Review: Hands On With The Swarm Satellite Network Eval Kit

If you have devices out in the field, you probably want to connect with them. There was a time when that was hard to do, requiring telephone wires or specialized radio gear. Now cellular data is prevalent, but even cellular isn’t everywhere. If you have the cash, you can pay a number of satellite companies to carry your data, but that’s generally pricey and has its own challenges.

The age of satellite constellations is changing that. Of course everyone by now has heard of Starlink which is offering satellite internet via numerous satellites that are much smaller than traditional telecom satellites. But they’re not the only came in town.

A company called Swarm has put up a constellation of 1/4U cube satellites in low orbits. They offer a ground station that uses an omni antenna and a subscription access program for small amounts of data. They sent us a unit to review, and while I haven’t used the system in a real project yet, the kit was pretty impressive.

About Swarm

Swarm tile device
The Swarm Tile is made to mount on a PCB

The Swarm “tile” is a tiny radio that can talk bi-directionally with small satellites in low Earth orbit. The little unit is made to mount on a PCB, can control its power consumption, and talks to your system via a standard 3.3V UART connection. It does, however, require a small antenna and maybe even a smaller antenna for its GPS module. Small, in this case, is about a mid-size handy talkie antenna. There is a half-wave antenna that doesn’t need a ground plane and a shorter antenna that does need a ground plane.

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The Magnetosphere Has A Ton Of Energy. Can A Guitar Amp Company Tap Into It?

Researching a piece on vacuum tubes, we stumbled on something unexpected from Electro-Harmonix, best known for guitar amplifiers and audio tube manufacture. In a break from their core business, they plan to tap energy from the magnetosphere. This came as something of a surprise to their guitarist customers who were no doubt expecting a fancy new effects pedal, but it seems they’re serious.

The magnetosphere is the region of space surrounding the earth in which the earth’s magnetic field has most influence, and unlike the tidy pattern of magnetic field surrounding a bar magnet that you might have seen with iron filings at school, it’s distorted by the constant buffeting of the solar wind. This means that a significant quantity of potential energy is stored in its compression, and it’s this energy that Electro-Harmonix have their eye on.

Like Fox Mulder: we want to believe. Unfortunately the trouble with such ideas is readily visible with a quick web search; they attract a significant number of what one might charitably call cranks, and there is no shortage of unsubstantiated claims surrounding conspiracy theories, silenced genus inventors, and their mystery devices. Weird and wonderful descriptions and cryptic circuit diagrams abound, so separating the wheat if there is any from the inevitable chaff becomes a challenge. We respect that the Electro-Harmonix team are professional engineers who we hope are unlikely to become caught up in the weirder part of the Internet, but we’ll reserve our judgement until they provide more technical details of what they propose.

Header: NASA, Public domain.

Orbiter Is Now Open Source

We always have it on our list to learn more about Orbiter. If you haven’t seen it, it is a hyperrealistic space simulator. Granted, you can put it in an easy mode, but its real strength is you can very accurately model spacecraft like the Space Shuttle and have very realistic controls. In order to spur development, the program is now open source.

We think this is interesting for two reasons. First, if you ever wanted to contribute into a project of this scope, here’s your chance. You might not want to write a full-blow space simulator but you might have something to add. However, open source also means you can see how the program works and either reuse it in your own open source projects or just simply learn from the techniques.

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A Look Back On A Decade Of Kerbal Space Program

Just a few weeks before Atlantis embarked on the final flight of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, a small Mexican company by the name of Squad quietly released Kerbal Space Program (KSP) onto an unsuspecting world. Until that point the company had only developed websites and multi-media installations. Kerbal wasn’t even an official company initiative, it started as a side project by one of their employees, Felipe Falanghe. The sandbox game allowed players to cobble together rockets from an inventory of modular components and attempt to put them into orbit around the planet Kerbin. It was immediately addictive.

There was no story to follow, or enemies to battle. The closest thing to a score counter was the altimeter that showed how far your craft was above the planet’s surface, and the only way to “win” was to put its little green occupant, the titular Kerbal, back on the ground in one piece. The game’s challenge came not from puzzles or scripted events, but from the game’s accurate (if slightly simplified) application of orbital mechanics and Newtonian dynamics. Building a rocket and getting it into orbit in KSP isn’t difficult because the developers baked some arbitrary limitations into their virtual world; the game is hard for the same reasons putting a rocket into orbit around the Earth is hard.

One of my early rockets, circa 2013.

Over the years official updates added new components for players to build with and planets to explore, and an incredible array of community developed add-ons and modifications expanded the scope of the game even further. KSP would go on to be played by millions, and seeing a valuable opportunity to connect with future engineers, both NASA and the ESA helped develop expansions for the game that allowed players to recreate their real-world vehicles and missions.

But now after a decade of continuous development, with ports to multiple operating systems and game consoles, Squad is bringing this chapter of the KSP adventure to a close. To celebrate the game’s 10th anniversary on June 24th, they released “On Final Approach”, the game’s last official update. Attention will now be focused on the game’s ambitious sequel, which will expand the basic formula with the addition of interstellar travel and planetary colonies, currently slated for release in 2022.

Of course, this isn’t the end. Millions of “classic” KSP players will still be slinging their Kerbals into Hohmann transfer orbits for years to come, and the talented community of mod developers will undoubtedly help keep the game fresh with unofficial updates. But the end of official support is a major turning point, and it seems a perfect time to reminisce on the impact this revolutionary game has had on the engineering and space communities.

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China’s Mars Rover Goes Exploring

China’s space program has big goals and is already starting to achieve them. Recently, the China National Space Administration has landed its first rover on Mars, and begun to explore the surface of the red planet.

It’s a huge step, and something only previously achieved successfully by NASA. Let’s take a look at the Chinese project, its goals, and see how it compares to the American rovers that have also roamed so far away.

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Apollo Shift Register Is Discrete

We’re unabashed fans of [Ken Shirriff] here at Hackaday, and his latest post about an Apollo-era transistorized shift register doesn’t disappoint. Of course, nowadays a 16-bit shift register is nothing special. But in 1965, this piece of Apollo test hardware weighed five pounds and likely cost at least one engineer’s salary in the day, if not more.

The incredible complexity of the the Apollo spacecraft required NASA to develop a sophisticated digital system that would allow remote operators to execute tests and examine results from control rooms miles away from the launch pad.

This “Computer Buffer Unit” was used to hold commands for the main computer since a remote operator could not use the DSKY to enter commands directly. Externally the box looks like a piece of military hardware, and on the inside has six circuit boards stacked like the pages of a book. To combat Florida’s notoriously damp conditions, the enclosure included a desiccant bag and a way to fill the device with nitrogen. A humidity indicator warned when it was time to change the bag.

There is a lot more in the post, so if you are interested in unusual construction techniques that were probably the precursor to integrated circuits, diode transistor logic, or just think old space hardware is cool, you’ll enjoy a peek inside this unusual piece of gear. Be sure to check out some of [Ken]’s previous examinations, fromĀ tiny circuits to big computers.

You Have About Four Months To Find A Lost Satellite

In the annals of technical achievement originating from the United Kingdom there lies a forgotten success story that should have led to greater things but instead became a dead-end even before it had happened. We’re referring of course to Prospero, a British satellite that holds the honour of being the only one to have been launched on board a British-developed satellite launch platform. On the 28th of October 1971 it was launched aboard a Black Arrow rocket from the Woomera launch site in Australia and successfully entered orbit to complete its mission. When it was launched the Black Arrow program had already been canceled by the British government, with the launch proceeding only because rocket and satellite were by then already on the pad.

A never flown Black Arrow rocket and the Prospero flight spare, in the Science Museum, London.
A never flown Black Arrow rocket and the Prospero flight spare, in the Science Museum, London.

So the Brits became the sixth nation to develop a satellite launch capability, and promptly canned it. Prospero was a success though and remains in orbit, and was even re-activated periodically as late as the 1990s. With its fiftieth anniversary approaching in October we think it’s worth looking for to mark the occasion, and so would like to remind you of its existence and the impending anniversary. If any community can find a lost satellite, hear its call if it is still transmitting anything, and maybe even wake it up, it’s you lot. Hackaday readers never cease to amaze us with their talents, and we know that among you will be people with what it takes to find Prospero.

To help you along your way there’s a lot of information about the satellite to be found online, including the details of an unsuccessful attempt to contact it a decade ago for the anniversary in 2011, and a real-time tracker to help you find its position. Maybe some of you have a decent enough telescope to take a snap of it as it passes over, but if a radio signal could be retrieved from it that would be particularly impressive. Watch out though, you might find yourself hearing an Orbcomm satellite on the same frequency.

So if any of you fancy firing up your SDRs and pointing an antenna skywards over the next few months, we’d like to hear about your progress. It’s possible that the craft may by now be incapable of life, but if anything can be found it’s worth a try.

This isn’t the first satellite rescue attempt documented here on Hackaday. A few years back we put out the call to rescue ICE/ISEE-3.