Hardware Notifications For ISS Flybys

Since Sputnik launched in the 1950s, its been possible to look outside at night and spot artificial satellites orbiting with the naked eye. While Sputnik isn’t up there anymore, a larger, more modern satellite is readily located: the International Space Station. In fact, NASA has a program which will alert anyone who signs up when the ISS is about to fly overhead. A better alert, though, is this ISS notifier which is a dedicated piece of hardware that guarantees you won’t miss the next flyby.

This notifier is built around the Tokymaker, a platform aimed at making electronics projects almost painfully easy to learn. Connections to various modules can be made without soldering, and programming is done via a graphical interface reminiscent of Scratch. Using these tools, [jaime_lc98] designed a tool which flips up a tiny paper astronaut whenever the ISS is nearby. The software side takes advantage of IFTTT to easily and reliably control the servo on the Tokymaker.

The project pages goes into detail about how to set up IFTTT and also how to use the block-style language to program the Tokymaker. It’s pretty straightforward to get it up and running, relatively inexpensive, and looks like a great way to get the miniature hackers in your life excited about space. If they happen to learn a little something in the proces, well, we won’t tell them if you won’t. It might also be a good stepping stone on the way to other ISS-related hacks.

Project Egress: A Bracket And A Bell Crank For The Latches

Put yourself in [This Old Tony]’s shoes: you get an email out of the blue asking you to take part in making a replica of a 50-year-old spacecraft. Would you believe it? He didn’t, at least not at first, but in the end it proved to be true enough that he made these two assemblies for Project Egress in his own unique style.

If you haven’t heard of Project Egress, check out our coverage of the initial announcement. The idea is to build a replica of the crew hatch from the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia, as part of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing next week. [Adam Savage] at Tested has enlisted 44 hackers and makers to help, spreading the work out among the group and letting everyone work in whatever materials and with whatever methods they feel like. [Old Tony], perhaps unsurprisingly, chose mainly Apollo-era dehydrated space-grade aluminum, machined using a combination of manual and CNC machining. We really like the finish he chose – a combination of sandblasting and manual distressing to give it a mission-worn look.

As for exactly what the parts themselves are, the best [Old Tony] could come up with to call them is a bracket and a bell crank. From the original hatch drawings, it looks like there were two bell cranks, which will transmit force around the hatch to the latches that [Fran Blanche], [Joel] and [Bob], and no doubt others have contributed to the build.

We’re eagerly anticipating the final assembly, to be executed by [Adam] live at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum on July 18. Project Egress is as much a celebration of the maker movement as it is a commemoration of Apollo, and we’re pleased that people will get a chance to see the fruits of the labors of all these hackers in so public a forum.

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It’s NICER In Orbit

Given the sheer volume of science going on as the International Space Station circles above our heads every 90 minutes or so, it would be hard for any one experiment to stand out. ISS expeditions conduct experiments on everything from space medicine to astrophysics and beyond, and the instruments needed to do the science have been slowly accreting over the years. There’s so much stuff up there that almost everywhere you turn there’s a box or pallet stuck down with hook-and-loop fasteners or bolted to some bulkhead, each one of them doing something interesting.

The science on the ISS isn’t contained completely within the hull, of course. The outside of the station fairly bristles with science, with packages nestled in among the solar panels and other infrastructure needed to run the spacecraft. Peering off into space and swiveling around to track targets is an instrument with the friendly name NICER, for “Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer.” What it does and how it does it is interesting stuff, and what it’s learning about the mysteries of neutron stars could end up having practical uses as humanity pushes out into the solar system and beyond.

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Project Egress: Casting The Hatch Handle

Every door needs a handle, even – especially – the door of a spaceship. And [Paul] from “Paul’s Garage” got the nod to fabricate the handle for the Apollo 11 Command Module hatch being built as part of Project Egress.

For those not familiar with Project Egress, it’s a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing that aims to recreate an important artifact from the mission: the Unified Crew Hatch, or UCH, from the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia. Forty-four makers from various disciplines have been tasked with making the various pieces of the UCH, and each one is free to use whatever materials and methods he or she wants. [Paul] chose what will probably turn out to be the consensus material – aluminum – and decided to play to his strengths by casting the part.

The handle itself is a chunky affair, as one would expect from something designed to be handled by an astronaut. [Paul] started with a 3D-printed version of the handle and created a two-piece mold in casting sand. The original part was probably machined, which meant that it didn’t have the draft angle that cast parts are supposed to have to make removal from the molding medium easier. [Paul] lucked out and got a perfect mold, and a perfect pour from silicon aluminum to boot. All the casting needed was a little cleanup and some holes to bolt it to the door.

[Paul]’s handle will get shipped to the Smithsonian along with the other parts, like [Fran Blanche]’s latch assembly, so that [Adam] can assemble the hatch live during the 50th-anniversary celebration later this month. Stay tuned for more Project Egress coverage as the parts keep rolling in.

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X-Rays Are The Next Frontier In Space Communications

Hundreds of years from now, the story of humanity’s inevitable spread across the solar system will be a collection of engineering problems solved, some probably in heroic fashion. We’ve already tackled a lot of these problems in our first furtive steps into the wider galaxy. Our engineering solutions have taken humans to the Moon and back, but that’s as far as we’ve been able to send our fragile and precious selves.

While we figure out how to solve the problems keeping us trapped in the Earth-Moon system, we’ve sent fleets of robotic emissaries to do our exploration by proxy, to make the observations we need to frame the next set of engineering problems to be solved. But as we reach further out into the solar system and beyond, our exploration capabilities are increasingly suffering from communications bottlenecks that restrict how much data we can ship back to Earth.

We need to find a way to send vast amounts of data back as quickly as possible using as few resources as possible on both ends of the communications link. Doing so may mean turning away from traditional radio communications and going way, way up the dial and developing practical means for communicating with X-rays.

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Britain Rejoins The Space Race

Jubilant crowds at the gates of Downing Street. (Jenny List)
Jubilant crowds at the gates of Downing Street. (Jenny List)

In a completely unexpected move, the British Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday announced outside Number 10 Downing Street that the UK would resume its space launch programme, 47 years after its cancellation following the launch of the Prospero satellite. She outlined a bold plan with a target of placing the Doc Martens of a British astronaut on the Lunar surface as early as 2024. Funded by the £350m per week Brexit windfall, the move would she said place the country at the forefront of a new 21st century Space Race with the North Koreans.

An estimated 2 million jubilant supporters took to the streets of London at the news, bringing the capital to a halt as they paraded with colourful banners from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square and down Whitehall past her Downing Street home. Meanwhile the value of shares in the popular British high street bakery firm Patisserie Gregoire jumped by 19% as it was revealed that their new vegan sausage roll had in fact been a secret trial of the British astronaut diet. Continue reading “Britain Rejoins The Space Race”

Could Orion Ride Falcon Heavy To The Moon?

Things aren’t looking good for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). Occasionally referred to as the “Senate Launch System”, or even less graciously, the “Rocket to Nowhere”, the super heavy-lift booster has long been a bone of contention for those in the industry. Designed as an evolution of core Space Shuttle technology, the SLS promised to reuse existing infrastructure to deliver higher payload capacities and lower operating costs than its infamous winged predecessor. But in the face of increased competition from commercial launch providers and proposed budget cuts targeting future upgrades and expansions of the core booster, the significantly over budget and behind schedule program is in a very precarious position.

Which is not to say the SLS doesn’t look impressive, at least on paper. In its initial configuration it would easily take the title as the world’s most powerful rocket, capable of lifting nearly 105 tons into low Earth orbit (LEO), compared to 70 tons for SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. It would still fall short of the mighty Saturn V’s 155 tons to LEO, but the proposed “Block 2” upgrades would increase SLS payload capability to within striking distance of the iconic Apollo-era booster at 145 tons. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA has been adamant that the might of SLS was the only way the agency could accomplish bigger and more ambitious missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

Or at least, they were. On March 13th, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine testified to Congress that in an effort to avoid further delays, the agency is exploring the possibility of sending their Orion spacecraft to the Moon with a commercial launcher. The statement came as a shock to many in the aerospace community, as it would seem to call into question the future of the entire SLS program. If commercial rockets can do the job of SLS, at least in some cases, why does the agency need it?

NASA is currently preparing a report which investigates what physical and logistical modifications would need to be made to missions originally slated to fly on SLS; a document which is sure to be scrutinized by SLS supporters and critics alike. Until the report is released, we can speculate about what this hypothetical flight to the Moon might look like.

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