Artemis II Laser Communications

Artemis II Will Phone Home From The Moon Using Laser Beams

[NASA] Astronauts will be testing the Orion Artemis II Optical Communications System (O2O) to transmit live, 4K ultra-high-definition video back to Earth from the Moon. The system will also support communication of images, voice, control channels, and enhanced science data.

Aboard Orion, the space terminal includes an optical module, a modem, and a control system.  The optical module features a four inch telescope on a dual gimbal mount. The modem modulates digital information onto laser beams for transmission back to Earth, and demodulates data from laser beams recieved from Earth. The control system interfaces with avionic systems aboard Orin to control and point the communications telescope.

On Earth, facilities including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the White Sands Complex will maintain high-bandwidth optical communication links with Orion. Information received from Orion will be relayed to mission operations, scientists, and researchers.

NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) showcases the benefits of optical communications.  Traditionally, missions relied upon radio communication, but improved technology will better serve space missions that generate and collect ever-increasing quantities of data. Optical communication solutions can provide 10 to 100 times the bandwidth of radio frequency systems. Other improvements may include increased link distances, higher efficiency, reduced interference, improved security, and reductions in size and weight. Our Brief History of Optical Communication outlines many of these advantages.

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Remembering Virginia Norwood, Mother Of NASA’s Landsat Success

Virginia T. Norwood passed away earlier this year at the age of 96, and NASA’s farewell to this influential pioneer is a worth a read. Virginia was a brilliant physicist and engineer, and among her other accomplishments, we have her to thank for the ongoing success of the Landsat program, which continues to this day.

The goal of the program was to image land from space for the purpose of resource management. Landsat 1 launched with a Multispectral Scanner System (MSS) that Norwood designed to fulfill this task. Multispectral imaging was being done from aircraft at the time, but capturing this data from space — not to mention deciding which wavelengths to capture — and getting it back down to Earth required solving a whole lot of new and difficult problems.

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A History Of NASA Supercomputers, Among Others

The History Guy on YouTube has posted an interesting video on the history of the supercomputer, with a specific focus on their use by NASA for the implementation of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) models of aeronautical assemblies.

The aero designers of the day were quickly finding out the limitations of the wind tunnel testing approach, especially for so-called transonic flow conditions. This occurs when an object moving through a fluid (like air can be modeled) produces regions of supersonic flow mixed in with subsonic flow and makes for additional drag scenarios. This severely impacts aircraft performance. Not accounting for these effects is not an option, hence the great industry interest in CFD modeling. But the equations for which (usually based around the Navier-Stokes system) are non-linear, and extremely computationally intensive.

Obviously, a certain Mr. Cray is a prominent player in this story, who, as the story goes, exhausted the financial tolerance of his employer, CDC, and subsequently formed Cray Research Inc, and the rest is (an interesting) history. Many Cray machines were instrumental in the development of the space program, and now adorn computing museums the world over. You simply haven’t lived until you’ve sipped your weak lemon drink whilst sitting on the ‘bench’ around an early Cray machine.

You see, supercomputers are a different beast from those machines mere mortals have access to, or at least the earlier ones were. The focus is on pure performance, ideally for floating-point computation, with cost far less of a concern, than getting to the next computational milestone. The Cray-1 for example, is a 64-bit machine capable of 80 MIPS scalar performance (whilst eating over 100 kW of juice), and some very limited parallel processing ability.

While this was immensely faster than anything else available at the time, the modern approach to supercomputing is less about fancy processor design and more about the massive use of parallelism of existing chips with lots of local fast storage mixed in. Every hacker out there should experience these old machines if they can, because the tricks they used and the lengths the designers went to get squeeze out every ounce of processing grunt, can be a real eye-opener.

Want to see what happens when you really push out the boat and use the whole wafer for parallel computation? Checkout the Cerberus. If your needs are somewhat less, but dabbling in parallel computing gets you all pumped, you could build a small array out of Pine64s. Finally, the story wouldn’t be complete without talking about the life and sad early demise of Seymour Cray.
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NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover Gets A Major Software Upgrade

Although the Curiosity rover has been well out of the reach of human hands since it touched down on Mars’ surface in 2012, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t getting constant upgrades. Via its communication link with Earth it receives regular firmware updates, with the most recent one being the largest one since 2016. In addition to code clean-up and small tweaks to message formats, this new change should make Curiosity both smarter and have its wheels last longer.

The former helps to avoid the long idle times between navigating, as unlike its younger sibling, Curiosity does not have the dedicated navigation computer for more autonomous driving. Although it won’t make the 11-year old rover as nimble as its sibling, it should shorten these pauses and allow for more navigating and science to be done. Finally, the change to reduce wear on the wheels is fairly simple, but should be rather effective: this affects the amount of steering that Curiosity needs to do while driving in an arc.

With these changes in place, Curiosity should be all ready to receive its newest sibling as it arrives in a few years along with even more Mars helicopters.

3D Print For Extreme Temperatures (But Only If You’re NASA)

At the level pursued by many Hackaday readers, the advent of affordable 3D printing has revolutionised prototyping, as long as the resolution of a desktop printer is adequate and the part can be made in a thermoplastic or resin, it can be in your hands without too long a wait. The same has happened at a much higher level, but for those with extremely deep pockets it extends into exotic high-performance materials which owners of a desktop FDM machine can only dream of.

NASA for example are reporting their new 3D printable nickel-cobalt-chromium alloy that can produce extra-durable laser-sintered metal parts that van withstand up to 2000 Fahrenheit, or 1033 Celcius for non-Americans. This has obvious applications for an organisation producing spacecraft, so naturally they are excited about it.

The alloy receives some of its properties because of its oxide-dispersion-strengthened composition, in which grains of metal oxide are dispersed among its structure. We’re not metallurgists here at Hackaday, but we understand that the inconsistencies in the layers of metal atoms caused by the oxides in the crystal structure of the alloy leads to a higher energy required for the structure to shear.

While these particular materials might never be affordable for us mere mortals to play with, NASA’s did previously look into how it could greatly reduce the cost of high-temperature 3D printing by modifying an existing open source machine.

The Freedom To Fail

When you think of NASA, you think of high-stakes, high-cost, high-pressure engineering, and maybe the accompanying red tape. In comparison, the hobby hacker has a tremendous latitude to mess up, dream big, and generally follow one’s bliss. Hopefully you’ll take some notes. And as always with polar extremes, the really fertile ground lies in the middle.

[Dan Maloney] and I were thinking about this yesterday while discussing the 50th flight of Ingenuity, the Mars helicopter. Ingenuity is a tech demo, carrying nothing mission critical, but just trying to figure out if you could fly around on Mars. It was planned to run for five flights, and now it’s done 50.

The last big tech demo was the Sojourner Rover. It was a small robotic vehicle the size of a microwave oven that they hoped would last seven days. It went for 85, and it gave NASA the first taste of success it needed to follow on with 20 years of Martian rovers.

Both of these projects were cheap, by NASA standards, and because they were technical demonstrators, the development teams were allowed significantly more design freedom, again by NASA standards.

None of this compares to the “heck I’ll just hot-air an op-amp off an old project” of weekend hacking around here, but I absolutely believe that a part of the tremendous success of both Sojourner and Ingenuity were due to the risks that the development teams were allowed to take. Creativity and successful design thrives on the right blend of constraint and freedom.

Will Ingenuity give birth to a long series of flying planetary rovers as Sojourner did for her rocker-bogie based descendants? Too early to tell. But I certainly hope that someone within NASA is noticing the high impact that these technical demonstrator projects have, and also noting why. The addition of a little bit of hacker spirit to match NASA’s professionalism probably goes a long way.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Completes 50th Flight

While NASA’s Perseverance rover brought an array of impressive scientific equipment to the surface of Mars, certainly its most famous payload is the stowaway helicopter Ingenuity. Despite being little more than a restricted-budget experiment using essentially only off-the-shelf components that you can find in your smartphone and e-waste drawer, the tenacious drone managed to complete its fiftieth flight on April 13 — just days before the two year anniversary of its first flight, which took place on April 19th of 2021.

Engineers hoped that Ingenuity would be able to show that a solar-powered drone could function in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars, but the experiment ended up wildly exceeding expectations.  No longer a simple technology demonstrator, the helicopter has become an integral part of Perseverance’s operations. Through its exploratory flights Ingenuity can scout ahead, picking the best spots for the much slower rover, with rough terrain only becoming a concern when it’s time to land.

Since leaving the relatively flat Jezero Crater floor on January 19th of 2023, Ingenuity has had to contend with significantly harsher terrain. Thanks to upgraded navigation firmware the drone is better to determine safe landing locations, but each flight remains a white-knuckle event. This is also true for each morning’s wake-up call. Although the rover is powered and heated continuously due to its nuclear power source, Ingenuity goes into standby mode overnight, after which it must re-establish its communication with the rover.

Though there’s no telling what the future may hold for Ingenuity, one thing is certain — its incredible success will shape upcoming missions. NASA is already looking at larger, more capable drones to be sent on future missions, which stand to help us explore the Red Planet planet faster than ever. Not a bad for a flying smartphone.

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