no, Robert Plant didn’t sing “Whoopie Cat” during Misty Mountain Hop. But it also let me answer a simple question the other day: what’s the largest single-piece metal object ever created? I figured it would have to be a casting of some sort, and likely something from the middle of the previous century. But as it turns out, the largest casting ever appears to have been manufactured in Sheffield, England in 2015. The company, Sheffield Forgemaster International, produced eleven castings for the offshore oil industry, each weighing in at over 320 tonnes. The scale of each piece is mind-boggling, and the technology that went into making them would be really interesting to learn about. And it goes without saying that my search was far from exhaustive; if you know of a single-piece metal part larger than 320 tonnes, I’ll be glad to stand corrected.

Have you heard about “teledriving” yet? On the face of it, a remote-controlled car where a qualified driver sits in an office somewhere watching video feeds from the car makes little sense. But as you dig into the details, the idea of remotely piloted cars starts to look like one of those “Why didn’t I think of that?” ideas. The company behind this is called Vay, and the idea is to remotely drive a ride-share vehicle to its next customer. Basically, when you hail a ride, a remote driver connects to an available car and drives it to your location. You get in and take over the controls to drive to your destination. When you arrive, another remote drive pilots the car to its next pickup. There are obvious problems to work out, but the idea is really the tacit admission that all things considered, humans are way better at driving than machines are, at least right now.

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Hackaday Links: September 5, 2021

Good news from Jezero crater as the Mars rover Perseverance manages to accomplish for the first time what it was sent to do: collect and cache core samples from rocks. Space buffs will no doubt recall that Perseverance’s first attempt at core sampling didn’t go as planned — the rock that planetary scientists selected ended up being too soft, and the percussive coring bit just turned the core sample into powder. The latest attempt went exactly as planned: the cylindrical coring bit made a perfect cut, the core slipped into the sample tube nested inside the coring bit, and the core broke off cleanly inside the sample tube when it was cammed off-axis. Operators were able to provide visible proof that the core sample was retained this time using the Mastcam-Z instrument, which clearly shows the core in the sample tube. What’s neat is that they then performed a “percuss to ingest” maneuver, where the coring bit and sample tube are vibrated briefly, so that the core sample and any dust grains left around the sealing rim slide down into the sample tube. The next step is to transfer the sample tube to the belly of the rover where it’ll be hermetically sealed after some basic analysis.

Did any Android users perhaps oversleep this week? If you did, you’re not alone — lots of users of the Google Clock app reported that their preset alarms didn’t go off. Whether it was an actual issue caused by an update or some kind of glitch is unclear, but it clearly didn’t affect everyone; my phone mercilessly reminded me when 6:00 AM came around every day last week. But it apparently tripped up some users, to the point where one reported losing his job because of being late for work. Not to be judgmental, but it seems to me that if your job is so sensitive to you being late, it might make sense to have a backup alarm clock of some sort. We all seem to be a little too trusting that our phones are going to “just work,” and when they don’t, we’re surprised and appalled.

There seem to be two kinds of people in the world — those who hate roller coasters, and those who love them. I’m firmly in the latter camp, and will gladly give any coaster, no matter how extreme, a try. There have been a few that I later regretted, of course, but by and large, the feeling of being right on the edge of bodily harm is pretty cool. Crossing over the edge, though, is far less enjoyable, as the owners of an extreme coaster in Japan are learning. The Dodon-pa coaster at the Fuji-Q Highland amusement park is capable of hitting 112 miles (180 km) per hour and has racked up a sizable collection of injuries over the last ten months, including cervical and thoracic spine fractures. The ride is currently closed for a safety overhaul; one has to wonder what they’re doing to assess what the problem areas of the ride are. Perhaps they’re sending crash test dummies on endless rides to gather data, a sight we’d like to see.

And finally, you may have thought that phone phreaking was a thing of the past; in a lot of ways, you’d be right. But there’s still a lot to be learned about how POTS networks were put together, and this phone switch identification guide should be a big help to any phone geeks out there. Be ready to roll old school here — nothing but a plain text file that describes how to probe the switch that a phone is connected just by listening to things like dial tones and ring sounds. What’s nice is that it describes why the switches sound the way they do, so you get a lot of juicy technical insights into how switches work.

No Hole In One: Perseverance Strikes Out On First Mars Core Attempt

There’s a military adage that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. While we haven’t gone to war with Mars, at least not yet, it does seem to be a place where the best-laid scientific plans are tested in the extreme. And the apparent failure of Perseverance to retrieve its first Martian core sample is yet another example of just how hard it is to perform geotechnical operations on another planet.

To be sure, a lot about the first sampling operation went right, an especially notable feat in that the entire process is autonomous. And as we’ve previously detailed, the process is not simple, involving three separate robotic elements that have to coordinate their operations perfectly. Telemetry indicates that the percussive drill on the end of the 2.1 m robotic arm was able to use its hollow coring bit to drill into the rock of Jezero crater, and that the sample tube inside the coring bit was successfully twisted to break off the core sample.

But what was supposed to happen next — jamming of the small core sample inside the sample tube — appears not to have happened. This was assessed by handing the sample tube off to the Sample Handling Arm in the belly of Perseverance, where a small probe is used to see how much material was recovered — none, in this case. NASA/JPL engineers then began a search for the problem. Engineering cameras didn’t reveal the core sample on the Martian surface, meaning the sample handling robots didn’t drop it. The core sample wasn’t in the borehole either, which would have meant the camming mechanism designed to retain the core didn’t work. The borehole, though, looked suspicious — it appears not to be deep enough, as if the core sample crumbled to dust and packed into the bottom of the hole.

If this proves to be the cause of the failure, it will be yet another example of Martian regolith not behaving as expected. For InSight, this discovery was a death knell to a large part of its science program. Thankfully, Perseverance can pick up and move to better rock, which is exactly what it will be doing in September. They still have 42 unused sample tubes to go, so here’s to better luck next time.

[Featured images: NASA/JPL-Caltech]

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Hackaday Links: July 18, 2021

Tell the world that something is in short supply, and you can bet that people will start reacting to that news in the ways that make the most sense to them — remember the toilet paper shortage? It’s the same with the ongoing semiconductor pinch, except that since the item in short supply is (arguably) more valuable than toilet paper, the behavior and the risks people are willing to take around it are even more extreme. Sure, we’ve seen chip hoarding, and a marked rise in counterfeit chips. But we’d imagine that this is the first time we’ve seen chip smuggling quite like this. The smuggler was caught at the Hong Kong-Macao border with 256 Core i7 and i9 processors, valued at about $123,000, strapped to his legs and chest. It reminds us more of “Midnight Express”-style heroin smuggling, although we have to say we love the fact that this guy chose a power of 2 when strapping these babies on.

Speaking of big money, let’s say you’ve pulled off a few chip heists without getting caught, and have retired from the smuggling business. What is one to do with the ill-gotten gains? Apparently, there’s a big boom in artifacts from the early days of console gaming, so you might want to start spreading some money around there. But you’d better prepare to smuggle a lot of chips: last week, an unopened Legend of Zelda cartridge for the NES sold for $870,000 at auction. Not to be outdone, two days later someone actually paid $1.56 million for a Super Mario 64 cartridge, this time apparently still in the tamperproof container that displayed it on a shelf somewhere in 1996. Nostalgia can be an expensive drug.

And it’s not just video games that are commanding high prices these days. If you’ve got a spare quarter million or so, why not bid on this real Apollo Guidance Computer and DSKY? The AGC is a non-flown machine that was installed in LTA-8, the “lunar test article” version of the Landing Module (LM) that was used for vacuum testing. If the photos in the auction listing seem familiar, it’s with good reason: this is the same AGC that was restored to operating condition by Carl Claunch, Mike Stewart, Ken Shiriff, and Marc Verdiell. Sotheby’s estimates the value at $200,000 to $300,000; in a world of billionaire megalomaniacs with dreams of space empires, we wouldn’t be surprised if a working AGC went for much, much more than that.

Meanwhile, current day space exploration is going swimmingly. Just this week NASA got the Hubble Space Telescope back online, which is great news for astronomers. And on Mars, the Ingenuity helicopter just keeps on delivering during its “operations demonstration” mission. Originally just supposed to be a technology demonstration, Ingenuity has proven to be a useful companion to the Perseverance rover, scouting out locations of interest to explore or areas of hazard to avoid. On the helicopter’s recent ninth flight, it scouted a dune field for the team, providing photographs that showed the area would be too dangerous for the rover to cross. The rover’s on-board navigation system isn’t great at seeing sand dunes, so Ingenuity’s images are a real boon to mission planners, not to mention geologists and astrobiologists, who are seeing promising areas of the ancient lakebed to explore.

And finally, most of us know all too well how audio feedback works, and all the occasions to avoid it. But what about video feedback? What happens when you point a camera that a screen displaying the image from the camera? Fractals are what happens, or at least something that looks a lot like fractals. Code Parade has been playing with what he calls “analog fractals”, which are generated just by video feedback and not by computational means. While he’d prefer to do this old school with analog video equipment, it easy enough to replicate on a computer; he even has a web page that lets you arrange a series of virtual monitors on your screen. Point a webcam at the screen, and you’re off on a fractal journey that constantly changes and shifts. Give it a try.

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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Sand Hack Boosts Power On InSight Mars Lander

We love that part in Apollo 13 where the NASA engineers have to fit a square carbon dioxide filter in a round hole. We love basically every scene of The Martian where Mark Watney hacks together any piece of hardware he can get his hands on to survive on a hostile planet. What we love even more is watching actual NASA engineers trying out a hack and ordering the InSight lander to scoop sand on itself to increase the power from its solar panels.

InSight, which recently had its two-year mission to study the interior geology of Mars extended, has been suffering from a buildup of dust on its solar panels. This dust is only adding on to the expected power loss which occurs as the red planet approaches aphelion — the maximum distance from the Sun in its orbit. Attempts to shake the panels clear by pulsing their deployment motors were unsuccessful. Other solar-powered missions have experienced a cleaning effect from the Martian winds; however, despite seeing plenty of gusts, InSight has not seen any significant improvement.

Counterintuitively, operators instructed the lander to slowly trickle more dust and sand from its scoop close to (not on top of) one of the solar panels. As the wind blew, larger particles were carried by the breeze across the panels and bounced off the surface, carrying away some accumulated dust. While that may sound like a minuscule effect, the experiment resulted in about 30 extra watt-hours per Sol. Margins are still thin, and science instruments will still need to be disabled to conserve power. But this boost alone was enough to delay the powerdown for a few weeks.

There are so many exciting missions operating on Mars right now. Though, it’s also fun to take a look back at some of the earliest probes. And we’re always amazed at the resources NASA makes available for us to have some DIY fun.

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Hackaday Links: June 6, 2021

There are a bunch of newly minted millionaires this week, after it was announced that Stack OverFlow would be acquired for $1.8 billion by European tech investment firm Prosus. While not exactly a household name, Prosus is a big player in the Chinese tech scene, where it has about a 30% stake in Chinese internet company Tencent. They trimmed their holdings in the company a bit recently, raising $15 billion in cash, which we assume will be used to fund the SO purchase. As with all such changes, there’s considerable angst out in the community about how this could impact everyone’s favorite coding help site. The SO leadership are all adamant that nothing will change, but only time will tell.

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