Well, that was quite a show! The Perseverance rover arrived on Mars Thursday. Don’t tell the boss, but we spent the afternoon watching the coverage in the house on the big TV rather than slaving away in the office. It was worth it; for someone who grew up watching Jules Bergman and Frank Reynolds cover the Apollo program and the sometimes cheesy animations provided by NASA, the current coverage is pretty intense. A replay of the coverage is available – skip to about the 1:15:00 mark to avoid all the filler and fluff preceding the “Seven Minutes of Terror” main event. And not only did they safely deliver the package, but they absolutely nailed the landing. Perseverance is only about 2 km away from the ancient river delta it was sent to explore for signs of life. Nice shooting!
We’re also being treated to early images from Jezero crater. The first lowish-rez shots, from the fore and after hazard cameras, popped up just a few seconds after landing — the dust hadn’t even settled yet! Some wags complained about the image quality, apparently without thinking that the really good camera gear was stowed away and a couple of quick check images with engineering cameras would be a good idea while the rover still had contact with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Speaking of which, the HiRISE camera on the MRO managed to catch a stunning view of Perseverance’s descent under its parachute; the taking of that photo is an engineering feat all by itself. But all of this pales in comparison to a shot from one of the down-looking cameras in the descent stage, show Perseverance dangling from the skycrane just before touchdown. It was a really good day for engineering.
Would that our Earthly supply chains were as well-engineered as our Martian delivery systems. We’ve been hearing of issues all along the electronics supply chain, impacting a wide range of industries. Some of the problems are related to COVID-19, which has sickened workers staffing production and shipping lines. Some, though, like a fire at the AKM semiconductor plant in Japan, have introduced another pinch point in an already strained system. The fire was in October, but the impact on the manufacturer depending on the plant’s large-scale integration (LSI) and temperature-compensated crystal oscillators (TCXO) products is only just now being felt in the amateur radio market. The impact is likely not limited to that market, though — TCXOs pop up lots of gear, and the AKM plant made LSI chips for all kinds of applications.
What do you get when you combine a 3D-printer, a laser cutter, a CNC router, and a pick-and-place robot? Drones that fly right off the build plate, apparently. Aptly enough, it’s called LaserFactory, and it comes from MITs Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. By making different “bolt-on” tools for a laser cutter, the CSAIL team has combined multiple next-generation manufacturing methods in one platform. The video below shows a drone frame being laser-cut from acrylic, to which conductive silver paste is added by an extruder. A pick-and-place head puts components on the silver goo, solders everything together with a laser, and away it goes. They also show off ways of building up 3D structures, both by stacking up flat pieces of acrylic and by cutting and bending acrylic in situ. It’s obviously still just a proof of concept, but we really like the ideas presented here.
And finally, as proof that astronomers can both admit when they’re wrong and have fun while doing so, the most remote object in the Solar System has finally received a name. The object, a 400-km diameter object in a highly elliptical orbit that takes it from inside the orbit of Neptune to as far as 175 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun, is officially known as 2018 AG37. Having whimsically dubbed the previous furthest-known object “Farout,” astronomers kept with the theme and named its wayward sister “Farfarout.” Given the rapid gains in technology, chances are good that Farfarout won’t stay the Sun’s remotest outpost for long, and we fear the (Far)nout trend will eventually collapse under its own weight. We therefore modestly propose a more sensible naming scheme, perhaps something along the lines of “Farthest McFaraway.” It may not scale well, but at least it’s stupid.