AMSAT CubeSat Simulator Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, December 4th at noon Pacific for the AMSAT CubeSat Simulator Hack Chat with Alan Johnston!

For all the lip service the world’s governments pay to “space belonging to the people”, they did a pretty good job keeping access to it to themselves for the first 50 years of the Space Age. Oh sure, private-sector corporations could spend their investors’ money on lengthy approval processes and pay for a ride into space, but with a few exceptions, if you wanted your own satellite, you needed to have the resources of a nation-state.

All that began to change about 20 years ago when the CubeSat concept was born. Conceived as a way to get engineering students involved in the satellite industry, the 10 cm cube form factor that evolved has become the standard around which students, amateur radio operators, non-governmental organizations, and even private citizens have designed and flown satellites to do everything from relaying ham radio messages to monitoring the status of the environment.

But before any of that can happen, CubeSat builders need to know that their little chunk of hardware is going to do its job. That’s where Alan Johnston, a teaching professor in electrical and computer engineering at Villanova University, comes in. As a member of AMSAT, the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation, he has built a CubeSat simulator. Built for about $300 using mostly off-the-shelf and 3D-printed parts, the simulator lets satellite builders work the bugs out of their designs before committing them to the Final Frontier.

Dr. Johnston will stop by the Hack Chat to discuss his CubeSat simulator and all things nanosatellite. Come along to learn what it takes to make sure a satellite is up to snuff, find out his motivations for getting involved in AMSAT and CubeSat testing, and what alternative uses people are finding the platform. Hint: think high-altitude ballooning.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, December 4 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Hackaday Links: December 1, 2019

We can recall a book from our youth that cataloged some of the most interesting airplanes in the world. One particularly interesting beast was dubbed “The Super Guppy”, a hilariously distended cargo plane purpose-built for ferrying Saturn rocket sections around the US in the 1960s. We though the Guppies were long gone, victims like so many other fascinating machines of the demise of the Apollo program. It turns out we were only 4/5 right about that, since one of the original five Super Guppies is still in service, and was spotted hauling an Orion capsule from Florida to Ohio for vacuum testing. The almost 60-year-old plane, a highly modified C-97 Stratofreighter, still has a big enough fan-base to attract 1500 people to brave the Ohio cold and watch it land.

The news this week was filled with reports from Texas of a massive chemical plant explosion that forced the evacuation of 50,000 people from their homes the day before Thanksgiving. The explosion and ensuing fire at the TPC Group petrochemical plant were spectacular; thankfully, there were no deaths and only two injuries reported from the incident. The tie-in to the hacker community lies in what this plant made: butadiene, or synthetic rubber. The plant produced about 16% of the North American market’s supply of butadiene, which we know from previous coverage is one of the polymers in acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS. It remains to be seen if this will put a crimp in ABS printer filament supplies, or any of the hundreds of products that butadiene is in, including automotive tires and hoses.

Remember when “Cyber Monday” became a thing? We sure do; in the USA, it was supposed to be the first workday back from the Thanksgiving break which would afford those lacking a fast Internet connection at home the opportunity to do online shopping on company time. The idea seems so year 2000 now, but the name stuck, and all kinds of sales and bargains are now competing for your virtual attention and cyber dollars. That includes Tindie, of course, where the Cyber Monday Sale is running through December 6. There’s tons to chose from, including products that got started as Hackaday.io projects and certified open-source hardware products. Be sure to check out the Tindie Twitter feed and blog for extra discount codes, too.

Speaking of gift-giving, we got an interesting tip about a product we never knew we needed. Called “WorkBench”, it’s a modular development system that takes care of an oft-neglected side of prototyping: the physical and mechanical layout. Too often we just start with a breadboard on the bench, and while that’ll do for lots of smaller projects, as the build keeps growing and the breadboards keep coming, things can get out of hand. WorkBench aims to tidy things up by providing a basal platen onto which breadboards, microcontrollers, perfboards, or just about anything else can be snapped. Handles make the whole thing portable, and a clear acrylic cover protects your hard work.

We love to hear stories about citizen science, especially when the amateurs scoop the professionals. Astronomy seems to be a hotbed for this brand of discovery, usually as a lone astronomer peering into the night sky to see a comet or asteroid nobody has seen before. Catching a glitching pulsar in the act is an entirely different level of discovery, though. Back in February, Steve Olney detected a 2.5 parts-per-million increase in the 89-millisecond period of emissions for the Vela pulsar using his RTL-SDR-based observatory. Steve has some fascinating information about pulsars and his observatory on his website. Color us impressed that he was able to pull off this observation without the benefit of millions of dollars in equipment and a giant parabolic dish antenna.

Hacking Mars: InSight Mole Is On The Move Again

Your job might be tough, but spare a thought for any of the engineers involved in the Mars InSight lander mission when they learned that one of the flagship instruments aboard the lander, indeed the very instrument for which the entire mission was named, appeared to be a dud. That’s a bad day at work by anyone’s standards, and it happened over the summer when it was reported that the Mars Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport lander’s Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP³), commonly known as “The Mole”, was not drilling itself into the Martian regolith as planned.

But now, after months of brainstorming and painstaking testing on Earth and on Mars, it looks as if the mole is working again. NASA has announced that, with a little help from the lander’s backhoe bucket, the HP³ penetrator has dug itself 2 cm into the soil. It’s a far cry from the 5-meter planned depth for its heat-transfer experiments, but it’s progress, and the clever hack that got the probe that far might just go on to salvage a huge chunk of the science planned for the $828 million program.

Continue reading “Hacking Mars: InSight Mole Is On The Move Again”

Sending An ESP32 Into Space

Just two weeks ago, the crew from the International Space Station released a photo of their nine crew members – an odd number considering that the facility only has space to house six astronauts at a time. In fact, the crew had just gathered for a celebratory dinner before three of the astronauts were to return home. The new astronauts joining including Hazza Al Mansouri, the first astronaut from the United Arab Emirates (who has since returned from his mission), as well as astronaut Jessica Meir and cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka.

Amidst the excitement over the upcoming 10 (!) spacewalks in the next three months, there’s also been some cool developments in the open source space, with one of the first ESP32s launched into space.

[Nico Maas] from the Microgravity User Support Center (MUSC) at DLR (German Aerospace Center) worked on an experiment launched by MORABA (Mobile Rocket Base) at DLR. The launch site was at the Esrange Space Center in Kiruna, Sweden, with the mission launching on June 13, 2019 at 4:21 am local time.

The experiment – APEX (Advanced Processors, Encryption, and Security Experiment) was onboard the ATEK / MAPHEUS-8, mission, rising to an altitude of 240km into space and returning back to earth after six minutes of microgravity.

[via AIP]
The goal of the research was to develop an off-the-shelf computer with a more powerful system for high-speed sensors and image acquisition than the Microchip ATmega328P, the current standard. The flight test measured the speed of the system as well as stress testing its ability to handle compute-intensive tests.

The main board included two ESP32s and a Raspberry Pi Zero W, running resinOS / balenaOS, an operating system designed to run parallel Docker containers and optimized for IoT fleet management.

Prior to the experiment, the standard for on-board computers for use in CubeSats was the ATmega/Arduino-based ARDUSAT. Since it was first made available for use in CubeSats in 2013, the performance has become limited, with improvements needed to perform higher throughput data sampling or operations requiring more computational power.

It’s also cool to note that the system, built using a 3D-printed holder, survived the re-entry (reaching up to 20.6g) with hardly a scratch.

Continue reading “Sending An ESP32 Into Space”

Tinker Pilot Project Cranks Cockpit Immersion To 11

One of the more interesting ideas being experimented with in VR is 1:1 mapping of virtual and real-world objects, so that virtual representations can have physically interaction in a normal way. Tinker Pilot is a VR spaceship simulator project by [LLUÍS and JAVI] that takes this idea and runs with it, aiming for the ability to map a cockpit’s joysticks, switches, and other hardware to real-world representations. What does that mean? It means a virtual cockpit with flight sticks, levers, and switches that have working physical versions that actually exist exactly where they appear to be.

A few things about the project design caught our eye. One is the serial communications protocol intended to interface easily with microcontrollers, allowing for feedback between the program and any custom peripherals. (By the way, this is the same approach Kerbal Space Program took with KSPSerialIO, which enables custom mission control hardware at whatever level of complexity a user may wish to implement.)

The possibilities are demonstrated starting around 1:09 in the teaser trailer (embedded below) in which a custom controller is drawn up in CAD, then 3D-printed and attached to an Arduino, and finally the 3D model is imported into the cockpit as a 1:1 representation of the actual working unit, with visual positional feedback.

Unlike this chair experiment we saw which attached a Vive Tracker to a chair, there is no indication of needing positional trackers on individual controls in Tinker Pilot. In a cockpit layout, controls can be reasonably expected to remain in fixed positions relative to the cockpit, meaning that they can be set up as 1:1 representations of a physical layout and otherwise left alone. The kind of experimentation that is available today even to individual developers or small teams is remarkable, and it’s fascinating to see the ideas being given some experimentation.

Continue reading “Tinker Pilot Project Cranks Cockpit Immersion To 11”

Russian Robot To Visit Space Station

The Russians were the first to send a dog into space, the first to send a man, and the first to send a woman. However, NASA sent the first humanoid robot to the International Space Station. The Russians, though, want to send FEDOR and proclaim that while Robonaut flew as cargo, a FEDOR model — Skybot F-850 — will fly the upcoming MS-14 supply mission as crew.

Defining the term robot can be tricky, with some thinking a proper robot needs to be autonomous and others seeing robotics under human control as enough. The Russian FEDOR robot is — we think — primarily a telepresence device, but it remains an impressive technical achievement. The press release claims that it can balance itself and do other autonomous actions, but it appears that to do anything tricky probably requires an operator. You can see the robot in ground tests at about the one minute mark in the video below.

Continue reading “Russian Robot To Visit Space Station”

Life At JPL Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, August 21st at noon Pacific for the Life at JPL Hack Chat with Arko!

There’s a reason why people use “rocket science” as a metaphor for things that are hard to do. Getting stuff from here to there when there is a billion miles away and across a hostile environment of freezing cold, searing heat, and pelting radiation isn’t something that’s easily accomplished. It takes a dedicated team of scientists and engineers working on machines that can reach out into the vastness of space and work flawlessly the whole time, and as much practice and testing as an Earth-based simulation can provide.

Arko, also known as Ara Kourchians, is a Robotics Electrical Engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of NASA’s research and development centers. Nestled at the outskirts of Pasadena against the flanks of the San Gabriel Mountains, JPL is the birthplace of the nation’s first satellite as well as the first successful interplanetary probe. They build the robots that explore the solar system and beyond for us; Arko gets to work on those space robots every day, and that might just be the coolest job in the world.

Join us on the Hack Chat to get your chance to ask all those burning questions you have about working at JPL. What’s it like to build hardware that will leave this world and travel to another? Get the inside story on how NASA designs and tests systems for space travel. And perhaps get a glimpse at what being a rocket scientist is all about.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, August 21 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.