The Science of Landing on an Asteroid

Exploiting the resources of the rock-strewn expanse of space between Mars and the outer planets has been the stuff of science fiction for ages. There’s gold in them ‘thar space rocks, or diamonds, or platinum, or something that makes them attractive targets for capitalists and scientists alike. But before actually extracting the riches of the asteroid belt, stuck here as we are at the bottom of a very deep gravity well that’s very expensive to climb out of, we have to answer a few questions. Like, how does one rendezvous with an asteroid? What’s involved with maneuvering near a comparatively tiny celestial body? And most importantly, how exactly does one land on an asteroid and do any useful work?

Back in June, a spacecraft launched by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) finally caught up to an asteroid named Ryugu after having chased it for the better part of four years. The Hayabusa2 was equipped to answer all those questions and more, and as it settled in close to the asteroid with a small fleet of robotic rovers on board, it was about to make history. Here’s how they managed to not only land on an asteroid, but how the rovers move around on the surface, and how they’ll return samples of the asteroid to Earth for study.

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Clock Monitors Deep Space Network, Keeps Vigil Over Lost Mars Rover

It’s been a long, long time since we heard from Opportunity, the remarkable Mars rover that has shattered all expectations on endurance and productivity but has been silent since a planet-wide dust storm blotted out the Sun and left it starved for power. Right now, it’s perched on the edge of a crater on Mars, waiting for enough sunlight to charge its batteries so it can call home. All we can do is sit, and wait.

To pass the time until Opportunity stirs again, [G4lile0] built this Deep Space Network clock. Built around an ESP32 and a TFT display, the clock monitors the Deep Space Network (DSN) website to see if mission control is using any of the huge antennas at its disposal to listen for signals from the marooned rover. If the DSN is listening, it displays a special animation exhorting the rover to phone home; otherwise, it shows which of the many far-flung probes the network is communicating with, along with a slideshow of Mars mission photos to keep the spirits up. When the day finally comes that Opportunity checks in, an alarm will sound so [G4lile0] can pop the champagne and celebrate with the rest of us.

We realize that the odds that Opportunity will survive this ordeal are decreasing by the Sol. It’s an uphill battle; after all, the machine was 55 times its original 90-day design life when it went dark, so it’s an uphill battle. Then again, it has beaten the odds before, so there’s still hope.

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ESP8266 Powered Tank With Voice Control

The high availability of (relatively) low cost modular components has made building hardware easier than ever. Depending on what you want to do, the hardware side of a project might be the hacker equivalent of building with LEGO. In fact, we wouldn’t be surprised if it literally involved building with LEGO. In any event, easy and quick hardware builds leave more time for developing creative software to run the show. The end result is that we’re starting to see very complex systems broken down into easy-to-replicate DIY builds that would have been nearly impossible just a few years ago.

[igorfonseca83] writes in to share with us his modular tank platform that uses the ESP8266 and a handful of software hacks to allow for voice control from the user’s mobile device. Presented as a step-by-step guide on Hackaday.io, this project is perfect for getting started in Internet-controlled robotics. Whether you just want to experiment with Google Assistant integration or use this as a blank slate to bootstrap a remotely controlled rover, this project has a lot to offer.

The chassis itself is a commercially available kit, and [igorfonseca83] uses a L298N dual channel H-bridge module to control its two geared motors. A Wemos D1 serves as the brains of the operation, and three 18650 3.7V batteries provide the juice to keep everything running. There’s plenty of expansion capability to add sensors and other gear, but for this project getting it rolling was the only concern.

Software wise, there are a number of pieces that work together to provide the Google Assistant control demonstrated in the video after the break. It starts by interfacing the ESP8266 board Adafruit.IO, which connects to IFTTT, and then finally Google Assistant. By setting up a few two variable phrases in IFTTT that get triggered by voice commands in Google Assistant, you can push commands back down to the ESP8266 through Adafruit.IO. It’s a somewhat convoluted setup, admittedly, but the fact that involves very little programming makes it an interesting solution for anyone who doesn’t want to get bogged down with all the minutiae of developing your own Internet control stack.

[igorfonseca83] is no stranger to building remotely controlled rovers. Last year we covered another of his creations which was commanded through a web browser and carried an Android phone to stream video of its adventures.

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Martian Dust Storm May Spell Doom for Rover

Everyone knows that space is an incredibly inhospitable place, but the surface of Mars isn’t a whole lot better. It’s a dim, cold, and dry world, with a wisp of an atmosphere that provides less than 1% of Earth’s barometric pressure. As the planet’s core no longer provides it with a magnetosphere, cosmic rays and intense solar flares bathe the surface in radiation. Human life on the surface without adequate environmental shielding is impossible, and as NASA’s fleet of rovers can attest, robotic visitors to the planet aren’t completely immune to the planet’s challenges.

Opportunity Mission Patch

As a planet-wide dust storm finally begins to settle, NASA is desperately trying to find out if the Red Planet has claimed yet another victim. The agency hasn’t heard from the Opportunity rover, which landed on Mars in 2004, since before the storm started on June 10th; and with each passing day the chances of reestablishing contact are diminished. While they haven’t completely given up hope, there’s no question this is the greatest threat the go-kart sized rover has faced in the nearly 15 years it has spent on the surface.

Opportunity was designed with several autonomous fail-safe systems that should have activated during the storm, protecting the rover as much as possible. But even with these systems in place, its twin Spirit succumbed to similar conditions in 2010. Will Opportunity make it through this latest challenge? Or has this global weather event brought the long-running mission to a dramatic close?

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Rover V2 Handles Stairs as Easily as the Outdoors

Rover V2 is an open-source, 3D-printable robotic rover platform that has seen a lot of evolution and development from its creator, [tlalexander]. There are a number of interesting things about Rover V2’s design, such as the way the wheel hubs themselves contain motors and custom planetary gearboxes. This system is compact and keeps weight down low to the ground, which helps keep a rover stable. The platform is all wheel drive, and moving parts like the suspension are kept high up, as far away from the ground as possible. Software is a custom Python stack running on a Raspberry Pi that provides basic control.

The Rover V2 is a full mechanical redesign of the previous version, which caught our attention with its intricate planetary gearing inside the wheel hubs. [tlalexander]’s goal is to create a robust, reliable rover platform for development that, thanks to its design, can be mostly 3D printed and requires a minimum of specialized hardware.

Ease Rover Development With These Self-Contained Track Units

Tracked drive systems are great, but implementation isn’t always easy. That’s what [nahueltaibo] found every time he tried to use open sourced track designs for his own rovers. The problem is that a tracked drive system is normally closely integrated with a vehicle’s chassis, mixing and matching between designs is impractical because the tracks and treads aren’t easily separated from the rest of the vehicle.

To solve this, [nahueltaibo] designed a modular, 3D printable rover track system. It contains both a motor driver and a common DC gearmotor in order to make a standalone unit that can be more easily integrated into other designs. These self-contained rover tracks don’t even have a particular “inside” or “outside”; they can be mounted on a vehicle’s left or right without any need to mirror the design. The original CAD design is shared from Fusion 360, but can also be downloaded from Thingiverse. A bit more detail is available from [nahueltaibo]’s blog, where he urges anyone who tries the design or finds it useful to share a photo or two.

3D printed tank tracks — including this one — often use a piece of filament as a hinge between track segments and sometimes slightly melted on the ends to act as a kind of rivet, which is itself a pretty good hack.

Six Wheels (En)rolling: Mars Rovers Going To School

Few things build excitement like going to space. It captures the imagination of young and old alike. Teachers love to leverage the latest space news to raise interest in their students, and space agencies are happy to provide resources to help. The latest in a long line of educator resources released by NASA is an Open Source Rover designed at Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

JPL is the birthplace of Mars rovers Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity. They’ve been researching robotic explorers for decades, so it’s no surprise they have many rovers running around. The open source rover’s direct predecessor is ROV-E, whose construction process closely followed procedures for engineering space flight hardware. This gave a team of early career engineers experience in the process before they built equipment destined for space. In addition to learning various roles within a team, they also learned to work with JPL resources like submitting orders to the machine shop to make ROV-E parts.

Once completed, ROV-E became a fixture at JPL public events and occasionally visits nearby schools as part of educational outreach programs. And inevitably a teacher at the school would ask “The kids love ROV-E! Can we make our own rover?” Since most schools don’t have 5-axis CNC machines or autoclaves to cure carbon fiber composites, the answer used to be “No.”

Until now.

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