37C3: You Think It’s Bad With Pluto? A History Of The Planets

Not every talk at the Chaos Communication Congress is about hacking computers. In this outstanding and educational talk, [Michael B√ľker] walks us through the history of our understanding of the planets.

The question “What is a planet?” is probably more about the astronomers doing the looking than the celestial bodies that they’re looking for. In the earliest days, the Sun and the Moon were counted in. They got kicked out soon, but then when we started being able to see asteroids, Ceres, Vesta, and Juno made the list. But by counting all the asteroids, the number got up above 1,200, and it got all too crazy.

Viewed in this longer context, the previously modern idea of having nine planets, which came about in the 1960s and lasted only until 2006, was a blip on the screen. And if you are still a Pluto-is-a-planet holdout, like we were, [Michael]’s argument that counting all the Trans-Neptunian Objects would lead to madness is pretty convincing. It sure would make it harder to build an orrery.

His conclusion is simple and straightforward and has the ring of truth: the solar system is full of bodies, and some are large, and some are small. Some are in regular orbits, and some are not. Which we call “planets” and which we don’t is really about our perception of them and trying to fit this multiplicity into simple classification schemas. What’s in a name, anyway?

Change Of Plans For New Horizons Sparks Debate

In 2015 NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft provided humanity with the first up-close views of Pluto, passing just 12,472 km (7,750 mi) from the surface. What had always been little more than a fuzzy blip at the edge of the solar system could finally be seen in stunning high resolution. Unfortunately, the deep space probe could only provide us with a relatively fleeting glimpse at the mysterious dwarf planet — the physics of such a distant interplanetary flight meant the energy required to slow down and enter orbit around Pluto was beyond the tiny spacecraft’s abilities.

The craft, often described as being roughly the size and shape of a grand piano, raced past Pluto and its moons at a relative velocity of approximately 49,600 km/h (30,800 mph) and headed out in the direction of Sagittarius. The incredible rate at which New Horizons traveled officially put it on track to be just the fifth spacecraft to leave the solar system, after the Pioneer and Voyager probes. Even so, its onboard systems were still in good health, and if given a sufficiently distant target, the $700 million craft was ready and able to collect more data.

Pluto, as seen by New Horizons

Accordingly, almost exactly a year after it flew over Pluto, New Horizons officially received a mission extension from NASA. As it blasted through deep space, the craft would seek out and study as many objects as it could in the region of space known as the Kuiper belt. Given that there are no current plans to send other spacecraft through this distant area of the outer solar system, New Horizons was uniquely positioned to make what could be once-in-a-lifetime observations.

Or at least, that was the plan. Recently, notes from a May 4th meeting of the Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG) were released that revealed NASA’s plans to redirect New Horizons from its work in the Kuiper belt to focus on heliospheric science in 2025. Those in attendance said the meeting became “heated” as New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern questioned the logic of potentially changing the craft’s mission this late in the game.

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Pluto Spectrum Analyzer Uses Command Line

If you don’t care about shortwave frequencies, the PlutoSDR is a great deal. The device is supposed to be an evaluation board for Analog Device’s radio chips, but it does great as a software-defined radio that can receive and transmit and it even runs Linux internally. [SignalsEverywhere] shows how to use it as a spectrum analyzer that works from the command line in the video you can see below.

The software used is Retrogram. Despite the ASCII graphics, the program has many features. You can use simple keystrokes to change the center frequency, the sampling rate, the bandwidth, and more. You can run the software on a Linux host or compile a binary on the box or cross-compile using tools on the Raspberry Pi.

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Pluto Might Not Be A Planet, But It Is An SDR Transceiver

Many of the SDR projects we see use a cheap USB dongle. They are great, but sometimes you want more and — especially — sometimes you want to transmit. The Analog Devices ADALM-Pluto SDR is easily available for $200 and sometimes as low as $100 and it both transmits and receives using an Analog AD9363 and a Zynq FPGA. Although you normally use the device to pipe IQ signals to a host computer, you can run SDR applications on the device itself. That requires you to dig into the Zynq tools, which is fun but a topic for another time. In this post, I’m going to show you how you can use GNU Radio to make a simple Morse code beacon in the 2m ham band.

I’ve had one on my bench for quite a while and I’ve played with it a bit. There are several ways to use it with GNU Radio and it seems to work very well. You have to hack it to get the frequency range down a bit. Sure, it might not be “to spec” once you broaden the frequency range, but it seems to work fine. Instead of working from 325 MHz to 3,800 MHz with a 20 MHz bandwidth, the hacked device transceives 70 MHz to 6,000 MHz with 56 MHz bandwidth. It is a simple hack you only have to do once. It tells the device that it has a slightly better chip onboard and our guess is the chips are the same but sorted by performance. So while the specs might be a little off, you probably won’t notice.

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Hackaday Links: February 23, 2020

If you think your data rates suck, take pity on New Horizons. The space probe, which gave us lovely pictures of the hapless one-time planet Pluto after its 2015 flyby, continued to plunge and explore other, smaller objects in the Kuiper belt. In January of 2019, New Horizons zipped by Kuiper belt object Arrokoth and buffered its findings on the spacecraft’s solid-state data recorders. The probe has been dribbling data back to Earth ever since at the rate of 1 to 2 kilobits per second, and now we have enough of that data to piece together a story of how planets may have formed in the early solar system. The planetary science is fascinating, but for our money, getting a probe to narrowly miss a 35-kilometer long object at a range of 6.5 billion km all while traveling at 51,500 km/h is pretty impressive. And if as expected it takes until September to retrieve all the data from the event at a speed worse than dialup rates, it’ll be worth the wait.

Speaking of space, if you’re at all interested in big data, you might want to consider putting your skills to work in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The Berkeley SETI Research Center has been feeding data from the Green Bank Telescope and their Automated Planet Finder into the public archive of Breakthrough Listen, a 10-year, $100 million initiative to scan the million closest stars in our galaxy as well as the 100 nearest galaxies for signs of intelligent life. They’re asking for help to analyze the torrents of data they’re accumulating, specifically by developing software and algorithms to process the data. They’ve set up a site to walk you through the basics and get you started. If you’re handy with Python and have an interest in astronomy, you should check it out.

Staying with the space theme, what’s the best way to get kids interested in space and electronics? Why, by launching a satellite designed to meme its way across the heavens, of course. The Mission for Education and Multimedia Engagement satellite, or MEMESat-1, is being planned for a February 2021 launch. The 1U cubesat will serve as an amateur radio repeater and slow-scan TV (SSTV) beacon that will beam down memes donated to the project and stored on radiation-hardened flash storage. In all seriousness, this seems like a great way to engage the generation that elevated the meme to a modern art form in a STEM project they might otherwise show little interest in.

It looks as though Linux might be getting a big boost as the government of South Korea announced that they’re switching 3.3 million PCs from Windows to Linux. It’s tempting to blame Microsoft’s recent dropping of Windows 7 support for the defenestration, but this sounds like a plan that’s been in the works for a while. No official word on which distro will be selected for the 780 billion won ($655 million) effort, which is said to be driven by ballooning software license costs and a desire to get out from under Microsoft’s thumb.

And finally, in perhaps the ickiest auction ever held, the “Davos Collection” headed to the auction block this week in New York. The items offered were all collected from the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where the world’s elites gather to determine the fate of the 99.999%. Every item in the collection, ranging from utensils and glassware used at the many lavish meals to “sanitary items” disposed of by the billionaires, and even hair and fluid samples swabbed from restrooms, potentially holds a genetic treasure trove in the form of the DNA it takes to be in the elite. Or at least that’s the theory. There’s a whole “Boys from Brazil” vibe here that we find disquieting, and we flatly refuse to see how an auction where a used paper cup is offered for $8,000 went, but if you’d like to virtually browse through the ostensibly valuable trash of oligarchs, check out the auction catalog.

Chandrayaan-2 Found By Citizen Scientist; Reminds Us Of Pluto Discovery

What does Pluto — not the dog, but the non-Planet — have in common with the Vikram lunar lander launched by India? Both were found by making very tiny comparisons to photographs. You’d think landing something on the moon would be old hat by now, but it turns out only three countries have managed to do it. The Chandrayaan-2 mission would have made India the fourth country. But two miles above the surface, the craft left its planned trajectory and went radio silent.

India claimed it knew where the lander crashed but never revealed any pictures or actual coordinates. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter took pictures several times of the landing area but didn’t see the expected scar like the one left by the doomed Israeli lander when it crashed in April. A lot of people started looking at the NASA pictures and one Indian computer programmer and mechanical engineer, Shanmuga Subramanian, seems to have been successful.

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Free E-Book: Software Defined Radio For Engineers

We really like when a vendor finds a great book on a topic — probably one they care about — and makes it available for free. Analog Devices does this regularly and one you should probably have a look at is Software Defined Radio for Engineers. The book goes for $100 or so on Amazon, and while a digital copy has pluses and minuses, it is hard to beat the $0 price.

The book by [Travis F. Collins], [Robin Getz], [Di Pu], and [Alexander M. Wyglinski] covers a range of topics in 11 chapters. There’s also a website with more information including video lectures and projects forthcoming that appear to use the Pluto SDR. We have a Pluto and have been meaning to write more about it including the hack to make it think it has a better RF chip inside. The hack may not result in meeting all the device specs, but it does work to increase the frequency range and bandwidth. However, the book isn’t tied to a specific piece of hardware.

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