Interplanetary Whack-A-Mole: NASA’s High-Stakes Rescue Plan For InSight Lander’s Science Mission

People rightly marvel at modern surgical techniques that let surgeons leverage the power of robotics to repair the smallest structures in the human body through wounds that can be closed with a couple of stitches. Such techniques can even be applied remotely, linking surgeon and robot through a telesurgery link. It can be risky, but it’s often a patient’s only option.

NASA has arrived at a similar inflection point, except that their patient is the Mars InSight lander, and the surgical suite is currently about 58 million kilometers away. The lander’s self-digging “mole” probe needs a little help getting started, so they’re planning a high-stakes rescue attempt that would make the most seasoned telesurgeon blanch: they want to use the lander’s robotic arm to press down on the mole to help it get back on track.

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Mars 2020 Rover: Curiosity’s Hi-Tech Twin Is Strapped For Science; Includes A Flying Drone

While Mars may be significantly behind its sunward neighbor in terms of the number of motor vehicles crawling over its surface, it seems like we’re doing our best to close that gap. Over the last 23 years, humans have sent four successful rovers to the surface of the Red Planet, from the tiny Sojourner to the Volkswagen-sized Curiosity. These vehicles have all carved their six-wheeled tracks into the Martian dust, probing the soil and the atmosphere and taking pictures galore, all of which contribute mightily to our understanding of our (sometimes) nearest planetary neighbor.

You’d think then that sending still more rovers to Mars would yield diminishing returns, but it turns out there’s still plenty of science to do, especially if the dream of sending humans there to explore and perhaps live is to come true. And so the fleet of Martian rovers will be joined by two new vehicles over the next year or so, lead by the Mars 2020 program’s yet-to-be-named rover. Here’s a look at the next Martian buggy, and how it’s built for the job it’s intended to do.

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Soviet Soyuz Clock Teardown

We love spacecraft and we definitely love teardowns, especially if they are for vintage devices. [Ken Shirriff] writes about taking apart the digital clock module from the Soviet Soyuz series of spacecraft and there are a lot of interesting bits to the device. After all, it has been into space.

The Soyuz series of spacecraft made their maiden voyage in 1966, and are still flying today. The clock in question comes from somewhere in the middle, around 1996. On the outside, it seems like any spaceship gizmo, and the digital clock keeps local time along with a stopwatch and an alarm function. The guts are much more interesting with no less than 10 PCBs sandwiched inside the small enclosure.

The system consists of dual layer-boards with a mix of SMD and through-hole components that are interconnected by a series of wires that are bunched and packed to create a wiring harness. The pictures show a very clever way of setting up the stack and the system is serviceable by design as the bunch opens up like a book. This gives access to the unique looking components that include 14-pin flat pack chips, large ceramic multicoil inductors, green colored resistors, and orange rectangular diodes.

There are isolated PSU boards, control boards, clock circuitry, some glue logic to put things together, and LED displays with driver circuits. [Ken Shirriff] dives into the clocking circuit and the various parts involved along with a comparison with US technology. There is a lot of interesting detail in these boards, and it may be a source of inspiration for some.

If you are looking for more spaceborne tech, have a look at the one that stowed away on the International Space Station.

Thanks for the tip [Thorsten Eggert]

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Lessons Learned From A CubeSat Postmortem

On the 3rd of June 2019, a 1U CubeSat developed by students of the AGH University of Science and Technology in Kraków was released from the International Space Station. Within a few hours it was clear something was wrong, and by July 30th, the satellite was barely functional. A number of problems contributed to the gradual degradation of the KRAKsat spacecraft, which the team has thoroughly documented in a recently released paper.

We all know, at least in a general sense, that building and operating a spacecraft is an exceptionally difficult task on a technical level. But reading through the 20-pages of “KRAKsat Lessons Learned” gives you practical examples of just how many things can go wrong.

KRAKsat being released from the ISS

It all started with a steadily decreasing battery voltage. The voltage was dropping slowly enough that the team knew the solar panels were doing something, but unfortunately the KRAKsat didn’t have a way of reporting their output. This made it difficult to diagnose the energy deficit, but the team believes the issue may have been that the tumbling of the spacecraft meant the panels weren’t exposed to the amount of direct sunlight they had anticipated.

This slow energy drain continued until the voltage dropped to the point that the power supply shut down, and that’s were things really started going south. Once the satellite shut down the batteries were able to start charging back up, which normally would have been a good thing. But unfortunately the KRAKsat had no mechanism to remain powered down once the voltage climbed back above the shutoff threshold. This caused the satellite to enter into and loop where it would reboot itself as many as 150 times per orbit (approximately 90 minutes).

The paper then goes into a laundry list of other problems that contributed to KRAKsat’s failure. For example, the satellite had redundant radios onboard, but the software on them wasn’t identical. When they needed to switch over to the secondary radio, they found that a glitch in its software meant it was unable to access some portions of the onboard flash storage. The team also identified the lack of a filesystem on the flash storage as another stumbling block; having to pull things out using a pointer and the specific memory address was a cumbersome and time consuming task made all the more difficult by the spacecraft’s deteriorating condition.

Of course, building a satellite that was able to operate for a couple weeks is still an impressive achievement for a student team. As we’ve seen recently, even the pros can run into some serious technical issues once the spacecraft leaves the lab and is operating on its own.

[Thanks to ppkt for the tip.]

A New High-Performance Camera That Detects Single Photons

There may soon be breakthroughs in the search for dark matter. A new publication in Optics Express reveals a camera consisting of superconducting nanowires capable of detecting single photons, a useful feature for detecting light at the furthest ends of the infrared band. The high-performance camera, developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), boasts some of the best performing photon counters in the world in terms of speed, efficiency, and color detection. The detectors also have some of the lowest dark count rates of any photon sensor, resisting false signals from noise.

The size of the detectors comes out to 1.6mm on each side, packed with 1024 sensors for high resolution imagery and fabricated from silicon wafers cut into chips. The nanowires are made from tungsten and silicon alloy with leads made from superconducting niobium.

In order to prevent the sensors from overheating, a readout architecture was used based on a previous demonstration on a smaller camera with 64 sensors adding data from rows and columns. The research has been in collaboration with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which seeks to include the camera in the Origins Space Telescope project.

The eventual goal is to use the arrays to analyze chemical compositions of planets outside of our solar system. By observing the absorption spectra of light passing through an exoplanet’s atmosphere, information can be gathered on the elements in the atmosphere. Currently, large-area single-photon counting detector arrays don’t exist for measuring the mid- to far-infrared signatures, the spectrum range for elements that may indicate signs of life. While fabrication success is high, the efficiency of the detectors remains quite low, although there are plans to extend the current project into an even bigger camera with millions of sensors.

In addition to searching for chemical life on other planets, future  applications may include recording measurements to confirm the existence of dark matter.

[Thanks Qes for the tip!]

See You On The Dark Side Of The Moon: China’s Lunar Radio Observatory

For nearly as long as there has been radio, there have been antennas trained on the sky, looking at the universe in a different light than traditional astronomy. Radio astronomers have used their sensitive equipment to study the Sun, the planets, distant galaxies, and strange objects from the very edge of the universe, like pulsars and quasars. Even the earliest moments of the universe have been explored, a portrait in microwave radiation of the remnants of the Big Bang.

And yet with all these observations, there’s a substantial slice of the radio spectrum that remains largely a mystery to radio astronomers. Thanks to our planet’s ionosphere, most of the signals below 30 MHz aren’t observable by ground-based radio telescopes. But now, thanks to an opportunity afforded by China’s ambitious lunar exploration program, humanity is now listening to more of what the universe is saying, and it’s doing so from a new vantage point: the far side of the moon.

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Chandrayaan-2 Found By Citizen Scientist; Reminds Us Of Pluto Discovery

What does Pluto — not the dog, but the non-Planet — have in common with the Vikram lunar lander launched by India? Both were found by making very tiny comparisons to photographs. You’d think landing something on the moon would be old hat by now, but it turns out only three countries have managed to do it. The Chandrayaan-2 mission would have made India the fourth country. But two miles above the surface, the craft left its planned trajectory and went radio silent.

India claimed it knew where the lander crashed but never revealed any pictures or actual coordinates. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter took pictures several times of the landing area but didn’t see the expected scar like the one left by the doomed Israeli lander when it crashed in April. A lot of people started looking at the NASA pictures and one Indian computer programmer and mechanical engineer, Shanmuga Subramanian, seems to have been successful.

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