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Hackaday Links: January 31, 2021

There are an awful lot of machines on the market these days that fall under the broad category of “cheap Chinese laser cutters”. You know the type — the K40s, the no-name benchtop CO2 cutters, the bigger floor-mount units. If you’ve recently purchased one of these machines from one of the usual vendors, or even if you’re just thinking about doing so, you’ll likely have some questions. In which case, this “Chinese Laser Cutters 101” online class might be right up your alley. We got wind of this though its organizer, Jonathan Schwartz of American Laser Cutter in Los Angeles, who says he’s been installing, repairing, and using laser cutters for a decade now. The free class will be on February 8 at 5:00 PM PST, and while it’s open to all, it does require registration.

We got an interesting tip the other day that had to do with Benford’s Law. We’d never heard of this one, so we assumed was a “joke law” like Murphy’s Law or Betteridge’s Rule of Headlines. But it turns out that Benford’s Law describes the distribution of leading digits in large sets of numbers. Specifically, it says that the leading digit in any given number is more likely to be one of the smaller numbers. Measurements show that rather than each of the nine base 10 digits showing up about 11% of the time, a 1 will appear in the leading digit 30% of the time, while a 9 will appear about 5% of the time. It’s an interesting phenomenon, and the tip we got pointed to an article that attempted to apply Benford’s Law to image files. This technique was used in a TV show to prove an image had been tampered with, but as it turns out, Hollywood doesn’t always get technical material right. Shocking, we know, but the technique was still interesting and the code developed to Benford-ize image files might be useful in other ways.

Everyone knew it was coming, and for a long time in advance, but it still seems that the once-and-for-all, we’re not kidding this time, it’s for realsies shutdown of Adobe Flash has had some real world consequences. To wit, a railroad system in the northern Chinese city of Dalian ground to a halt earlier this month thanks to Flash going away. No, they weren’t using Flash to control the railroad, but rather it was buried deep inside software used to schedule and route trains. It threw the system into chaos for a while, but never fear — they got back up and running by installing a pirated version of Flash. Here’s hoping that they’re working on a more permanent solution to the problem.

First it was toilet paper and hand sanitizer, now it’s…STM32 chips? Maybe, if the chatter on Twitter and other channels is to be believed. Seems like people are having a hard time sourcing the microcontroller lately. It’s all anecdotal so far, of course, but the prevailing theory is that COVID-19 and worker strikes have lead to a pinch in production. Plus, you know, the whole 2020 thing. We’re wondering if our readers have noticed anything on this — if so, let us know in the comments below.

And finally, just because it’s cool, here’s a video of what rockets would look like if they were transparent. Well, obviously, they’d look like twisted heaps of burning wreckage on the ground is they were really made with clear plastic panels and fuel tanks, but you get the idea. The video launches a virtual fleet — a Saturn V, a Space Shuttle, a Falcon Heavy, and the hypothetical SLS rocket — and flies them in tight formation while we get to watch their consumables be consumed. If the burn rates are accurate, it’s surprising how little fuel and oxidizer the Shuttle used compared to the Saturn. We were also surprised how long the SLS holds onto its escape tower, and were pleased by the Falcon Heavy payload reveal.

Stolen Tech: The Soviet Shuttle

The US Space Shuttle program is dead and buried. The orbiters can now be found in their permanent homes in the Air and Space Museum, Kennedy Space Center, and the California Science Center. The launch pads used by the shuttles over a career of 135 launches are being repurposed for vehicles from SpaceX and the Space Launch System. Yes, some of the hardware and technology will be reused for NASA’s next generation of heavy launch vehicles, but the orbiter – a beautiful brick of a space plane – is forever grounded.

The Space Shuttle was a product of the cold war, and although the orbiters themselves were never purely military craft, the choices made during the design of the Space Shuttle were heavily influenced by the US Air Force. The Soviet Union was keenly aware the United States was building a ‘space bomber’ and quickly began development of their own manned spaceplane.

While this Soviet Shuttle would not be as successful as its American counterpart — the single completed craft would only fly once, unmanned — the story of this spaceplane is one of the greatest tales of espionage ever told. And it ends with a spaceship that was arguably even more capable than its American twin.

Continue reading “Stolen Tech: The Soviet Shuttle”

Photographing Near-space Objects We’re Not Supposed To Know About

[Thierry Legault] doesn’t just look up at the stars, the uses a motorized telescope base of his own making to track and photograph secret objects orbiting the earth. What do we mean by ‘secret objects’? Spy stuff, of course.

Last month he captured some video of the X-37B, an unmanned and secretive reusable spacecraft (read: spy shuttle) which is operated by the United States Air Force. That was back on the 21st of May but a few nights later he also saw the USA-186, an optical reconnaissance (Keyhole) satellite.

After trying to cope with manual tracking using the RC control seen above [Thierry] set out to upgrade his equipment. He ended up designing his own software package (and then released it as freeware) to automatically track the trajectory of orbiting objects. He uses a second telescope to locate the object, then dials it in with the bigger telescope. Once in frame, the software takes over.

[Wired via Dangerous Prototypes]