A New Era Of Spacecraft Delivers Science On Time

When the Space Shuttle Atlantis rolled to a stop on its final mission in 2011, it was truly the end of an era. Few could deny that the program had become too complex and expensive to keep running, but even still, humanity’s ability to do useful work in low Earth orbit took a serious hit with the retirement of the Shuttle fleet. Worse, there was no indication of when or if another spacecraft would be developed that could truly rival the capabilities of the winged orbiters first conceived in the late 1960s.

While its primary function was to carry large payloads such as satellites into orbit, the Shuttle’s ability to retrieve objects from space and bring them back was arguably just as important. Throughout its storied career, sensitive experiments conducted at the International Space Station or aboard the Orbiter itself were returned gently to Earth thanks to the craft’s unique design. Unlike traditional spacecraft that ended their flight with a rough splashdown in the open ocean, the Shuttle eased itself down to the tarmac like an airplane. Once landed, experiments could be quickly unloaded and transferred to the nearby Space Station Processing Facility where science teams would be waiting to perform further processing or analysis.

Atlantis is towed from the runway for payload processing.

For 30 years, the Space Shuttle and its assorted facilities at Kennedy Space Center provided a reliable way to deliver fragile or time-sensitive scientific experiments into the hands of researchers just a few hours after leaving orbit. It was a valuable service that simply didn’t exist before the Shuttle, and one that scientists have been deprived of ever since its retirement.

Until now. With the successful splashdown of the first Cargo Dragon 2 off the coast of Florida, NASA is one step closer to regaining a critical capability it hasn’t had for a decade. While it’s still not quite as convenient as simply rolling the Shuttle into the Orbiter Processing Facility after a mission, the fact that SpaceX can guide their capsule down into the waters near the Space Coast greatly reduces the time required to return experiments to the researchers who designed them.

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Recovering Metal From Waste

Refining precious metals is not as simple as polishing rocks that have been dug out of the ground. Often, complex chemical processes are needed to process the materials properly or in high quantities, but these processes leave behind considerable waste. Often, there are valuable metals left over in these wastes, and [NerdRage] has gathered his chemistry equipment to demonstrate how it’s possible to recover these metals.

The process involved looks to recover copper and nitric acid from copper nitrate, a common waste byproduct of processing metal. While a process called thermal decomposition exists to accomplish this, it’s not particularly efficient, so this alternative looks to improve the yields you could otherwise expect. The first step is to react the copper nitrate with sulfuric acid, which results in nitric acid and copper sulfate. From there, the copper sulfate is placed in an electrolysis cell using a platinum cathode and copper anodes to pass current through it. After the process is complete, all of the copper will have deposited itself on the copper electrodes.

The other interesting thing about this process, besides the amount of copper that is recoverable, is that the sulfuric acid and the nitric acid are recoverable, and able to be used again in other processes. The process is much more efficient than thermal decomposition and also doesn’t involve any toxic gasses either. Of course, if collecting valuable metals from waste is up your alley, you can also take a look at recovering some gold as well.

Thanks to [Keith] for the tip!

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Quadcopter With Tensegrity Shell Takes A Beating And Gets Back Up

Many of us have become familiar with the distinctive sound of multirotor toys, a sound frequently punctuated by sharp sounds of crashes. We’d then have to pick it up and repair any damage before flying fun can resume. This is fine for a toy, but autonomous fliers will need to shake it off and get back to work without human intervention. [Zha et al.] of UC Berkeley’s HiPeRLab have invented a resilient design to do so.

We’ve seen increased durability from flexible frames, but that left the propellers largely exposed. Protective bumpers and cages are not new, either, but this icosahedron (twenty sided) tensegrity structure is far more durable than the norm. Tests verified it can survive impact with a concrete wall at speed of 6.5 meters per second. Tensegrity is a lot of fun to play with, letting us build intuition-defying structures and here tensegrity elements dissipate impact energy, preventing damage to fragile components like propellers and electronics.

But surviving an impact and falling to the ground in one piece is not enough. For independent operation, it needs to be able to get itself back in the air. Fortunately the brains of this quadcopter has been taught the geometry of an icosahedron. Starting from the face it landed on, it can autonomously devise a plan to flip itself upright by applying bursts of power to select propeller motors. Rotating itself face by face, working its way to an upright orientation for takeoff, at which point it is back in business.

We have a long way to go before autonomous drone robots can operate safely and reliably. Right now the easy answer is to fly slowly, but that also drastically cuts into efficiency and effectiveness. Having flying robots that are resilient against flying mistakes at speed, and can also recover from those mistakes, will be very useful in exploration of aerial autonomy.

[IROS 2020 Presentation video (duration 14:16) requires free registration, available until at least Nov. 25th 2020. One-minute summary embedded below]

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$100k To Crack A Bitcoin Wallet

When Bitcoin peaked a few years ago, with single coins reaching around $18,000 USD, heartbreaking stories began circulating about people who had tens or hundreds of coins they mined in the early days when coins were worth just a few dollars or cents. Since then, they owners of these coins had lost the private key, or simply thrown away the drive or computer the coins were on. It’s next to impossible to recover this key in most situations, but for the right amount of money it can sometimes be done.

About 20 years ago, [Mike] was working as a cryptography expert and developed a number of interesting algorithms for breaking various forms of encryption, one of which involved .zip files with poor entropy. A Bitcoin owner stumbled across the paper that [Mike] wrote and realized that it could be a method for recovering his lost key from 2016. [Mike] said it would take a GPU farm and $100,000 USD, but when the owner paid the seemingly enormous price [Mike] was able to recover around $300,000 worth of Bitcoin.

While this might not be financially feasible for you if you have a USB stick with a single coin on it you mined as a curiosity in 2010, the cryptography that is discussed in the blog entry is the real story here. We never know where the solutions to our problems are going to come from, like a random .zip file exploitation from two decades ago, but we can be sure that in the future it will be much easier to crack these keys.

Thanks to [Darmstatium] for the tip!

Surviving The Apocalypse With A Briefcase Full Of Pi

Let’s imagine that you’ve spent most of your life indoors tinkering with electronic gadgets and that you don’t have a lot of practical survival experience. Since you’re currently reading Hackaday, it shouldn’t be much of a stretch for you. Let’s further imagine that our entire civilization gets upended by an ecological disaster, nuclear war, invaders from Zeta Reticuli, that sort of thing. What do you do?

If you’re [Evan Meaney], you might start by retrieving the Crash Recovery Device from its EMP shielded storage nook. This mobile digital library is designed to serve as a backup copy of all the information we’d lose in a post-Internet world. It holds detailed geological maps, a library of survival manuals, agriculture guides, and should you get bored, the entirety of Wikipedia.

Of course, having all that information in a digital format is no good if you can’t access it. Rather than designing a device from scratch, [Evan] based his rugged command center on the Raspberry Pi Recovery Kit by [Jay Doscher].

He deleted the more esoteric components such as the mil-spec connectors on the front panel, and improved the ability to switch between different power sources with a capacitor bank big enough to smooth out any momentary interruptions. There’s also added circuitry so the device can be run on a wider range of voltages, allowing the use of whatever batteries or power sources can be scrounged up. [Evan] even thought to use automotive style fuses that could be pilfered from abandoned vehicles if necessary.

We know what you’re probably thinking; a better way to hone your survival skills and prepare for a disaster would be to just go camping a few times a year. Fair enough. But if you’re a city dweller who might not have the option, it’s hard to argue that you wouldn’t be better off having a mobile repository of survival information to consult should you need it. Doubly so if it looks this cool.

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SpaceX Clips Dragon’s Wings After Investigation

When the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft reached orbit for the first time in 2010, it was a historic achievement. But to qualify for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, the capsule also needed to demonstrate that it could return safely to Earth. Its predecessor, the Space Shuttle, had wings that let it glide home and land like a plane. But in returning to the classic capsule design of earlier spacecraft, SpaceX was forced to rely on a technique not used by American spacecraft since the 1970s: parachutes and an ocean splashdown.

The Dragon’s descent under parachute, splashdown, and subsequent successful recovery paved the way for SpaceX to begin a series of resupply missions to the International Space Station that continue to this day. But not everyone at SpaceX was satisfied with their 21st century spacecraft having to perform such an anachronistic landing. At a post-mission press conference, CEO Elon Musk told those in attendance that eventually the Dragon would be able to make a pinpoint touchdown using thrusters and deployable landing gear:

The architecture that you observed today is obviously similar to what was employed in the Apollo era, but the next generation Dragon, the Crew Dragon, we’re actually going to be aiming for a propulsive landing with gear. We’ll still have the parachutes as a backup, but it’s going to be a precision landing, you could literally land on something the size of a helipad propulsively with gear, refuel, and take off again.

But just shy of a decade later, the violent explosion of the first space worthy Crew Dragon has become the final nail in the coffin for Elon’s dream of manned space capsules landing like helicopters. In truth, the future of this particular capability was already looking quite dim given NASA’s preference for a more pragmatic approach to returning their astronauts from space. But Crew Dragon design changes slated to be implemented in light of findings made during the accident report will all but completely remove the possibility of Dragon ever performing a propulsive landing.

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SpaceX’s Next Giant Leap: Second Stage Recovery

With the successful launch of the Bangabandhu-1 satellite on May 11th, the final version of the Falcon 9 rocket has finally become operational. Referred to as the “Block 5”, this version of the rocket is geared specifically towards reuse. The lessons learned from the recovery and reflight of earlier builds of the F9 have culminated into rocket that SpaceX hopes can go from recovery to its next flight in as few as 24 hours. If any rocket will make good on the dream of spaceflight becoming as routine as air travel, it’s going to be the Falcon 9 Block 5.

While there might still be minor tweaks and improvements made to Block 5 over the coming years, it’s safe to say that first stage recovery of the Falcon 9 has been all but perfected. What was once the fodder of campy science fiction, rockets propulsively lowering themselves down from the sky and coming to rest on spindly landing legs that popped out of the sides, is now a reality. More importantly, not only is SpaceX able to bring the towering first stage back from space reliably, they’re able to refuel it, inspect it, and send it back up without having to build a new one for each mission.

But as incredible a technical accomplishment as this is, SpaceX still isn’t recovering the entire Falcon 9 rocket. At best, they have accomplished the same type of partial reusability that the Space Shuttle demonstrated on its first flight all the way back in 1981. Granted they are doing it much faster and cheaper than it was done on the Shuttle, but it still goes against the classic airplane analogy: if you had to replace a huge chunk of the airliner every time it landed, commercial air travel would be completely impractical.

SpaceX has already started experimenting with recovering and reusing the payload fairings of the Falcon 9, and while they haven’t pulled it off yet, they’ll probably get there. That leaves only one piece of the Falcon 9 unaccounted for: the second stage. Bringing the second stage back to Earth in one piece might well be the most challenging aspect of developing the Falcon 9. But if SpaceX can do it, then they’ll have truly developed humanity’s first fully reusable rocket, capable of delivering payloads to space for little more than the cost of fuel.

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