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Hackaday Links: November 7, 2021

More trouble for Hubble this week as the space observatory’s scientific instruments package entered safe mode again. The problems started back on October 25, when the Scientific Instrument Command and Data Handling Unit, or SI C&DH, detect a lack of synchronization messages from the scientific instruments — basically, the cameras and spectrometers that sit at the focus of the telescope. The issue appears to be different from the “payload computer glitch” that was so widely reported back in the summer, but does seem to involve hardware on the SI C&DH. Mission controller took an interesting approach to diagnosing the problem: the dusted off the NICMOS, or Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer, an instrument that hasn’t been used since 1998. Putting NICMOS back into the loop allowed them to test for loss of synchronization messages without risking the other active instruments. In true hacker fashion, it looks like the fix will be to change the software to deal with the loss of sync messages. We’ll keep you posted.

What happened to the good old days, when truck hijackings were for things like cigarettes and booze? Now it’s graphics cards, at least according to a forum post that announced the theft of a shipment of EVGA GeForce RTX 30-series graphics cards from a delivery truck. The truck was moving the cards from San Francisco to the company’s southern California distribution center. No word as to the modus operandi of the thieves, so it’s not clear if the whole truck was stolen or if the cards “fell off the back.” Either way, EVGA took pains to note that receiving stolen goods is a crime under California law, and that warranties for the stolen cards will not be honored. Given the purpose these cards will likely be used for, we doubt that either of these facts matters much to the thieves.

Remember “Jet Pack Man”? We sure do, from a series of reports by pilots approaching Los Angeles International airport stretching back into 2020 and popping up occasionally. The reports were all similar — an object approximately the size and shape of a human, floating aloft near LAX. Sightings persisted, investigations were launched, but nobody appeared to know where Jet Pack Man came from or what he was flying. But now it appears that the Los Angeles Police may have identified the culprit: one Jack Skellington, whose street name is the Pumpkin King. Or at least a helium balloon version of the gangly creature, which is sure what an LAPD helicopter seems to have captured on video. But color us skeptical here; after all, they spotted the Halloween-themed balloon around the holiday, and it’s pretty easy to imagine that the hapless hero of Halloween Town floated away from someone’s front porch. More to the point, video that was captured at the end of 2020 doesn’t look anything like a Skellington balloon. So much for “case closed.”

Speaking of balloons, here’s perhaps a more productive use for them — lifting a solar observatory up above most of the atmosphere. The Sunrise Solar Observatory is designed to be lifted to about 37 km by a balloon, far enough above the Earth’s ozone layer to allow detailed observation of the Sun’s corona and lower atmosphere down into the UV range of the spectrum. Sunrise has already flown two successful missions in 2009 and 2013 which have netted over 100 scientific papers. The telescope has a one-meter aperture and automatic alignment and stabilization systems to keep it pointed the right way. Sunrise III is scheduled to launch in June 2022, and aims to study the flow of material in the solar atmosphere with an eye to understanding the nature of the Sun’s magnetic field.

And finally, what a difference a few feet can make. Some future Starlink customers are fuming after updating the location on their request for service, only to find the estimated delivery date pushed back a couple of years. Signing up for Starlink satellite service entails dropping a pin on a map to indicate your intended service location, but when Starlink put a new, more precise mapping app on the site, some eager pre-order customers updated their location to more accurately reflect where the dish will be installed. It’s not clear if the actual location of the dish is causing the change in the delivery date, or if just the act of updating an order places you at the bottom of the queue. But the lesson here may be that with geolocation, close enough is close enough.

Things Are Looking Brighter! But Not The Stars

Growing up in Montana I remember looking out at night and seeing the Milky Way, reminding me of my insignificance in the universe. Now that I live in a city, such introspection is no longer easy, and like 1/2 of humanity that also lives in urban areas, I must rely on satellites to provide the imagery. Yet satellites are part of the problem. Light pollution has been getting worse for decades, and with the recent steady stream of satellite launches and billionaire joyrides we have a relatively new addition to the sources of interference. So how bad is it, and how much worse will it get?

Looking up at the night sky, you can usually tell the difference between various man-made objects. Planes go fairly slowly across the sky, and you can sometimes see them blinking green and red. Meteors are fast and difficult to see. Geostationary satellites don’t appear to move at all because they are orbiting at the same rate as earth’s rotation, while other orbit types will zip by.

SpaceX has committed to reducing satellite brightness, and some observations have confirmed that new models are a full magnitude darker, right at the threshold of naked-eye observation. Unfortunately, it’s only a step in the right direction, and not enough to satisfy astronomers, who aren’t looking up at the night sky with their naked eyes, naturally.

The satellites aren’t giving off the light themselves. They are merely reflecting the light from the sun back to the earth, exactly the same way the moon is. Thus something that is directly in the shadow of the Earth will not reflect any light, but near the horizon the reflection from the satellites can be significant. It’s not practical to only focus our observatories in the narrow area that is the Earth’s shadow during the night, so we must look closer to the horizon and capture the reflections of the satellites. Continue reading “Things Are Looking Brighter! But Not The Stars”

More Than Just Hubble: The Space Observatories Filling The Skies Today And Tomorrow

Amidst the recent news about the Hubble Space Telescope’s troubles (and triumphant resurrection), it is sometimes easy to forget that although Hubble is a pretty unique telescope, it is just one of many space-based observatories that are currently zipping overhead right now or perched in a heliocentric orbit. So what is it that makes these observatories less known than the iconic Hubble telescope?

Hubble is one of the longest-lived space telescopes so far, and it is also the only space telescope that was both launched and serviced by the Space Shuttle. None of the other telescopes have this legacy, the high-profile, or troubled history of Hubble’s intended successor: the James Web Space Telescope (JWST).

Even so, the mission profiles of these myriad other observatories are no less interesting, least of the many firsts accomplished recently such as a long-term moon-based telescope (Chang’e 3’s LUT) and those of the many upcoming and proposed missions. Let’s take a look at the space observatories many of us have never heard of.

Continue reading “More Than Just Hubble: The Space Observatories Filling The Skies Today And Tomorrow”

As A Matter Of Fact, It’s All Dark

While the dark side of the moon wasn’t seen by humans until the middle of the 20th century, that side of the moon isn’t always dark, just hidden from view of Earth by a quirk of gravity. The more appropriate name for the other half of the moon is the “far side”, but while it gets just as much sunshine as the near side does it is dark to one thing in particular: man-made radio waves. That, along with the lack of an atmosphere and ionosphere on the moon, makes it a perfect place for a new telescope.

This telescope isn’t like something you’d set up in your back yard, either. It’s more similar to the Aricebo Observatory in Puerto Rico which uses natural topography to help form the telescope. The proposed telescope on the far side of the moon would use a robot to deploy a net along a fairly large crater to act as a parabolic dish, while another robot would suspend the receiver above the crater. The large size is necessary for viewing deep into space, but is also because of the low-frequency radio signals they hope to capture.

Building a dish like this on the moon is sure to be no easy task, especially since remote control on the far side of the moon is difficult for precisely the reasons that make this a good location for a telescope. But with an appropriate amount of funding and some sufficiently autonomous robots it should be possible. Plus, you never know what you’ll find when looking deep into space.

Reverse Engineering Keeps Keck Telescopes On Track

Perched atop a dormant volcano far above the roiling tropical air of the Big Island of Hawai’i sit two of the largest optical telescopes in the world. Each 10-meter main mirror is but a single part of a magnificent machine weighing in at some 400 tons that needs to be positioned with incredible precision. Keeping Keck 1 and Keck 2 in peak operating condition is the job of a team of engineers and scientists, so when the servo amplifiers running the twelve motors that move each scope started to show their age, [Andrew] bit the bullet and rebuilt the obsolete boards from scratch.

The Keck telescopes were built over three decades ago, and many of the parts, including the problematic servo amps, are no longer made. Accumulated wear and tear from constant use and repeated repairs had taken their toll on the boards, from overheated components to lifted solder pads. With only some barely legible schematics of the original amplifiers to go by, [Andrew] reverse engineered new amps. Some substitutions for obsolete components were needed, the PCB design was updated to support SMD parts, and higher-quality components were specified, but the end result is essentially new amplifiers that are plug-in replacements for the original units. This should keep the telescopes on track for decades to come.

Not to sound jealous, but it seems like [Andrew] has a great gig. He’s shared a couple of his Keck adventures before, like the time a failed LED blinded the telescope. He’s also had a few more down-to-earth hacks, like fixing a dodgy LCD monitor and making spooky blinkeneyes for Halloween.

Kepler Closes Eyes After A Decade Of Discovery

Since its launch in March 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope has provided us with an incredible amount of data about exoplanets within our galaxy, proving these worlds are more varied and numerous than we could ever have imagined. Before its launch we simply didn’t know how common planets such as ours were, but today we know the Milky Way contains billions of them. Some of these worlds are so hot they have seas of molten rock, others experience two sunsets a day as they orbit a pair of stars. Perhaps most importantly, thousands of the planets found by Kepler are much like our own: potentially playing host to life as we know it.

Kepler lived a fruitful life by any metric, but it hasn’t been an easy one. Too far into deep space for us to repair it as we did Hubble, hardware failures aboard the observatory nearly brought the program to a halt in 2013. When NASA announced the spacecraft was beyond hope of repair, most assumed the mission would end. Even by that point, Kepler was an unqualified success and had provided us with enough data to keep astronomers busy for years. But an ingenious fix was devised, allowing it to continue collecting data even in its reduced capacity.

Leaning into the solar wind, Kepler was able to use the pressure of sunlight striking its solar panels to steady itself. Kepler’s “eyesight” was never quite the same after the failure of its reaction wheels, and it consumed more propellant than originally intended to maintain this careful balancing act, but the science continued. The mission that had already answered many of our questions about our place in the galaxy would push ahead in spite of a failure which should have left it dead in space.

As Kepler rapidly burned through its supply of propellant, it became clear the mission was on borrowed time. It was a necessary evil, as the alternative was leaving the craft tumbling through space, but mission planners understood that the fix they implemented had put an expiration date on Kepler. Revised calculations could provide an estimate as to when the vehicle would finally run its tanks dry and lose attitude control, but not a definitive date.

For the last several months NASA has known the day was approaching, but they decided to keep collecting data until the vehicle’s thrusters sputtered and failed. So today’s announcement that Kepler has at long last lost the ability to orient itself came as no surprise. Kepler has observed its last alien sunset, but the search for planets, and indeed life, in our corner of the galaxy doesn’t end today.

Continue reading “Kepler Closes Eyes After A Decade Of Discovery”

An Astronomical Observatory For Your Front Yard

[Barry Armstead] is an astronomy enthusiast who built his own observatory in his front yard, in Canberra, Australia. It was a fine observatory as home-made observatories go, but he describes it as being small and cramped. His replacement was on an entirely different scale though, a building created by hand and which no doubt many readers would be pleased to own.

asign2modelanimationHis design started with a cardboard model, and has a downstairs room upon which sits a rotatable dome with two sliding sections to form the observation window. The original observatory’s concrete pillar on which the telescope mount stood remained post-demolition, and a larger concrete pad was laid. There followed the assembly of a steel frame with a skeletal dome able to rotate on rollers, followed by cladding with steel sheet. The dome cladding was done in segments marked against the dome steelwork and cut to shape.

The final building has a fully finished interior downstairs, plus a rustic staircase to the upper deck. The concrete post has been extended, and now carry’s [Barry]’s telescope which he controls not with his eye clued to an eyepiece like the astronomers of old, but from a computer at the adjacent desk. The full construction details are on the observatory’s web site, though since it seems in danger of disappearing due to an expired hosting account we’ll also give you a Wayback Machine link direct to the relevant page. Meanwhile he offers a tour in a video we’ve placed below the break. Even a non-astronomer would find this an asset in their garden!

Continue reading “An Astronomical Observatory For Your Front Yard”