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.

Continue reading “Six Wheels (En)rolling: Mars Rovers Going To School”

Robot Rovers of the Early Space Race

In the early 1970s, the American space program was at a high point, having placed astronauts upon the surface of the moon while their Soviet competitors had not taken them beyond an Earth orbit. It is however a simplistic view to take this as meaning that NASA had the lead in all aspects of space exploration, because while Russians had not walked the surface of our satellite they had achieved a less glamorous feat of lunar exploration that the Americans had not. The first Lunokhod wheeled rover had reached the lunar surface and explored it under the control of earth-bound engineers in the closing months of 1970, and while the rovers driven by Apollo astronauts had placed American treadmarks in the  lunar soil and been reproduced on newspaper front pages and television screens worldwide, they had yet to match the Soviet achievements with respect to autonomy and remote control.

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory there was a project to develop technology for future American rovers under the leadership of [Dr. Ewald Heer], and we have a fascinating insight into it thanks to the reminiscences of [Mike Blackstone], then a junior engineer.

The aim of the project was to demonstrate the feasibility of a rover exploring a planetary surface, picking up, and examining rocks. Lest you imagine a billion dollar budget for gleaming rover prototypes, it’s fair to say that this was to be achieved with considerably more modest means. The rover was a repurposed unit that had previously been used for remote handling of hazardous chemicals, and the project’s computer was an extremely obsolete DEC PDP-1.

We are treated to an in-depth description of the rover and its somewhat arcane control system. Sadly we have no pictures save for his sketches as the whole piece rests upon his recollections, but it sounds an interesting machine in its own right. Heavily armoured against chemical explosions, its two roughly-humanoid arms were operated entirely by chains similar to bicycle chains, with all motors resting in its shoulders. A vision system was added in the form of a pair of video cameras on motorised mounts, these could be aimed at an object using a set of crosshairs on each of their monitors, and their angles read off manually by the operator from the controls. These readings could then be entered into the PDP-1, upon which the software written by [Mike] could calculate the position of an object, calculate the required arm positions to retrieve it, and command the rover to perform the required actions.

The program was a success, producing a film for evaluation by the NASA bigwigs. If it still exists it would be fascinating to see it, perhaps our commenters may know where it might be found. Meanwhile if the current JPL research on rovers interests you, you might find this 2017 Hackaday Superconference talk to be of interest.

Thanks [JRD] for the tip.

The Flight of the Seagull: Valentina Tereshkova, Cosmonaut

That the Cold War was a tense and perilous time in history cannot be denied, and is perhaps a bit of an understatement. The world stood on the edge of Armageddon for most of it, occasionally stepping slightly over the line, and thankfully stepping back before any damage was done.

As nerve-wracking as the Cold War was, it had one redeeming quality: it turned us into a spacefaring species. Propelled by national pride and the need to appear to be the biggest kid on the block, the United States and the Soviet Union consistently ratcheted up their programs, trying to be the first to make the next major milestone. The Soviets made most of the firsts, making Sputnik and Gagarin household names all over the world. But in 1962, they laid down a marker for a first of epic proportions, and one that would sadly stand alone for the next 19 years: they put the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, into space.

Continue reading “The Flight of the Seagull: Valentina Tereshkova, Cosmonaut”

3D Printed Clockwork Star Tracker

Astrophotography is one of those things you naturally assume must be pretty difficult; surely something so awesome requires years of practice and specialized equipment which costs as much as your car. You shake your fist at the sky (since you have given up on taking pictures of it), and move on with your life. Another experience you’ll miss out on.

But in reality, dramatic results don’t necessarily require sticker shock. We’ve covered cheap DIY star trackers before on Hackaday, but this design posted on Thingiverse by [Tinfoil_Haberdashery] is perhaps the easiest we’ve ever seen. It keeps things simple by using a cheap 24 hour clock movement to rotate a GoPro as the Earth spins. The result is a time-lapse where the stars appear to be stationary while the horizon rotates.

Using a 24 hour clock movement is an absolutely brilliant way to synchronize the camera with the Earth’s rotation without the hoops one usually has to jump through. Sure you could do with a microcontroller, a stepper motor, and some math. But a clock is a device that’s essentially been designed from the ground up for keeping track of the planet’s rotation, so why not use it?

If there’s a downside to the clock movement, it’s the fact that it doesn’t have much torque. It was intended to move an hour hand, not your camera, so it doesn’t take much to stall out. The GoPro (and other “action” cameras) should be light enough that it’s not a big deal; but don’t expect to mount your DSLR up to one. Even in the video after the break, it looks like the clock may skip a few steps on the way down as the weight of the camera starts pushing on the gears.

If you want something with a bit more muscle, we’ve recently covered a very slick Arduino powered “barn door” star tracker. But there’re simpler options if you’re looking to get some shots tonight.

Continue reading “3D Printed Clockwork Star Tracker”

Tracking CubeSats for $25

CubeSats are tiny satellites which tag along as secondary payloads during launches. They have to weigh in at under 1.33 kg, and are often built at low cost. There’s even open source designs for these little spacecrafts. Over 800 CubeSats have been launched over the last few years, with many more launches scheduled in the near future.

[Thomas Cholakov] coupled a homemade cloverleaf antenna to a software-defined radio to track some of these satellites. The antenna is built out of copper-clad wire cut to the correct length to receive 437 MHz signals. Four loops are connected together and terminated to an RF connector.

This homebrew antenna is connected into a RTL-SDR dongle. The dongle picks up the beacon signals sent by the satellites and provides the data to a PC. Due to the motion of the satellites, their beacons can be easily identified by the Doppler shift of the frequency.

[Thomas] uses SDR Console to receive data from the satellites. While the demo only shows basic receiving, much more information on decoding these satellites can be found on the SDR Satellites website.

This looks like a fun weekend project, and probably the cheapest aerospace related project possible. After the break, watch the full video explaining how to build and set up the antenna and dongle.

Continue reading “Tracking CubeSats for $25”

Autonomous Spaceplane Travels to 10 km, Lands Safely 200 km Away

Space balloons, where one sends instrument packages to the edge of space on a weather balloon, are a low-cost way to scratch the space itch. But once you’ve logged the pressure and temperature and tracked your balloon, what’s the next challenge? How about releasing an autonomous glider and having it return itself to Earth safely?

That’s what [IzzyBrand] and his cohorts did, and we have to say we’re mightily impressed. The glider itself looks like nothing to write home about: in true Flite Test fashion, it’s just a flying wing made with foam core and Coroplast reinforced with duct tape. A pair of servo-controlled elevons lies on the trailing edge of the wings, while inside the fuselage are a Raspberry Pi and a Pixhawk flight controller along with a GPS receiver. Cameras point fore and aft, a pair of 5200 mAh batteries provide the juice, and handwarmers stuffed into the avionics bay prevent freezing.

After a long series of test releases from a quadcopter, flight day finally came. Winds aloft prevented a full 30-kilometer release, so the glider was set free at 10 kilometers. The glider then proceeded to a pre-programmed landing zone over 80 kilometers from the release point. At one point the winds were literally pushing the glider backward, but the little plane prevailed and eventually spiraled down to a perfect landing.

We’ve been covering space balloons for a while, but take a moment to consider the accomplishment presented here. On a shoestring budget, a team of amateurs hit a target the size of two soccer fields with an autonomous aircraft from a range of almost 200 kilometers. That’s why we’re impressed, and we can’t wait to see what they can do after a release from the edge of space.

Continue reading “Autonomous Spaceplane Travels to 10 km, Lands Safely 200 km Away”