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.
The International Space Station is one of our leading frontiers of science and engineering, but it’s easy to forget that an exotic orbiting laboratory has basic needs shared with every terrestrial workplace. This includes humble office equipment like a printer. (The ink-on-paper kind.) And if you thought your office IT is slow to update their list of approved equipment, consider the standard issue NASA space printer draws from a stock of modified Epson Stylus 800s first flown on a space shuttle almost twenty years ago. HP signed on to provide a replacement, partnering with Simplexity who outlined their work as a case study upgrading HP’s OfficeJet 5740 design into the HP Envy ISS.
Simplexity provided more engineering detail than HP’s less technical page. Core parts of inkjet printing are already well suited for space and required no modification. Their low power consumption is valued when all power comes from solar panels, and ink flow is already controlled via methods independent of gravity. Most of the engineering work focused on paper handling in zero gravity, similar to the work necessary for its Epson predecessor. To verify gravity-independent operation on earth, Simplexity started by mounting their test units upside-down and worked their way up to testing in the cabin of an aircraft in free fall.
CollectSpace has a writeup with details outside Simplexity’s scope, covering why ISS needs a printer plus additional modifications made in the interest of crew safety. Standard injection-molded plastic parts were remade with an even more fire-resistant formulation of plastic. The fax/scanner portion of the device was removed due to concerns around its glass bed. Absorbent mats were attached inside the printer to catch any stray ink droplets.
NASA commissioned a production run for 50 printers, the first of which was delivered by SpaceX last week on board their CRS-14 mission. When it wears out, a future resupply mission will deliver its replacement drawn from this stock of space printers. Maybe a new inkjet printer isn’t as exciting as 3D printing in space or exploring space debris cleanup, but it’s still a part of keeping our orbital laboratory running.
How often does NASA name a spacecraft after a living person? How often do you get to launch your name into a star? How often does NASA send probes to explore the sun? If your answer to all these questions is NEVER, then you win the honor of adding your name to an SD card bound for the center of our solar system. We’re already on the list with [William Shatner] so we’ll see you there. Submissions for the hot list aboard the Parker Solar Probe close on April 27th, 2018 and it launches in May.
The Parker Solar probe honors living astrophysicist [Eugene Parker] who theorized a great deal about how the sun, and other stars, emit energy. His work has rightly earned him the honor of seeing his name on a sun-bound probe. We even owe the term, “solar wind” to [Parker].
To draw more attention, you can have a few bits aboard this probe dedicated to you or someone you care about by adding your name to their list. Or you can send the name of your greatest enemy into the hottest furnace for millions of miles. Your call.
When she was four years old, Nancy Grace Roman loved drawing pictures of the Moon. By the time she was forty, she was in charge of convincing the U.S. government to fund a space telescope that would give us the clearest, sharpest pictures of the Moon that anyone had ever seen. Her interest in astronomy was always academic, and she herself never owned a telescope. But without Nancy, there would be no Hubble.
Nancy was born May 16, 1925 in Nashville, Tennessee. Her father was a geophysicist, and the family moved around often. Nancy’s parents influenced her scientific curiosities, but they also satisfied them. Her father handled the hard science questions, and Nancy’s mother, who was quite interested in the natural world, would point out birds, plants, and constellations to her.
For two years, the family lived on the outskirts of Reno, Nevada. The wide expanse of desert and low levels of light pollution made stargazing easy, and Nancy was hooked. She formed an astronomy club with some neighborhood girls, and they met once a week in the Romans’ backyard to study constellations. Nancy would later reminisce that her experience in Reno was the single greatest influence on her future career.
By the time Nancy was ready for high school, she was dead-set on becoming an astronomer despite a near-complete lack of support from her teachers. When she asked her guidance counselor for permission to take a second semester of Algebra instead of a fifth semester of Latin, the counselor was appalled. She looked down her nose at Nancy and sneered, “What lady would take mathematics instead of Latin?”
On February 22nd, a Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and successfully delivered into orbit an Earth-observation satellite operated by the Spanish company Hisdesat. Compared to the media coverage received by the launch of the Tesla-laden Falcon Heavy earlier in the month, this mission got very little attention. But that’s hardly surprising. With respect to Hisdesat, the payload this time around was not terribly exciting, and even the normally dramatic landing of the Falcon 9’s first stage was skipped in favor of simply allowing the booster to crash into the ocean.
As far as SpaceX launches go, this one was about as low-key as they come. It wouldn’t be a surprise if this is the first time some readers are even hearing about it. But while it didn’t invoke the same media circus as the images of a spacesuit-wearing mannequin traveling into deep space, there was still a historic “first” performed during this mission.
In an effort to increase the re-usability of the Falcon 9 booster, SpaceX attempted to catch the payload fairing (essentially a large protective nose cone) with a huge net as it fell from space. The most interesting thing about this new chapter in the quest for a fully reusable rocket system is that while SpaceX is generally considered to be pioneers in the world of bringing hardware back from space, this particular trick dates all the way back to the 1960’s.
About three weeks ago, we reported that a satellite enthusiast in Canada found an unexpected signal among his listening data. It was a satellite, and upon investigation it turned out to be NASA’s IMAGE satellite, presumed dead since a power failure in 2005 interrupted its mission to survey the Earth’s magnetosphere.
This story is old news then, they’ve found IMAGE, now move on. And indeed the initial excitement is past, and you might expect that to be it from the news cycle perspective. But this isn’t the Daily Mail, it’s Hackaday. And because we are interested in the details of stories like these it’s a fascinating read to take a look at NASA’s detailed timeline of the satellite’s discovery and subsequent recovery.
In it we read about the detective work that went into not simply identifying the probable source of the signals, but verifying that it was indeed IMAGE. Then we follow the various NASA personnel as they track the craft and receive telemetry from it. It seems they have a fully functional spacecraft with a fully charged battery reporting for duty, the lost sheep has well and truly returned to the fold!
Here’s something really wonderful. [Dave Akerman] wrote up the results of his attempt to use a high-altitude balloon to try to re-create a famous image of NASA’s Bruce McCandless floating freely in space with the Earth in the background. [Dave] did this in celebration of the 34th anniversary of the first untethered spacewalk, even going so far as to launch on the same day as the original event in 1984. He had excellent results, with plenty of video and images recorded by his payload.
Adhering to the actual day of the spacewalk wasn’t the only hurdle [Dave] jumped to make this happen. He tracked down an old and rare “Astronaut with MMU” (Mobile Maneuvering Unit) plastic model kit made by Revell USA and proceeded to build it and arrange for it to remain in view of the cameras. Raspberry Pi Zero Ws with cameras, LoRA hardware, action cameras, and a UBlox GPS unit all make an appearance in the balloon’s payload.
Sadly, [Bruce McCandless] passed away in late 2017, but this project is a wonderful reminder of that first untethered spacewalk. Details on the build and the payload, as well as the tracking system, are covered here on [Dave]’s blog. Videos of the launch and the inevitable balloon burst are embedded below, but more is available in the summary write-up.