Elliot Williams and Mike Szczys walk through the past week in hackerdom. There’s a new jargon quiz! Do you know what astrictive robotic prehension means? We look at the $50 Ham series, omni-wheeled pen plotting robots, a spectrum of LED hacks, LEGO CNC for chocolate rework, and grinding lenses with a CNC mill. In the “can’t miss” category are fingerprinting 3D Printers, and how NASA designs far beyond the stated life of an engineering project.
Links for all discussed on the show are found below. As always, join in the comments as we’ll be watching those as we work on next week’s episode!
The White House’s proposed budget for 2020 is out, and with it comes cuts to NASA. The most important item of note in the proposed budget is a delay of the Space Launch System, the SLS, a super-heavy lifting launch vehicle designed for single use. The proposed delay would defer work on the enhanced version of the SLS, the Block 1B with the Exploration Upper Stage.
The current plans for the Space Launch System include a flight using NASA’s Orion spacecraft in June 2020 for a flight around the moon. This uncrewed flight, Exploration Mission 1, or EM-1, would use the SLS Block 1 Crew rocket. A later flight, EM-2, would fly a crewed Orion capsule around the moon in 2022. A third proposed flight in 2023 would send the Europa Clipper to Jupiter. The proposed 2020 budget puts these flights in jeopardy.
You’ve got to admit, things have been going exceptionally well for SpaceX. In the sixteen years they’ve been in operation, they’ve managed to tick off enough space “firsts” to make even established aerospace players blush. They’re the first privately owned company to not only design and launch their own orbital-class rocket, but to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station. The first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket is the world’s only orbital booster capable of autonomous landing and reuse, and their Falcon Heavy has the highest payload capacity of any operational launch system. All of which they’ve managed to do at a significantly lower cost than their competition.
So it might come as a surprise to hear that SpaceX recently lost out on a lucrative NASA launch contract to the same entrenched aerospace corporations they’ve been running circles around for the last decade. It certainly seems to have come as a surprise to SpaceX, at least. Their bid to launch NASA’s Lucy mission on the Falcon 9 was so much lower than the nearly $150 million awarded to United Launch Alliance (ULA) for a flight on their Atlas V that the company has decided to formally protest the decision. Publicly questioning a NASA contract marks another “first” for the company, and a sign that SpaceX’s confidence in their abilities has reached the point that they’re no longer content to be treated as a minor player compared to heavyweights like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
But this isn’t the first time NASA has opted to side with more established partners, even in the face of significantly lower bids by “New Space” companies. Their decision not to select Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spaceplane for the Commercial Crew program in 2014, despite it being far cheaper than Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, triggered a similar protest to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO). In the end, the GAO determined that Boeing’s experience and long history justified the higher sticker price of their spacecraft compared to the relative newcomer.
NASA has yet to officially explain their decision to go with ULA over SpaceX for the Lucy mission, but in light of what we know about the contract, it seems a safe bet they’ll tell SpaceX the same thing they told Sierra Nevada in 2014. The SpaceX bid might be lower, but in the end, NASA’s is willing to pay more to know it will get done right. Which begs the question: at what point are the cost savings not compelling enough to trust an important scientific mission (or human lives) to these rapidly emerging commercial space companies?
Representatives from SpaceX, Blue Origin, and United Launch Alliance participated in a forum last week held by NASA to determine the future of humans on the moon. This isn’t just how they will live, how long they will stay, or what they will do; no, this is far more interesting: this was how humans will travel from lunar orbit from the surface of the moon. The future of the next generation of lunar lander is being determined right now.
The plan right now is entirely unlike Apollo, which sent a pair of spaceships in orbit around the moon, sent one to the surface, then returned to the mother ship for the trip back to Earth. Instead of something somewhat simple, the next era of lunar exploration will happen from a gateway orbiting in cis-lunar space. What makes this so amazing is how weird the orbit is, and the reasons behind it.
The TWINS (Temperature and Wind for InSight) package provided by Spain’s Centro de Astrobiología shows the little spikes regularly since the lander hit the ground in November. They seem to correspond to local sunrise and sunset. Keep in mind, the pressure on Mars is very low — about 1% of Earth’s atmosphere — and scientists have already ruled out instrument problems.
“It wouldn’t happen that way in real life.” One of the most annoying habits of people really into the “sci” of sci-fi is nitpicking scientific inaccuracies in movies. The truth is, some things just make movies better, even if they are wrong.
What would Star Wars be without the sounds of an epic battle in space where there should be no sound? But there are plenty of other examples where things are wrong and it would have been just as easy to get them right — the direction of space debris in the movie Gravity, for example. But what about the age-old trope of explosive decompression? Some movies show gross body parts flying everywhere. Others show distressed space travelers surviving in space for at least brief periods.
It turns out, dropping pressure from one atmosphere to near zero is not really good for you as you might expect. But it isn’t enough to just make you pop like some meat balloon. You are much more likely to die from a pulmonary embolism or simple suffocation. But you are a meat balloon if you experience a much greater change in pressure. How do we know? It isn’t theoretical. These things have happened in real life.
The Moon is a desolate rock, completely incapable of harboring life as we know it. Despite being our closest celestial neighbor, conditions on the surface couldn’t be more different from the warm and wet world we call home. Variations in surface temperature are so extreme, from a blistering 106 C (223 F) during the lunar day to a frigid -183 C (-297 F) at night, that even robotic probes struggle to survive. The Moon’s atmosphere, if one is willing to call the wispy collection of oddball gasses including argon, helium, and neon at nearly negligible concentrations an atmosphere, does nothing to protect the lunar surface from being bombarded with cosmic radiation.
Yet for a brief time, very recently, life flourished on the Moon. Of course, it did have a little help. China’s Chang’e 4 lander, which made a historic touchdown in the Von Kármán crater on January 3rd, brought with it an experiment designed to test if plants could actually grow on the lunar surface. The device, known as the Lunar Micro Ecosystem (LME), contained air, soil, water, and a collection of seeds. When it received the appropriate signal, LME watered the seeds and carefully monitored their response. Not long after, Chinese media proudly announced that the cotton seeds within the LME had sprouted and were doing well.
Unfortunately, the success was exceptionally short-lived. Just a few days after announcing the success of the LME experiment, it was revealed that all the plants which sprouted had died. The timeline here is a bit hazy. It was not even immediately clear if the abrupt end of the LME experiment was intentional, or due to some hardware failure.
So what exactly do we know about Chang’e 4’s Lunar Micro Ecosystem, and the lifeforms it held? Why did the plants die? But perhaps most importantly, what does all this have to do with potential future human missions to that inhospitable rock floating just a few hundred thousand kilometers away from us?