Martian Successes Reshape Sample Return Plans

For as long as humans have been sending probes to Mars, there’s been a desire to return rock, soil, and atmosphere samples back to Earth for more detailed analysis. But the physics of such a mission are particularly demanding — a vehicle that could land on the Martian surface, collect samples, and then launch itself back into orbit for the return to Earth would be massive and prohibitively expensive with our current technology.

Mars sample return tube

Instead, NASA and their international partners have been working to distribute the cost and complexity of the mission among several different vehicles. In fact, the first phase of the program is well underway.

The Perseverance rover has been collecting samples and storing them in 15 cm (6 inch) titanium tubes since it landed on the Red Planet in February of 2021. Considerable progress has also been made on the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) which will carry the samples from the surface and into orbit around the planet, where they will eventually be picked up by yet another vehicle which will ultimately return them to Earth.

But there’s still some large gaps in the overall plan. Chief among them is how the samples are to be transferred into the MAV. Previously, the European Space Agency (ESA) was to contribute a small “fetch rover” which would collect the sample tubes dropped by Perseverance and bring them to the MAV launch site.

But in a recent press release, NASA has announced that those plans have changed significantly, thanks at least in part to the incredible success of the agency’s current Mars missions.

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Hackaday Links: July 24, 2022

OK, maybe that won’t buff right out. NASA has released a more detailed analysis of the damage suffered by the James Webb Space Telescope in a run-in with a micrometeoroid, and has deemed the damage “uncorrectable”. Not that any damage to JWST is correctable, at least in the sense that the Hubble Space Telescope was able to be fitted with optics to fix its precisely-yet-inaccurately-ground main mirror. JWST is far too remote for a service call, so correctability in this case refers to a combination of what can be accomplished by tweaking the shape and position of the affected mirror segment, and what can be taken care of with image processing. The damage to segment C3, as well as damage to the other segments in a total of six collisions in the half year Webb has been on station, are assessed via “wavefront sensing”, which looks at how out of phase the light coming from each mirror segment is. The damage sounds bad, and it certainly must hurt for the techs and engineers who so lovingly and painstakingly built the thing to see it dinged up already, but in the long run, this damage shouldn’t hamper Webb’s long-term science goals.

In other space news, we hear that the Perseverance rover has taken its first chunk out of the ancient river delta in Jezero Crater. The rover has been poking around looking for something interesting to sample, but everything it tried out with its abrading tool was either too brittle, too hard to get at, or scientifically dull. Eventually the rover found a good spot to drill, and managed to bring up a 6.7-cm core sample. This makes the tenth core sample collected overall, and the first from the delta area, which is thought to have the best chance to contain evidence of ancient Martian life.

Closer to home, we’ve all likely heard of robotic surgery, but the image that conjures up doesn’t really comport with reality. Robot-assisted surgery is probably a better term, since surgical robots are generally just ultra-precise remote manipulators that are guided by a skilled surgeon. But if a study on surgery robot performance is any indication, the days of human surgeons might be numbered. The study compared accuracy and speed of both a human surgeon controlling a standard Da Vinci surgical robot and an autonomous version of the robot alone, using a depth camera for sensing. Using a standard surgical skills test, the autonomous system matched the human surgeons in terms of failures — thankfully, no “oopsies” for either — but bested the humans in speed and positional accuracy. It’ll probably be a while before fully autonomous surgeons are a thing, but we wouldn’t be betting against it in the long run.

Most readers will no doubt have heard the exciting news that Supercon will be back this year as an in-person event! Make sure you set aside the first weekend in November to make the pilgrimage to Pasadena — it’ll be great seeing everyone again after the long absence. But if you just can’t wait till November for an IRL con, consider dropping by SCALE 19X, coming up this week in Los Angeles. The Southern California Linux Expo is being held July 28 through 31, and features a ton of speakers, including a keynote by Vint Cerf. Hackaday readers can save 50% on tickets with promo code HACK.

And finally, as a lover of Easter eggs of all kinds, but specifically of the hidden message in software variety, we appreciated this ode to the Easter egg, the embedded artistry that has served as a creative outlet for programmers over the years. The article lists a few great examples of the art form, along with explaining why they’re actually important artifacts of the tech world and what they’re good for. We tried out a few of the ones listed in the article that we hadn’t heard of before; some hits, some misses, but they’re all appreciated. Well, most of them — the corporate rah-rah kind can bugger straight off as far as we’re concerned.

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Hackaday Links: June 5, 2022

The big news this week comes from the world of medicine, where a woman has received a 3D-printed ear transplant. The 20-year-old woman suffered from microtia, a rare congenital deformity that left her without a pinna, the external structure of the ear. Using scans of the normal ear, doctors were able to make a 3D model of what the missing pinna should look like. Raw material for the print was taken from the vestigial ear of the patient in the form of cartilage cells, or chondrocytes. The ear was printed using a bioprinter, which is a bit like an inkjet printer. The newly printed ear was placed into a protective structure and transplanted. The operation was done in March, and the results are pretty dramatic. With a little squinting, it does look a bit like there are some printing artifacts in the ear, but we’d imagine that’s more from the protective cage that was over the ear as it healed.

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Hackaday Links: May 1, 2022

We start this week with news from Mars, because, let’s face it, the news from this planet isn’t all that much fun lately. But a couple of milestones were reached on the Red Planet, the first being the arrival of Perseverance at the ancient river delta it was sent there to explore. The rover certainly took the scenic route to get there, having covered 10.6 km over the last 424 sols to move to a position only about 3.5 km straight-line distance from where it landed. Granted, a lot of that extra driving was in support of the unexpectedly successful Ingenuity demonstration, plus taking time for a lot of pit stops along the way at interesting features. But the rover is now in place to examine sedimentary rocks most likely to harbor the fossil remains of ancient aquatic life — as opposed to the mainly igneous rocks it has studied along the crater floor so far. We’re looking forward to seeing what happens.

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Hackaday Links: April 10, 2022

A funny thing happened on the way to the delta. The one on Jezero crater on Mars, that is, as the Perseverance rover may have captured a glimpse of the parachute that helped deliver it to the Red Planet a little over a year ago. Getting the rover safely onto the Martian surface was an incredibly complex undertaking, made all the more impressive by the fact that it was completely autonomous. The parachute, which slowed the descent vehicle holding the rover, was jettisoned well before the “Sky Crane” deployed to lower the rover to the surface. The parachute wafted to the surface a bit over a kilometer from the landing zone. NASA hasn’t confirmed that what’s seen in the raw images is the chute; in fact, they haven’t even acknowledged the big white thing that’s obviously not a rock in the picture at all. Perhaps they’re reserving final judgment until they get an overflight by the Ingenuity helicopter, which is currently landed not too far from where the descent stage crashed. We’d love to see pictures of that wreckage.

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Classic Chat: Arko Takes Us Inside NASA’s Legendary JPL

Started by graduate students from the California Institute of Technology in the late 1930s, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) was instrumental in the development of early rocket technology in the United States. After being tasked by the Army to analyze the German V2 in 1943, the JPL team expanded from focusing purely on propulsion systems to study and improve upon the myriad of technologies required for spaceflight. Officially part of NASA since December of 1958, JPL’s cutting edge research continues to be integral to the human and robotic exploration of space.

For longtime friend of Hackaday Ara “Arko” Kourchians, getting a job JPL as a Robotics Electrical Engineer was a dream come true. Which probably explains why he applied more than a dozen times before finally getting the call to join the team. He stopped by the Hack Chat back in August of 2019 to talk about what it’s like to be part of such an iconic organization, reminisce about some of his favorite projects, and reflect on the lessons he’s learned along the way.

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SHERLOC And The Search For Life On Mars

Humanity has been wondering about whether life exists beyond our little backwater planet for so long that we’ve developed a kind of cultural bias as to how the answer to this central question will be revealed. Most of us probably imagine that NASA or some other space agency will schedule a press conference, an assembled panel of scientific luminaries will announce the findings, and newspapers around the world will blare “WE ARE NOT ALONE!” headlines. We’ve all seen that movie before, so that’s the way it has to be, right?

Probably not. Short of an improbable event like an alien spacecraft landing while a Google Street View car was driving by or receiving an unambiguously intelligent radio message from the stars, the conclusion that life exists now or once did outside our particular gravity well is likely to be reached in a piecewise process, an accretion of evidence built up over a long time until on balance, the only reasonable conclusion is that we are not alone. And that’s exactly what the announcement at the end of last year that the Mars rover Perseverance had discovered evidence of organic molecules in the rocks of Jezero crater was — another piece of the puzzle, and another step toward answering the fundamental question of the uniqueness of life.

Discovering organic molecules on Mars is far from proof that life once existed there. But it’s a step on the way, as well as a great excuse to look into the scientific principles and engineering of the instruments that made this discovery possible — the whimsically named SHERLOC and WATSON.

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