Spacing Out; OneWeb Rescue, Starlink Base Stations, And Rocket Tests

Another couple of weeks, and a fresh crop of space news to run through as a quick briefing of the latest in the skies above us.

OneWeb's most recent launch, from Baikonur on the 21st of March 2020.
OneWeb’s most recent launch, from Baikonur on the 21st of March 2020. (OneWeb)

The global positioning orbits are getting pretty crowded, with GPS, Russia’s GLONASS, the EU’s Galileo, Japan’s QZSS, and now with the launch of the final satellite in their constellation, China’s BeiDou. As if five were not enough the chance that they might be joined by a sixth constellation from the United Kingdom resurfaced this week, as the UK government is expressing interest in supporting a rescue package for the troubled satellite broadband provider OneWeb. The idea of an independent GPS competitor from a post-Brexit UK has been bouncing around for a couple of years now, and on the face of it until this opportune chance to purchase an “oven ready” satellite constellation might deliver a route to incorporating a positioning payload into their design. The Guardian has its doubts, lining up a bevvy of scientists to point out the rather obvious fact that a low-earth-orbit satellite broadband platform is a very different prospect to a much-higher-orbiting global positioning platform. Despite the country possessing the expertise through its work on Galileo then it remains to be seen whether a OneWeb purchase would be a stroke of genius or a white elephant. Readers with long memories will know that British government investment in space has had its upsets before.

Happily for Brits, not all space endeavours from their islands end in ignominious retreat. Skyrora have scored another milestone, launching the first ever rocket skywards from the Shetland Islands. The Skylark Nano is a relatively tiny craft at only 2m high, and gathered research data during its flight to an altitude of 6km. We’ve followed their work before, including their testing in May of a Skylark L rocket on the Scottish mainland with a view to achieving launch capability in 2023.

A Starlink phased array end user antenna, spotted in Winsconsin. (darkpenguin22)
A Starlink phased array end user antenna, spotted in Winsconsin. (darkpenguin22)

SpaceX’s Starlink is never far away from the news, with a fresh set of launches delayed for extra pre-launch tests, and the prospect of signing up to be considered for the space broadband firm’s beta test. Of more interest for Hackaday readers though are a few shots of prototype Starlink ground stations and user terminals that have made it online, on the roof of a Tesla Gigafactory and at a SpaceX facility in Wisconsin. What can be seen are roughly 1.5m radomes for the ground stations and much smaller dinner-plate-sized enclosed arrays for the user terminals. The latter are particularly fascinating as they conceal computer-controlled phased arrays for tracking the constellation as it passes overhead. This is a technology more at home in billion-dollar military radars than consumer devices, so getting it to work on a budget that can put it on a roof anywhere in the world must be a challenge for the Starlink engineers. We can’t wait to see the inevitable eventual teardown when it comes.

Elsewhere, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two completed its second glide test over its Mojave Spaceport home since being grounded in 2019 for extensive refitting, and is now said to be ready for powered tests leading to eventual commercial service giving the extremely well-heeled the chance to float in the zero gravity of suborbital spaceflight. And finally, comes the news that NASA are naming their Washington DC headquarters building for Mary W. Jackson, their first African American female engineer, whose story some of you may be familiar with from the book and film Hidden Figures. The previously unnamed building sits on a section of street named Hidden Figures Way.

Spacing Out; All The Orbital News You’re Missing

We keep finding more great space stories than we can cover, so here’s a speed-run through the broader picture of the moment as it applies to space flight.

The big news this week was the first launch of a manned SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule to the ISS. I was excited because the pass en route to the space station was scheduled to be visible from the UK at dusk, and on Wednesday evening I perched atop a nearby hill staring intently at the horizon. Except it had been cancelled due to bad weather. The next launch window is planned for today and you can watch it live.

Meanwhile, fashion is the other piece of this manned-launch’s appeal. Their sharply-designed spacesuits have attracted a lot of attention, moving on from the bulky functional Michelin Man aesthetic of previous NASA and Roscosmos garments for a positively futuristic look that wouldn’t be out of place in Star Trek. Never mind that the two astronauts are more seasoned space dog than catwalk model, they still look pretty cool to us. Against the backdrop of a political upheaval at the top of NASA, this first crewed orbital mission from American soil since the retirement of the Shuttle has assumed an importance much greater than might be expected from a run-of-the-mill spaceflight.

While we’re on the subject of the ISS, it’s worth noting that we’re approaching twenty years since the first crew took up residence there, and it has been continuously crewed ever since as an off-planet outpost. This is an astounding achievement for all the engineers, scientists, and crews involved, and though space launches perhaps don’t have the magic they had five decades ago it’s still an awe-inspiring sight to see a man-made object big enough to discern its shape pass over in the night sky. We understand that current plans are to retain the station until at least 2030, so it’s a sight that should remain with us for a while longer.

Closer to Earth are a couple of tests for relative newcomers to the skies. When Richard Branson’s Virgin group isn’t trying to boot millionaires off the planet through its Virgin Galactic operation, it’s aiming to cheaply fling small satellites into orbit from a rocket-toting airborne Boeing 747 with its Virgin Orbit subsidiary. Their first test launch sadly didn’t make it to space, once the rocket had flawlessly launched from the airliner it suffered a fault and the mission had to be aborted. Getting into space is hard.

The second test was never intended to make it into space, but is no less noteworthy. The British company Skyrora have performed a successful ground test of their Skylark L rocket, aiming for a first launch next year and for offering low-earth orbit services by 2023. This is significant because it will be the first British launch since the ill-fated Black Arrow launch in 1971, and with their Scottish launch site the first ever from British soil. If you’ve seen Skyrora mentioned here before, it is because they were behind the retrieval of the Black Arrow wreckage from the Aussie outback that we mentioned when we wrote about that programme.

Looking forward to the coming week, especially today’s rescheduled SpaceX launch. This time however, I’ll check the weather conditions before climbing any hills.

Ditch The Switch: A Soft Latching Circuit Roundup

For some of us, there are few sounds more satisfying than the deep resonant “thunk” of a high quality toggle switch slamming into position. There isn’t an overabundance of visceral experiences when working with electronics, so we like to savor them when we get the chance. But of course there’s no accounting for taste, and we suppose there are even situations where a heavy physical switch might not be the best solution. So what do you do?

Enter the latching power circuit, often referred to as a “soft” switch. [Chris Chimienti] has recently put together a fascinating video which walks the viewer through five different circuits which can be used to add one of these so-called soft power switches to your project. Each circuit is explained, diagramed, annotated, and eventually even demonstrated on a physical breadboard. The only thing you’ve got to do is pick which one you like the most.

There’s actually a number of very good reasons to abandon the classic toggle switch for one of these circuits. But the biggest one, somewhat counterintuitively, is cost. Even “cheap” toggle switches are likely to be one of the most expensive components in your bill of materials, especially at low volume. By comparison, the couple of transistors and a handful of passive components it will take to build out one of these latching circuits will only cost you a couple of cents.

Even if you aren’t in the market for a new way to turn off your projects, this roundup of circuits is a fantastic reminder of how powerful discrete components can be. In an age where most projects seem assembled from pre-fabbed modules, it’s occasionally refreshing to get back to basics.

Continue reading “Ditch The Switch: A Soft Latching Circuit Roundup”

Improvised Weapons Roundup

There’s something special about improvised weapons built for the upcoming zombie apocalypse. Whether it’s a Lousiville Decapitron or a shotgun revolver, we’re always fascinated by homemade weapons. Here’s a few that rolled into the tip line over the last few weeks:

You call that a knife?

[Joerg Sprave], a.k.a. that German guy on YouTube that has fun with slingshots, built a spinning steak knife saw thing. Basically, it’s eight steak knives attached to a wheel and driven with an electric drill. It’s not a terribly complex build, but it does give off a zombie apocalypse/first person shooter melee weapon vibe.

Battery cannon, because why not

Why use potatoes when you can use D-cell batteries? [CasterTown] on YouTube put together a small propane-powered spud gun that can put a battery through a car door. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen batteries used as ammo, but it’s still an extremely powerful build.

Oh man the 60s were cool.

Back in the 60s, safety wasn’t a huge concern. Any 10-year-old could walk into a dime store and buy Jarts – a game consisting of kids throwing sharp spikes at each other. Also, magazines had descriptions of how to build a freaking mortar in a backyard. Able to make a 20-foot grouping at 1900 feet, this would probably merit a visit from a SWAT team today. Needless to say, don’t try this at home.

Don’t do this. Please.

Last but not least is [Rocketlab] and [SadisticTheory]’s $15 flamethrower. It’s just a gas tank from a 2-stroke engine, a 12 volt battery and a pump. Common sense requires us to mention this build is very, very illegal (apparently it is legal)and extremely unsafe. Don’t replicate this build.

Actually, we take that back. You shouldn’t build any of these weapons because they’re very dangerous. Just think of these as a neat thing to look at. Let other people hurt themselves. You may complain about how unsafe these weapons are in the comments.

Engine Hacks: Liquid Fuel Amateur Rocket Roundup

When the idea of an engine hacks theme was being kicked around at Hack a Day, the subject of rocket engines was one of the first to come up. There was a problem though; solid rocket motors are far too common to be interesting, and even hybrid rocket engines are becoming passé. We’ve never seen a liquid-fuel rocket build before, so that’s what this roundup evolved into.

First up is [Robert Watzlavick], who has been has been building liquid fueled engines for the last decade. He started out with an uncooled kerosene/LOX whose death is seen in the title pic for this post. Lately he’s been working on a monster of an engine that is projected to deliver over 1,000 Newtons of thrust. As with many of the early rockets that launched man into space, [Robert] uses kerosene and liquid oxygen for fuel. This man knows his stuff.

Next up is a ‘kit’ liquid fuel rocket, the SS67B-3, that’s based on the German WWII Taifun missile. This engine is about as basic as you can get. There’s one fuel tank that holds both the Hydrogen Peroxide oxidizer and gasoline fuel. Both are blasted into the combustion chamber with pressurized gas. we found a write-up on this kit with some good pictures, but no video.

If high pressures, glowing metal, and huge flames pique your interest, there’s also a fabulous e-book (PDF warning) available that is a reprint of How to Design, Build and Test Small Liquid-Fuel Rocket Engines by [Leroy J. Krzyck]. This book was originally written in 1967, but lathes and mills haven’t changed that much over the past 44 years. Why not give it a go? There’s still plenty of time to complete the build before the 100th anniversary of Goddard’s first flight.

Kickstarter Roundup: Wednesday, June 1st

We have been getting tons of emails lately recommending we take a look at various Kickstarter projects. We used to ignore them since they all boil down to a request for project funding, but since there are so many cool projects out there, we figured we might as well share a couple. Some of these projects have already met their funding goals, but we thought they were worth a mention anyhow.


Solar Powered Coffee Roasting

solar_coffee_roaster

We’re all about both coffee and alternative energy, so this one caught our eye right away. While this coffee roaster won’t exactly fit on your back porch, it would be perfect for a coffee shop located in a sunny locale. Based off “power tower” solar concentrator systems, this rooftop-mounted solar harvester has big potential. Pair this with sopme sustainably-grown coffee, and you’ve got quite the tasty combo.


HexBright – an open source flashlight

hexbright

What do you get when you combine milled aluminum hex bar and a Cree XM-L LED? A lightweight, extremely bright flashlight that won’t roll away on you. The HexBright puts out 500 lumens and sports a built-in rechargeable battery that can be topped off via your computer’s USB port. Not only that, the high-end version can be programmed to support any pattern or brightness that you choose.  We’ll take two, thanks.


Arduino Project Board

arduino_project_board

[Randy Sarafan] of Clap-off bra fame is working on a slimmed-down Arduino board for use in the final stages of project development. He really doesn’t see the need to put an entire Arduino development board into his finished projects and often makes a quick perfboard circuit for his builds once he is finished prototyping. He’s grown tired of the process and developed a small circuit board that has all the connectivity he needs, without all the extra bits found on Arduino development boards.

Large Hadron Collider Roundup

The Large Hadron Collider was a success and it didn’t destroy the world. We have to admit, we were a little bit worried about the possibility of generating black holes but were soothed by scientists’ reassurances that we would still exist, and this self-explanatory website. We’re also kind of hoping to build our own. PHD Comics visits CERN to learn all about the experiment. Xkcd prepares for the end times with a new friend. The curious can explore some amazing imagery of the LHC, and read about the best-and-worst-case scenarios, and what scientists are hoping for, or monitor progress via webcam. The celebratory will listen to appropriate music, consume inspired science fiction, and drink to the Large Hadron Collider and its success.