Returning A Lost Sheep To The NASA Fold

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!

At the time of writing they are preparing to issue commands to the craft, so with luck by the time you read this they will have resumed full control of it and there will be fresh exciting installments of the saga. Meanwhile you can read our report of the discovery here, and read about a previous satellite brought back from the dead.

Picture of IMAGE satellite: NASA public domain.

Plastic Model Emulates the First Untethered Spacewalk

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.

80’s “Astronaut with MMU” model kit.

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.

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Mae Jemison and the Final Frontier

From the time Mae Jemison was a little girl, she was convinced that she would go to space. No one could tell her otherwise. She was sure that space travel would be as common as air travel by the time she was an adult. That prediction didn’t pan out, but that confidence combined with her intellect, curiosity, and the above-average encouragement of her parents drove Mae to do everything she wanted, including space travel.

Some people might become a doctor or a researcher, a dancer or an astronaut. But Mae became all of these things. Not everyone supported her non-traditional path—many people just pick a career and stick with it. Her path is impressive and through it all she gained a really interesting perspective on how education is approached, and what effects that approach has on society. After practicing medicine, joining a shuttle mission, appearing in Star Trek, and retiring from NASA, she became a voice for minority students and an advocate for integrating the arts and sciences in the standard curriculum.

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Search for Military Satellite Finds One NASA Lost Instead

[Scott Tilley] was searching for radio signals from the Air Force’s top-secret ZUMA satellite. He found something that is — we think — much more interesting. He found NASA’s lost satellite called IMAGE. You are probably wondering why it is interesting that someone listening for one satellite found another one. You see, NASA declared IMAGE dead in 2005. It went silent unexpectedly and did not complete its mission to image the magnetosphere.

NASA did a failure review and concluded that in all likelihood a single event upset caused a power controller to trip. A single event upset, or SEU, is a radiation event and should have been automatically recovered. However, there was a design flaw that failed to report certain types of power controller failures, including this one.

The report mentioned that it might be possible to reset the controller at a specific time in 2007, but given that NASA thought the satellite was out of commission that either never occurred or didn’t work. However, something apparently woke the satellite up from its sleep.

[Scott] did a lot of number crunching to determine that the satellite’s spin rate had only decreased a little from its operational value and that the doppler data matched what he expected. [Scott] can’t read or command the telemetry, so he doesn’t know how healthy the satellite is, but it is at least operational to some degree. It’s really neat to see members of the team that worked on IMAGE leaving comments congratulating [Scott] on the find. They are working to get him data formatting information to see if more sense can be made of the incoming transmissions.

Who knew listening to satellites could be so exciting? If you want to build your own ground station, you might be interested in this antenna mount. If you need to know what’s overhead, this can help.

Space Escape: Flying A Chair To Lunar Orbit

In the coming decades, mankind will walk on the moon once again. Right now, plans are being formulated for space stations orbiting around Lagrange points, surveys of lava tubes are being conducted, and slowly but surely plans are being formed to build the hardware that will become a small scientific outpost on our closest celestial neighbor.

This has all happened before, of course. In the early days of the Apollo program, there were plans to launch two Saturn V rockets for every moon landing, one topped with a command module and three astronauts, the other one containing an unmanned ‘LM Truck’. This second vehicle would land on the moon with all the supplies and shelter for a 14-day mission. There would be a pressurized lunar rover weighing thousands of pounds. This wouldn’t exactly be a Lunar colony, instead, it would be more like a small cabin in the Arctic used as a scientific outpost. Astronauts and scientists would land, spend two weeks researching and exploring, and return to Earth with hundreds of pounds of samples.

With this, as with all Apollo landings, came a risk. What would happen if the ascent engine didn’t light? Apart from a beautiful speech written by William Safire, there was nothing concrete for astronauts consigned to the deepest of the deep. Later in the Apollo program, there was a plan for real hardware to bring stranded astronauts home. This was the Lunar Escape System (LESS), basically two chairs mounted to a rocket engine.

While the LESS was never built, several studies were completed in late 1970 by North American Rockwell detailing the hardware that would return two astronauts from the surface of the moon. It involved siphoning fuel from a stricken Lunar Module, flying to orbit with no computer or really any instrumentation at all, and performing a rendezvous with an orbiting Command Module in less than one Lunar orbit.

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3D Printing The Final Frontier

While down here there’s room for debate about the suitability of 3D printing for anything more serious than rapid prototyping, few would say the same once you’ve slipped the surly bonds of Earth. With 3D printing, astronauts would have the ability to produce objects and tools on-demand from a supply of inert raw building materials. Instead of trying to pack every conceivable spare part for a mission to Mars, replacements (assuming a little forward thinking on the part of the spacecraft designers) can be made to order out of the stock of raw plastic or metal kept on-board. The implications of such technology for deep space travel or off-world settlement simply cannot be overstated.

In the more immediate future, 3D printing can be used to rapidly develop and deploy unmanned spacecraft. Tiny satellites (referred to as CubeSats) could be printed, assembled, and deployed by astronauts already in orbit. Innovations such as these could allow science missions to be planned and executed in months instead of years, and at a vastly reduced cost.

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Extraterrestrial Autonomous Lander Systems to Touch Down on Mars

The future of humans is on Mars. Between SpaceX, Boeing, NASA, and every other national space program, we’re going to Mars. With this comes a problem: flying to Mars is relatively easy, but landing a large payload on the surface of another planet is orders of magnitude more difficult. Mars, in particular, is tricky: it has just enough atmosphere that you need to design around it, but not enough where we can use only parachutes to bring several tons down to the surface. On top of this, we’ll need to land our habitats and Tesla Roadsters inside a very small landing ellipse. Landing on Mars is hard and the brightest minds are working on it.

At this year’s Hackaday Superconference, we learned how hard landing on Mars is from Ara Kourchians (you may know him as [Arko]) and Steve Collins, engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in beautiful Pasadena. For the last few years, they’ve been working on COBALT, a technology demonstrator on how to use machine vision, fancy IMUs, and a host of sensors to land autonomously on alien worlds. You can check out the video of their Supercon talk below.

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