Soyuz Rocket Emergency Landing, Everyone OK

NASA spokesperson [Brandi Dean] summarized it succinctly: “Confirming again that today’s Soyuz MS10 launch did go into ballistic re-entry mode … That means the crew will not be going to the ISS today. Instead they will be taking a sharp landing, coming back to earth”. While nobody likes last-minute changes in plans, we imagine that goes double for astronauts. On the other hand, it’s always good news when we are able to joke about a flight that starts off with a booster separation problem.

Astronauts [Nick Hague] and [Aleksey Ovchinin] were on their way this morning to the International Space Station, but only made it as far as the middle of Kazakhstan. Almost as soon as the problem occurred, the rocket was re-pathed and a rescue team was sent out to meet them. Just an hour and a half after launch, they were on-site and pulled the pair out of the capsule unharmed. Roscosmos has already commissioned a report to look into the event. In short, all of the contingency plans look like they went to plan. We’ll have to wait and see what went wrong.

Watching the video (embedded below) the only obvious sign that anyone got excited is the simultaneous interpreter stumbling a bit when she has to translate [Aleksey] saying “emergency… failure of the booster separation”. Indeed, he reported everything so calmly that the NASA commentator didn’t even catch on for a few seconds. If you want to know what it’s like to remain cool under pressure, have a listen.

Going to space today is still a risky business, but thankfully lacks the danger factor that it once had. For instance, a Soyuz rocket hasn’t had an issue like this since 1975. Apollo 12 was hit by lightning and temporarily lost its navigation computer, but only the truly close call on Apollo 13 was made into a Hollywood Blockbuster. Still, it’s worth pausing a minute or two to think of the people up there floating around. Or maybe even sneak out and catch a glimpse when the ISS flies overhead.

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Maker Faire NY: Developing for the Final Frontier

The cost of getting a piece of hardware into space is now cheaper than ever, thanks in no small part to the rapid progress that’s been made by commercial launch providers such as SpaceX. In the near future, as more low-cost providers come online, it should get even cheaper. Within a few years, we could be seeing per kilogram costs to low Earth orbit that are 1/10th what they were on the Space Shuttle. To be sure, this is a very exciting time to be in the business of designing and building spacecraft.

But no matter how cheap launches to orbit get, it’ll never be cheaper than simply emailing some source code up to the International Space Station (ISS). With that in mind, there are several programs which offer students the closest thing to booking passage on a Falcon 9: the chance to develop software that can be run aboard the Station. At the 2018 World Maker Faire in New York we got a chance to get up close and personal with functional replicas of the hardware that’s already on orbit, known in space parlance as “ground units”.

On display was a replica of one of the SPHERES free-flying satellites that have been on the ISS since 2006. They are roughly the size of a soccer ball and utilize CO2 thrusters and ultrasonic sensors to move around inside of the Station. Designed by MIT as a way to study spaceflight techniques such as docking and navigation without the expense and risk of using a full scale vehicle, the SPHERES satellites are perhaps the only operational spacecraft to have never been exposed to space itself.

MIT now runs the annual “Zero Robotics” competition, which tasks middle and high school students with solving a specific challenge using the SPHERES satellites. Competitors run their programs on simulators until the finals, which are conducted using the real hardware on the ISS and live-streamed to schools.

We also saw hardware from “Quest for Space”, which is a company offering curricula for elementary through high school students which include not only the ground units, but training and technical support when and if the school decides to send the code to the matching hardware on the Station. For an additional fee, they will even work with the school to design, launch, and recover a custom hardware experiment.

Their standard hardware is based on off-the-shelf platforms such as Arduino and LEGO Mindstorms EV3, which makes for an easy transition for school’s existing STEM programs. The current hardware in orbit is setup for experiments dealing with heat absorption, humidity, and convection, but “Quest for Space” notes they change out the hardware every two years to provide different experiment opportunities.

Projects such as these, along with previous efforts such as the ArduSat, offer a unique way for the masses to connect with space in ways which would have been unthinkable before the turn of the 21st century. It’s still up for debate if anyone reading Hackaday in 2018 will personally get a chance to slip Earth’s surly bonds, but at least you can rest easy knowing your software bugs can hitch a ride off the planet.

One Small Step for a Space Elevator

Space elevators belong to that class of technology that we all want to see become a reality within our lifetimes, but deep-down doubt we’ll ever get to witness firsthand. Like cold fusion, or faster than light travel, we understand the principles that should make these concepts possible, but they’re so far beyond our technical understanding that they might as well be fantasy.

Except, maybe not. When Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launches their seventh Kounotori H-II Transfer Vehicle towards the International Space Station, riding along with the experiments and supplies for the astronauts, will be a very special pair of CubeSats. They make up the world’s first practical test of space elevator technology, and with any luck, will be one of many small steps that precedes the giant leap which access to space at a fraction of the cost will be.

Of course, they won’t be testing a fully functional space elevator; even the most aggressive of timelines put us a few decades out from that. This will simply be a small scale test of some of the concepts that are central to building a space elevator, as we need to learn to crawl before we can walk. But even if we aren’t around to see the first practical space elevator make it to the top, at least we can say we were there on the ground floor.

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Apollo 12 Was the Lucky Number Among Apollo Disasters

I recently saw Apollo 13 again — this time with the score played live by the Houston Symphony. What a crazy coincidence that thirteen has long been considered an unlucky number and that Apollo 13 would be the one we almost lost. However, Apollo 12 almost became a disaster which — after the ordeal with flight 13 — was largely forgotten.

When all was said and done, Apollo 12 would result in a second manned moon landing in November 1969, just four months after Apollo 11. Commanded by Pete Conrad, Alan Bean accompanied Conrad to the surface while Richard Gordon, Jr. kept the getaway vehicle running. But less than a minute after launch something happened that could have been a disaster. Lightning struck the vehicle.

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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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Before Sending A Probe To The Sun, Make Sure It Can Take The Heat

This past weekend, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe took off for a journey to study our local star. While its mission is well covered by science literate media sources, the equally interesting behind-the-scenes information is a little harder to come by. For that, we have Science News who gave us a look at some of the work that went into testing the probe.

NASA has built and tested space probes before, but none of them were destined to get as close to the sun as Parker will, creating new challenges for testing the probe. The lead engineer for the heat shield, Elizabeth Congdon, was quoted in the article: “Getting things hot on Earth is easier than you would think it is, getting things hot on Earth in vacuum is difficult.” The team used everything from a concentrated solar facility to hacking IMAX movie projector lenses.

The extreme heat also posed indirect problems elsewhere on the probe. A rocket launch is not a gentle affair, any cargo has to tolerate a great deal of shock and vibration. A typical solution for keeping fasteners in place is to glue them down with an epoxy, but they’d melt where Parker is going so something else had to be done. It’s not all high technology and exotic materials, though, as when the goal was to verify that the heat shield was strong enough to withstand up to 20G of acceleration expected during launch, the test team simulated extra weight by stacking paper on top of it.

All that testing should ensure Parker can perform its mission and tell us a lot of interesting things about our sun. And if you got in on the publicity campaign earlier this year, your name is along for the ride.

Not enough space probe action for the day? We’ve also recently featured how creative hacking gave the exoplanet hunter Kepler a second lease on life.

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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