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Hackaday Links: July 31, 2022

Don’t look up! As of the time of this writing, there’s a decent chance that a Chinese Long March 5B booster has already completed its uncontrolled return to Earth, hopefully safely. The reentry prediction was continually tweaked over the last week or so, until the consensus closed in on 30 Jul 2022 at 17:08 UTC, give or take an hour either way. That two-hour window makes for a LOT of uncertainty about where the 25-ton piece of space debris will end up. Given the last prediction by The Aerospace Corporation, the likely surface paths cover a lot of open ocean, with only parts of Mexico and South America potentially in the crosshairs, along with parts of Indonesia. It’s expected that most of the material in the massive booster will burn up in the atmosphere, but with the size of the thing, even 20% making it to the ground could be catastrophic, as it nearly was in 2020.

[Update: US Space Command confirms that the booster splashed down in the Indian Ocean region at 16:45 UTC. No word yet on how much debris survived, or if any populated areas were impacted.]

Good news, everyone — thanks to 3D printing, we now know the maximum height of a dive into water that the average human can perform without injury. And it’s surprisingly small — 8 meters for head first, 12 meters if you break the water with your hands first, and 15 meters feet first. Bear in mind this is for the average person; the record for surviving a foot-first dive is almost 60 meters, but that was by a trained diver. Researchers from Cornell came up with these numbers by printing models of human divers in various poses, fitting them with accelerometers, and comparing the readings they got with known figures for deceleration injuries. There was no mention of the maximum survivable belly flop, but based on first-hand anecdotal experience, we’d say it’s not much more than a meter.

Humans have done a lot of spacefaring in the last sixty years or so, but almost all of it has been either in low Earth orbit or as flybys of our neighbors in the Sol system. Sure we’ve landed plenty of probes, but mostly on the Moon, Mars, and a few lucky asteroids. And Venus, which is sometimes easy to forget. We were reminded of that fact by this cool video of the 1982 Soviet landing of Venera 14, one of only a few attempts to land on our so-called sister planet. The video shows the few photographs Venera 14 managed to take before being destroyed by the heat and pressure on Venus, but the real treat is the sound recording the probe managed to make. Venera 14 captured the sounds of its own operations on the Venusian surface, including what sounds like a pneumatic drill being used to sample the regolith. It also captured, as the narrator put it, “the gentle blow of the Venusian wind” — as gentle as ultra-dense carbon dioxide hot enough to melt lead can be, anyway.

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Hackaday Links: June 12, 2022

“Don’t worry, that’ll buff right out.” Alarming news this week as the James Webb Space Telescope team announced that a meteoroid had hit the space observatory’s massive primary mirror. While far from unexpected, the strike on mirror segment C3 (the sixth mirror from the top going clockwise, roughly in the “south southeast” position) that occurred back in late May was larger than any of the simulations or test strikes performed on Earth prior to launch. It was also not part of any known meteoroid storm in the telescope’s orbit; if it had been, controllers would have been able to maneuver the spacecraft to protect the gold-plated beryllium segments. The rogue space rock apparently did enough damage to be noticeable in the data coming back from the telescope and to require adjustment to the position of the mirror segment. While it certainly won’t be the last time this happens, it would have been nice to see one picture from Webb before it started accumulating hits.

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Hackaday Links: April 17, 2022

There are plenty of stories floating around about the war in Ukraine, and it can be difficult to sort out which ones are fact-based, and which are fabrications. Stories about the technology of the war seem to be a little easier to judge, and so stories about an inside look at a purported Russian drone reveal a lot of interesting technical details. The fixed-wing UAV, reported to be a Russian-made “Orlan,” looks quite the worse for wear as it’s given a good teardown by someone wearing Ukraine military fatigues. In fact, it looks downright homemade, with a fuel tank made from what looks like an old water bottle, liberal use of duct tape to hold things together, and plenty of hot glue sprinkled around — field-expedient repairs, perhaps? The big find, though, is that the surveillance drone carried a rather commonplace — and cheap — Canon EOS Rebel camera. What’s more, the camera is nestled into a 3D printed cradle, strapped in with some hook-and-loop tape, and its controls are staked in place with globs of glue. It’s an interesting collection of hardware for a vehicle said to cost the Russian military something like $100,000 to field. The video below shows a teardown of a different Orlan with similar results, plus a lot of dunking on the Russians by a cheery bunch of Ukrainians.

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Hackaday Links: March 13, 2022

As Russia’s war on Ukraine drags on, its knock-on effects are being felt far beyond the eastern Europe theater. And perhaps nowhere is this more acutely felt than in the space launch industry, seeing that at least until recently, Russia was pretty much everyone’s go-to ride to orbit. All that has changed now, at least temporarily, and has expanded to include halting sales of rocket engines used in other nations’ launch vehicles. Specifically, Roscosmos has put an end to exports of the RD-180 engine used in the US Atlas V launch vehicle, along with the RD-181 thrusters found in the Antares rocket. The loss of these engines may be more symbolic than practical, at least for the RD-180 — United Launch Alliance stopped selling launches on Atlas V back last year, and had secured the engines it needed for the 29 flights it has booked by that April. Still, there’s some irony that the Atlas V, which started life as an ICBM aimed at the USSR in the 1950s, has lost its Russian-made engines.

Bad news for Jan Mrázek’s popular open-source parametric search utility which made JLCPCB’s component library easier to use. We wrote about it back in 2020, and things seemed to be going fine up until this week, when Jan got a take-down request for his service. When we first heard about this, we checked the application’s web page, which bore a big red banner that included what were apparently unpleasant accusations Jan had received, including the words “reptile” and “parasitic.” The banner is still there, but the text has changed to a more hopeful tone, noting that LCSC, the component supplier for JLC’s assembly service, objected to the way Jan was pulling component data, and that they are now working together on something that everyone can be happy with. Here’s hoping that the service is back in action again soon.

Good news, everyone: Epson is getting into the 3D printer business. Eager to add a dimension to the planar printing world they’ve mostly worked in, they’ve announced that they’ll be launching a direct-extrusion printer sometime soon. Aimed at the industrial market, the printer will use a “flat screw extruder,” which is supposed to be similar to what the company uses on its injection molding machines. We sure didn’t know Epson was in the injection molding market, so it’ll be interesting to see if expertise there results in innovation in 3D printing, especially if it trickles down to the consumer printing market. Just as long as they don’t try to DRM the pellets, of course.

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but it turns out that there’s a lot you can tell about a person’s genetics just by looking at their face. At least that’s according to an AI startup called FDNA, which makes an app called “Face2Gene” that the company claims can identify 300 genetic disorders by analyzing photos of someone’s face. Some genetic disorders, like Down Syndrome, leave easily recognizable facial features, but some changes are far more subtle and hard to recognize. We had heard of cases where photos of toddlers posted on social media were used to diagnose retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the retina. But this is on another level entirely.

And finally, working in an Amazon warehouse has got to be a tough gig, and if some of the stories are to be believed, it borders on being a horror show. But one Amazonian recently shared a video that showed what it’s like to get trapped by his robotic coworkers. The warehouse employee somehow managed to get stuck in a maze created by Amazon’s pods, which are stacks of shelves that hold merchandise and are moved around the warehouse floor by what amounts to robotic pallet jacks. Apparently, the robots know enough to not collide with their meat-based colleagues, but not enough to not box them in. To be fair, the human eventually found a way out, but it was a long search and it seems like another pod could have moved into position to block the exit at any time. You could see it as a scary example of human-robot interaction gone awry, but we prefer to look at it as the robots giving their friend a little unscheduled break away from the prying eyes of his supervisor.

The Invisible Battlefields Of The Russia-Ukraine War

Early in the morning of February 24th, Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at California’s Middlebury Institute of International Studies watched Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unfold in realtime with troop movements overlaid atop high-resolution satellite imagery. This wasn’t privileged information — anybody with an internet connection could access it, if they knew where to look. He was watching a traffic jam on Google Maps slowly inch towards and across the Russia-Ukraine border.

As he watched the invasion begin along with the rest of the world, another, less-visible facet of the emerging war was beginning to unfold on an ill-defined online battlefield. Digital espionage, social media and online surveillance have become indispensable instruments in the tool chest of a modern army, and both sides of the conflict have been putting these tools to use. Combined with civilian access to information unlike the world has ever seen before, this promises to be a war like no other.

Modern Cyberwarfare

The first casualties in the online component of the war have been websites. Two weeks ago, before the invasion began en masse, Russian cyberwarfare agents launched distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against Ukrainian government and financial websites. Subsequent attacks have temporarily downed the websites of Ukraine’s Security Service, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and government. A DDoS attack is a relatively straightforward way to quickly take a server offline. A network of internet-connected devices, either owned by the aggressor or infected with malware, floods a target with request, as if millions of users hit “refresh” on the same website at the same time, repeatedly. The goal is to overwhelm the server such that it isn’t able to keep up and stops replying to legitimate requests, like a user trying to access a website. Russia denied involvement with the attacks, but US and UK intelligence services have evidence they believe implicates Moscow. Continue reading “The Invisible Battlefields Of The Russia-Ukraine War”

Soviet Scientific Calculator Gives Up Its Cold War-Era Secrets

Say what you want about Soviet technology, but you’ve got to admit there was a certain style to Cold War-era electronics. Things were perhaps not as streamlined and sleek as their Western equivalents, but then again, just look at the Nixie tube craze to see where collectors and enthusiasts stand on that comparison.

One particularly interesting artifact from the later part of that era was the lovely Elektronika MK-52 “microcalculator”. [Paul Hoets] has done a careful but thorough teardown of a fine example of this late-80s machine. The programmable calculator was obviously geared toward scientific and engineering users, but [Paul] relates how later versions of it were also used by the financial community to root out banking fraud and even had built-in cryptographic functions, which made encrypting text easy.

[Paul] has put together a video of the teardown, detailing the mostly through-hole construction and the interesting use of a daughter-board, which appears to hold the high-voltage section needed to drive the 11-character VFD tube. The calculator appears to be very well cared for, and once reassembled looks like it would be up for another ride on a Soyuz, where once it served as a backup for landing calculations.

We love the look of this machine and appreciate [Paul]’s teardown and analysis. But you say that the Cyrillic keyboard has you stumped and you need a bilingual version of the MK-52? That’s not a problem.

As Chinese Wheels Touch Martian Soil And Indian Astronauts Walk Towards The Launch Pad, Can We Hope For Another Space Race?

If you were born in the 1960s or early 1970s, the chances are that somewhere in your childhood ambitions lay a desire to be an astronaut or cosmonaut. Once Yuri Gagarin had circled the Earth and Neil Armstrong had walked upon the Moon, millions of kids imagined that they too would one day climb into a space capsule and join that elite band of intrepid explorers. Anything seems possible when you are a five-year-old, but of course the reality remains that only the very fewest of us ever made it to space.

Did You Once Dream Of The Stars?

The Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in Finland in 1961. Arto Jousi, Public domain.
The Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in Finland in 1961. Arto Jousi, Public domain.

The picture may be a little different for the youth of a few decades later though, did kids in the ’90s dream of the stars? Probably not. So what changed as Shuttle and Mir crews were passing overhead?

The answer is that the Space Race between the USA and Soviet Union which had dominated extra-terrestrial exploration from the 1950s to the ’70s had by then cooled down, and impressive though the building of the International Space Station was, it lacked the ability to electrify the public in the way that Sputnik, Vostok, or Apollo had. It was immensely cool to people like us, but the general public were distracted by other things and their political leaders were no longer ready to approve money-no-object budgets. We’d done space, and aside from the occasional bright spot in the form of space telescopes or rovers trundling across Mars, that was it. The hit TV comedy series The Big Bang Theory even had a storyline that found comedy in one of its characters serving on a mission to the ISS and being completely ignored on his return.

A few years ago a Chinese friend at my then-hackerspace was genuinely surprised that I knew the name of Yang Liwei, the Shenzhou 5 astronaut and the first person launched by his country into space. He’s a national hero in China but not so much on the rainy edge of Europe, where the Chinese space programme for all its progress at the time about a decade after Yang’s mission had yet to make a splash beyond a few space watchers and enthusiasts in hackerspaces. But this might be beginning to change.

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