The Deep Space Energy Crisis Could Soon Be Over

On the face of it, powering most spacecraft would appear to be a straightforward engineering problem. After all, with no clouds to obscure the sun, adorning a satellite with enough solar panels to supply its electrical needs seems like a no-brainer. Finding a way to support photovoltaic (PV) arrays of the proper size and making sure they’re properly oriented to maximize the amount of power harvested can be tricky, but having essentially unlimited energy streaming out from the sun greatly simplifies the overall problem.

Unfortunately, this really only holds for spacecraft operating relatively close to the sun. The tyranny of the inverse square law can’t be escaped, and out much beyond the orbit of Mars, the size that a PV array needs to be to capture useful amounts of the sun’s energy starts to make them prohibitive. That’s where radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) begin to make sense.

RTGs use the heat of decaying radioisotopes to generate electricity with thermocouples, and have powered spacecraft on missions to deep space for decades. Plutonium-238 has long been the fuel of choice for RTGs, but in the early 1990s, the Cold War-era stockpile of fuel was being depleted faster than it could be replenished. The lack of Pu-238 severely limited the number of deep space and planetary missions that NASA was able to support. Thankfully, recent developments at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) appear to have broken the bottleneck that had limited Pu-238 production. If it pays off, the deep space energy crisis may finally be over, and science far in the dark recesses of the solar system and beyond may be back on the table.

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Hacking When It Counts: The Pioneer Missions

If the heady early days of space exploration taught us anything, it was how much we just didn’t know. Failure after failure mounted, often dramatic and expensive and sometimes deadly. Launch vehicles exploded, satellites failed to deploy, or some widget decided to give up the ghost at a crucial time, blinding a multi-million dollar probe and ending a mission long before any useful science was done. For the United States, with a deadline to meet for manned missions to the moon, every failure in the late 1950s and early 1960s was valuable, though, at least to the extent that it taught them what not to do next time.

For the scientists planning unmanned missions, there was another, later deadline looming that presented a rare opportunity to expand our knowledge of the outer solar system, a strange and as yet unexplored wilderness with the potential to destroy anything humans could build and send there. Before investing billions in missions to take a Grand Tour of the outer planets, they needed more information. They needed to send out some Pioneers.

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Pioneer AVIC Infotainment Units Hacked To Load Custom ROMs

Pioneer’s flagship AVIC line of in-car multimedia systems is compatible with both Android Auto and Apple Car Play, and offers all manner of multimedia features to the driver of today. What’s more, these in-dash wonders have spawned their own community, dedicated to hacking the units. The ultimate infotainment hack is to develop custom ROMs for these devices.

What this means is that owners of Pioneer AVIC units will eventually be able to flash a custom ROM onto their in-car device, allowing it to operate more like any other generic Android tablet on the market. The potential is there for installing custom applications, extra hardware (such as OBD II readers), or pretty much anything else you can do with an Android device.

The hack involves a whole lot of delicate steps, beginning with using a USB stick with a special image to boot the device into a test mode. This allows the internal SD card to be backed up, then overwritten with a new image itself.

Mostly, the hack has been used to allow map files to be updated on the internal SD card — inability to update maps has been a long festering thorn in the side of in-dash navigation systems. Users have been customizing this to suit their requirements, also adding speed camera locations and other features. But overall this hack is a great example of hacking something to get full control over the things you own. At the least, this will allow drivers to ditch the phones suction-cupped to the windshield and run common apps like Waze, Uber, and Lyft directly on the infotainment screen (assuming you can rig up an Internet connection).

Check out another great Android ROM hack — using a cheap old smartphone as a low-cost ARM platform.