2020: As The Hardware World Turns

By pretty much any metric you care to use, 2020 has been an unforgettable year. Usually that would be a positive thing, but this time around it’s a bit more complicated. The global pandemic, unprecedented in modern times, impacted the way we work, learn, and gather. Some will look back on their time in lockdown as productive, if a bit lonely. Other’s have had their entire way of life uprooted, with no indication as to when or if things will ever return to normal. Whatever “normal” is at this point.

But even in the face of such adversity, there have been bright spots for our community. With traditional gatherings out of the question, many long-running tech conferences moved over to a virtual format that allowed a larger and more diverse array of presenters and attendees than would have been possible in the past. We also saw hackers and makers all over the planet devote their skills and tools to the production of personal protective equipment (PPE). In a turn of events few could have predicted, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic helped demonstrate the validity of hyperlocal manufacturing in a way that’s never happened before.

For better or for worse, most of us will associate 2020 with COVID-19 for the rest of our lives. Really, how could we not? But over these last twelve months we’ve borne witness to plenty of stories that are just as deserving of a spot in our collective memories. As we approach the twilight hours of this most ponderous year, let’s take a look back at some of the most interesting themes that touched our little corner of the tech world this year.

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RC Starship Perfects Its Skydiving Routine

There’s a good chance you already saw SpaceX’s towering Starship prototype make its impressive twelve kilometer test flight. While the attempt ended with a spectacular fireball, it was still a phenomenal success as it demonstrated a number of concepts that to this point had never been attempted in the real world. Most importantly, the “Belly Flop” maneuver which sees the 50 meter (160 foot) long rocket transition from vertical flight to a horizontal semi-glide using electrically actuated flight surfaces.

Finding himself inspired by this futuristic spacecraft, [Nicholas Rehm] has designed his own radio controlled Starship that’s capable of all the same aerobatic tricks as the real-thing. It swaps the rocket engines for a pair of electric brushless motors, but otherwise, it’s a fairly accurate recreation of SpaceX’s current test program vehicle. As you can see in the video after the break, it’s even able to stick the landing. Well, sometimes anyway.

Just like the real Starship, vectored thrust is used to both stabilize the vehicle during vertical ascent and help transition it into and out of horizontal flight. Of course, there are no rocket nozzles to slew around, so [Nicholas] is using servo-controlled vanes in the bottom of the rocket to divert the airflow from the motors. Servos are also used to control the external control surfaces, which provide stability and a bit of control authority as the vehicle is falling.

As an interesting aside, Internet sleuths looking through pictures of the Starship’s wreckage have noted that SpaceX appears to be actuating the flaps with gearboxes driven by Tesla motors. The vehicle is reportedly using Tesla battery packs as well. So while moving the control surfaces on model aircraft with battery-powered servos might historically have been a compromise to minimize internal complexity, here it’s actually quite close to the real thing.

Unfortunately, the RC Starship made a hard landing of its own on a recent test flight, so [Nicholas] currently has to rebuild the craft before he can continue with further development. We’re confident he’ll get it back in the air, though it will be interesting to see whether or not he’s flying before SpaceX fires off their next prototype.

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Literally Tearing Apart A SpaceX Starlink Antenna

While SpaceX’s constellation of Starlink satellites is nowhere near its projected final size, the company has enough of the birds zipping around in low Earth orbit to start a limited testing period they call the Better Than Nothing Beta. If you’re lucky enough to get selected, you have to cough up $500 for the hardware and another $100 a month for the service. Despite the fairly high bar for getting your hands on one, [Kenneth Keiter] decided to sacrifice his Starlink dish to the teardown Gods.

We say sacrifice because [Kenneth] had to literally destroy the dish to get a look inside. It doesn’t appear that you can realistically get into the exceptionally thin antenna array without pulling it all apart, thanks in part to preposterous amount of adhesive that holds the structural back plate onto the PCB. The sky-facing side of the phased array, the key element that allows the antenna to track the rapidly moving Starlink satellites as they pass overhead, is also laminated to a stack-up comprised of plastic hexagonal mesh layers, passive antenna elements, and the outer fiberglass skin. In short, there are definitely no user-serviceable parts inside.

The dish hides many secrets under its skin.

Beyond attempting to analyze the RF magic that’s happening inside the antenna, [Kenneth] also takes viewers through a tour of some of the more recognizable components of the PCB; picking out things like the Power over Ethernet magnetics, a GPS receiver, some flash storage, and the H-Bridge drivers used to control the pan and tilt motors in the base of the dish.

It also appears that the antenna is a self-contained computer of sorts, complete with ARM processor and RAM to run the software that aims the phased array. Speaking of which, it should come as no surprise to find that not only are the ICs that drive the dizzying array of antenna elements the most numerous components on the PCB, but that they appear to be some kind of custom silicon designed specifically for SpaceX.

In short, there’s still plenty we don’t know about how this high-tech receiver actually works. While [Kenneth] does a respectable job of trying to make sense of it all, and we admire the dedication required to rip apart such a rare and expensive piece of kit, it’s still going to be awhile before the hacker community truly masters the tech that SpaceX is putting into their ambitions global Internet service.

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Spacing Out: A Big Anniversary, Starlink Failures Plummet, Lunar Cellphones, And A Crewed Launch

After a couple of months away we’re returning with our periodic roundup of happenings in orbit, as we tear you away from Star Trek: Discovery and The Mandalorian, and bring you up to date with some highlights from the real world of space. We’ve got a launch to look forward to this week, as well as a significant anniversary.

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Engine Trouble Delays SpaceX’s Return To The ISS

A crewed mission to the International Space Station that was set to depart from Kennedy Space Center on Halloween has been pushed back at least several weeks as NASA and SpaceX investigate an issue with the company’s Merlin rocket engine. But the problem in question wasn’t actually discovered on the booster that’s slated to carry the four new crew members up to the orbiting outpost. This story starts back on October 2nd, when the computer aboard a Falcon 9 set to carry a next-generation GPS III satellite into orbit for the US Space Force shut down the engines with just two seconds to go before liftoff.

The fact that SpaceX and NASA have decided to push back the launch of a different Falcon 9 is a clear indication that the issue isn’t limited to just one specific booster, and must be a problem with the design or construction of the Merlin engine itself. While both entities have been relatively tight lipped about the current situation, a Tweet from CEO Elon Musk made just hours after the GPS III abort hinted the problem was with the engine’s gas generator:

As we’ve discussed previously, the Merlin is what’s known as an “open cycle” rocket engine. In this classical design, which dates back to the German V-2 of WWII, the exhaust from what’s essentially a smaller and less efficient rocket engine is used to spin a turbine and generate the power required to pump the propellants into the main combustion chamber. Higher than expected pressure in the gas generator could lead to a catastrophic failure of the turbine it drives, so it’s no surprise that the Falcon 9’s onboard systems determined an abort was in order.

Grounding an entire fleet of rockets because a potentially serious fault has been discovered in one of them is a rational precaution, and has been done many times before. Engineers need time to investigate the issue and determine if changes must be made on the rest of the vehicles before they can safely return to flight. But that’s where things get interesting in this case.

SpaceX hasn’t grounded their entire fleet of Falcon 9 rockets. In fact, the company has flown several of them since the October 2nd launch abort. So why are only some of these boosters stuck in their hangers, while others are continuing to fly their scheduled missions?

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SpaceX Sending Tom Cruise To The Space Station In 2021

Several months after NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine confirmed the project was in the works, sources are now reporting that Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman will officially be making the trip to the International Space Station in October of 2021 to film scenes for an as of yet untitled movie. Cruise and Liman previously worked together on the science fiction spectacle Edge of Tomorrow in 2014, which may give us a hint at what the duo are planning for their trip to the final frontier.

Industry insiders claim that the two film makers and potentially a female co-star will fly aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule under the command of Michael López-Alegría, a veteran astronaut who currently holds the American record for number and duration of extra-vehicular activities (EVAs). The mission is being organized by Axiom Space, which previously announced they would perform a series of privately funded flights to the ISS as a precursor to constructing their own commercial expansion to the orbiting laboratory.

Mars One living units under regolith
This never happened.

Of course, with more than a year before liftoff, anything could happen. SpaceX has been linked, officially or otherwise, to several private trips to space that literally and figuratively never got off the ground.

Mars-One was touting concept art that showed a fleet of modified SpaceX Dragons on the Red Planet as far back as 2012, and Elon Musk himself once announced that the Falcon Heavy would send private passengers on a trip around the Moon by the end of 2018. But to date, a pair of NASA astronauts have been the only humans to actually fly on SpaceX hardware.

Undoubtedly, some will see this flight of fancy as a waste of valuable resources. After all, there’s no shortage of scientists and researchers who would be more deserving of trip to a space than Jerry Maguire. But according to Bridenstine, the hope is that a big budget Hollywood film featuring scenes shot on the ISS could do for NASA what Top Gun once did for the Navy:

There was a day when I was in elementary school and I saw Top Gun. From that day, I knew I was going to be a Navy pilot. If we can get Tom Cruise to inspire an elementary kid to join the Navy and be a pilot, why can’t we get Tom Cruise to inspire the next Elon Musk? That’s what we need.

While we might not all agree on who the next generation of engineers should look to for inspiration, the impact that Top Gun had on Navy recruitment in the 80s and 90s is well established. If sending Tom Cruise to space for a few weeks might help inspire more kids to look into a STEM education, it’s probably worth a shot. Though it seems like Tom Hanks and his fellow Apollo 13 crew mates did a respectable enough job celebrating the incredible engineering behind NASA’s greatest triumph without actually going into orbit themselves.

Falcon 9 Lamp Is Touching Down In The Living Room

Many of us have been inspired by the videos of the Falcon 9 booster, tall as an office building, riding a pillar of flame down to a pinpoint landing at Kennedy Space Center or on one of SpaceX’s floating landing pads in the ocean. It’s not often that we get to see science fiction fantasy become reality on such a short timescale, and while they might not be sold on the practicality of reusable rockets, even the most skeptical of observers have to admit it’s an incredible feat of engineering.

Though it can’t quite compare to the real thing, this 1:60 scale Falcon 9 lamp by [Sir Michael II] promises to bring a little of that excitement home every time you flick on the light. Combining a scratch built model of the reusable booster with some RGB LEDs, the hovering tableau recreates the tense final seconds before the towering rocket comes to a rest on its deployable landing legs. We imagine those last moments must seem like an eternity for the SpaceX engineers watching from home as well.

The LED “exhaust” without the fluff.

[Michael] walks readers through assembling the Falcon 9 model, which cleverly uses a 2 inch white PVC pipe as the fuselage. After all, why waste the time and material printing a long white cylinder when you can just buy one at the hardware store for a few bucks?

Dressed up with 3D printed details from Thingiverse user [twuelfing] and splashed with a bit of paint, it makes for a very convincing model. While the diameter of the pipe isn’t quite right for the claimed 1:60 scale, unless Elon Musk is coming over your place to hang out, we don’t think anyone will notice.

The rocket is attached to the pad with a piece of threaded steel rod, around which [Michael] has wrapped one meter of RGB LEDs controlled by an Arduino Uno. With some polyester fiber filler as a diffuser and a bit of code to get the LEDs flickering, he’s able to produce a realistic “flame” that looks to be coming from the Falcon 9’s center engine. While we admit it may not make a very good lamp in the traditional sense, it certainly gets extra points for style.

We’ve actually seen a similar trick used before to light up the engines of a LEGO Saturn V and Apollo Lunar Module. It’s amazing how realistic the effect can be, and we’d love to see it used more often. We’d also like to see more model rockets that actually levitate over their pads, but one step at a time.