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Hackaday Links: March 17, 2024

A friend of ours once described computers as “high-speed idiots.” It was true in the 80s, and it appears that even with the recent explosion in AI, all computers have managed to do is become faster. Proof of that can be found in a story about using ASCII art to trick a chatbot into giving away the store. As anyone who has played with ChatGPT or its moral equivalent for more than five minutes has learned, there are certain boundary conditions that the LLM’s creators lawyers have put in place to prevent discussion surrounding sensitive topics. Ask a chatbot to deliver specific instructions on building a nuclear bomb, for instance, and you’ll be rebuffed. Same with asking for help counterfeiting currency, and wisely so. But, by minimally obfuscating your question by rendering the word “COUNTERFEIT” in ASCII art and asking the chatbot to first decode the word, you can slip the verboten word into a how-to question and get pretty explicit instructions. Yes, you have to give painfully detailed instructions on parsing the ASCII art characters, but that’s a small price to pay for forbidden knowledge that you could easily find out yourself by other means.

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How Different Are SpaceX Thermal Tiles From The Space Shuttle’s?

When SpaceX first showed off the thermal tiles on its Starship spacecraft that should keep it safe when re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere towards the loving embrace of the chopsticks on the launch tower, some similarity to the thermal tiles on NASA’s now retired Space Shuttle Orbiter was hard to miss.

Electron microscope image of the fibrous part of a Starship thermal tile, showing very large fibers. (Credit: Breaking Taps, YouTube)
Electron microscope image of the fibrous part of a Starship thermal tile, showing very large fibers. (Credit: Breaking Taps, YouTube)

Yet how similar are they really? That’s what the [Breaking Taps] channel on YouTube sought to find out, using an eBay-purchased chunk of Shuttle thermal tile along with bits of Starship tiles that washed ashore following the explosive end to the vehicle’s first integrated test last year.

To answer the basic question: the SpaceX engineers responsible for the Starship thermal tiles seem to have done their homework. An analysis of not only the structure of the fibrous material, but also the black IR-blocking coating, shows that the Starship tiles are highly reminiscent of the EATB (introduced in 1996) tiles with TUFI (toughened unipiece fibrous insulation) coatings with added molybdenum disilicide, which were used during the last years of the Shuttle program.

TUFI is less fragile than the older RCG (reaction cured glass) coating, but also heavier, which is why few TUFI tiles were used on the Shuttles due to weight concerns. An oddity with the Starship tiles is that they incorporate many very large fibers, which could be by design, or indicative of something else.

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Artemis’ Next Giant Leap: Orbital Refueling

By the end of the decade, NASA’s Artemis program hopes to have placed boots back on the Moon for the first time since 1972. But not for the quick sightseeing jaunts of the Apollo era — the space agency wants to send regular missions made up of international crews down to the lunar surface, where they’ll eventually have permanent living and working facilities.

The goal is to turn the Moon into a scientific outpost, and that requires a payload delivery infrastructure far more capable than the Apollo Lunar Module (LM). NASA asked their commercial partners to design crewed lunar landers that could deliver tens of tons of to the lunar surface, with SpaceX and Blue Origin ultimately being awarded contracts to build and demonstrate their vehicles over the next several years.

Starship and Blue Moon, note scale of astronauts

At a glance, the two landers would appear to have very little in common. The SpaceX Starship is a sleek, towering rocket that looks like something from a 1950s science fiction film; while the Blue Moon lander utilizes a more conventional design that’s reminiscent of a modernized Apollo LM. The dichotomy is intentional. NASA believes there’s a built-in level of operational redundancy provided by the companies using two very different approaches to solve the same goal. Should one of the landers be delayed or found deficient in some way, the other company’s parallel work would be unaffected.

But despite their differences, both landers do utilize one common technology, and it’s a pretty big one. So big, in fact, that neither lander will be able to touch the Moon until it can be perfected. What’s worse is that, to date, it’s an almost entirely unproven technology that’s never been demonstrated at anywhere near the scale required.

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Hackaday Links: May 21, 2023

The reports of the death of automotive AM radio may have been greatly exaggerated. Regular readers will recall us harping on the issue of automakers planning to exclude AM from the infotainment systems in their latest offerings, which doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense given the reach of AM radio and its importance in public emergencies. US lawmakers apparently agree with that position, having now introduced a bipartisan bill to require AM radios in cars. The “AM for Every Vehicle Act” will direct the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to draw up regulations requiring every vehicle operating on US highways to be able to receive AM broadcasts without additional fees or subscriptions. That last bit is clever, since it prevents automakers from charging monthly fees as they do for heated seats and other niceties. It’s just a bill now, of course, and stands about as much chance of becoming law as anything else that makes sense does, so we’re not holding our breath on this one. But at least someone recognizes that AM radio still has a valid use case.

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Hackaday Links: May 7, 2023

More fallout for SpaceX this week after their Starship launch attempt, but of the legal kind rather than concrete and rebar. A handful of environmental groups filed the suit, alleging that the launch generated “intense heat, noise, and light that adversely affects surrounding habitat areas and communities, which included designated critical habitat for federally protected species as well as National Wildlife Refuge and State Park lands,” in addition to “scatter[ing] debris and ash over a large area.”

Specifics of this energetic launch aside, we always wondered about the choice of Boca Chica for a launch facility. Yes, it has all the obvious advantages, like a large body of water directly to the east and being at a relatively low latitude. But the whole area is a wildlife sanctuary, and from what we understand there are still people living pretty close to the launch facility. Then again, you could pretty much say the same thing about the Cape Canaveral and Cape Kennedy complex, which probably couldn’t be built today. Amazing how a Space Race will grease the wheels of progress.

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Hackaday Links: April 30, 2023

Cloudy with a chance of concrete? The “success” of last week’s brief but eventful Starship launch has apparently raised some regulatory eyebrows, with the Federal Aviation Administration launching an investigation into the destruction wrought by the mighty rocket. And it’s not just the hapless Dodge Caravan that they’re concerned with — although we found some fantastic POV footage that shows the kill shot as well as close-ups of the results — but also the damage rained down upon residents around the Boca Chica launch complex. Tons of concrete and rebar were excavated by the 33 Raptor engines during the launch and sent in all directions, reportedly landing up to 6 miles (10 kilometers) from the pad. What’s worse, a lot of debris ended up on beaches that are home to endangered species, which has the Sierra Club also taking an interest. The FAA has apparently nixed any launches from the Texas facility until they complete their investigation.

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Hackaday Links: April 23, 2023

Mark it on your calendars, folks — this is the week that the term RUD has entered the public lexicon. Sure, most of our community already knows the acronym for “rapid unscheduled disassembly,” and realizes its tongue-in-cheek nature. But given that the term has been used by Elon Musk and others to describe the ignominious end of the recent Starship test flight, it seems like RUD will catch on in the popular press. But while everyone’s attention was focused on the spectacular results of manually activating Starship’s flight termination system to end its by-then uncontrolled flight at a mere 39 km, perhaps the more interesting results of the launch were being seen in and around the launch pad on Boca Chica. That’s where a couple of hundred tons of pulverized reinforced concrete rained down, turned to slag and dust by the 33 Raptor engines on the booster. A hapless Dodge Caravan seemed to catch the worst of the collateral damage, but the real wrath of those engines was focused on the Orbital Launch Mount, which now has a huge crater under it.

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