Pinning Tails On Satellites To Help Prevent Space Junk

Low Earth orbit was already relatively crowded when only the big players were launching satellites, but as access to space has gotten cheaper, more and more pieces of hardware have started whizzing around overhead. SpaceX alone has launched nearly 1,800 individual satellites as part of its Starlink network since 2019, and could loft as many as 40,000 more in the coming decades. They aren’t alone, either. While their ambitions might not be nearly as grand, companies such as Amazon and Samsung have announced plans to create satellite “mega-constellations” of their own in the near future.

At least on paper, there’s plenty of room for everyone. But what about when things go wrong? Should a satellite fail and become unresponsive, it’s no longer able to maneuver its way out of close calls with other objects in orbit. This is an especially troubling scenario as not everything in orbit around the Earth has the ability to move itself in the first place. Should two of these uncontrollable objects find themselves on a collision course, there’s nothing we can do on the ground but watch and hope for the best. The resulting hypervelocity impact can send shrapnel and debris flying for hundreds or even thousands of kilometers in all three dimensions, creating an extremely hazardous situation for other vehicles.

One way to mitigate the problem is to design satellites in such a way that they will quickly reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up at the end of their mission. Ideally, the deorbit procedure could even activate automatically if the vehicle became unresponsive or suffered some serious malfunction. Naturally, to foster as wide adoption as possible, such a system would have to be cheap, lightweight, simple to integrate into arbitrary spacecraft designs, and as reliable as possible. A tall order, to be sure.

But perhaps not an impossible one. Boeing subsidiary Millennium Space Systems recently announced it had successfully deployed a promising deorbiting device developed by Tethers Unlimited. Known as the Terminator Tape, the compact unit is designed to rapidly slow down an orbiting satellite by increasing the amount of drag it experiences in the wispy upper atmosphere.

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Sky Anchor Puts Radios Up High, No Tower Needed

When it comes to radio communications on the VHF bands and above, there’s no substitute for elevation. The higher you get your antenna, the farther your signal will get out. That’s why mountaintops are crowded with everything from public service radios to amateur repeaters, and it’s the reason behind the “big stick” antennas for TV and radio stations.

But getting space on a hilltop site is often difficult, and putting up a tower is always expensive. Those are the problems that the Sky Anchor, an antenna-carrying drone, aims to address. The project by [Josh Starnes] goes beyond what a typical drone can do. Rather than relying on GPS for station keeping, [Josh] plans a down-looking camera so that machine vision can keep the drone locked over its launch site. To achieve unlimited flight time, he’s planning to supply power over a tether. He predicts a 100′ to 200′ (30 m to 60 m) working range with a heavy-lift octocopter. A fiberoptic line will join the bundle and allow a MIMO access point to be taken aloft, to provide wide-area Internet access. Radio payloads could be anything from SDR-based transceivers to amateur repeaters; if the station-keeping is good enough, microwave links could even be feasible.

Sky Anchor sounds like a great idea that could have applications in disaster relief and humanitarian aid situations. We’re looking forward to seeing how [Josh] develops it. In the meantime, what’s your world-changing idea? If you’ve got one, we’d love to see it entered in the 2020 Hackaday Prize.

The Options For Low Cost ROV Tethers

Wireless connections are cool and all, but sometimes you just need a bit of copper. This interesting article on SV Seeker discusses the various ways of making a tether for a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). They experimented with a number of different cables, including gel-filled Cat 5 designed for burial and wrapping the cable in polypropylene rope to keep it protected and buoyant. They also looked at using a single core solid coax cable with an Ethernet to coax converter on either end wrapped in stretch webbing. The upside of using coax would be the length: it can handle over a mile of cable, which should be more than enough for this project. The downside is that they found that the coax stretches under strain, messing with the signal.

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One Small Step For A Space Elevator

Space elevators belong to that class of technology that we all want to see become a reality within our lifetimes, but deep-down doubt we’ll ever get to witness firsthand. Like cold fusion, or faster than light travel, we understand the principles that should make these concepts possible, but they’re so far beyond our technical understanding that they might as well be fantasy.

Except, maybe not. When Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launches their seventh Kounotori H-II Transfer Vehicle towards the International Space Station, riding along with the experiments and supplies for the astronauts, will be a very special pair of CubeSats. They make up the world’s first practical test of space elevator technology, and with any luck, will be one of many small steps that precedes the giant leap which access to space at a fraction of the cost will be.

Of course, they won’t be testing a fully functional space elevator; even the most aggressive of timelines put us a few decades out from that. This will simply be a small scale test of some of the concepts that are central to building a space elevator, as we need to learn to crawl before we can walk. But even if we aren’t around to see the first practical space elevator make it to the top, at least we can say we were there on the ground floor.

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DIY Submersible Aims For Low Cost, Ease Of Operation

If you’re like us, a body of water is a source of wonder and awe. The wonder comes from imagining what lies hidden below the surface, and the awe is from the fear of trying to find out and becoming one of those submerged objects on a permanent basis. So if you want to explore the depths in relative comfort and safety, a DIY remotely operated underwater vehicle might be the thing you need to build.

Most ROV builds these days seem to follow more or less similar designs, which is probably because they all share project goals similar to those of [dcolemans]: build something to take a look around under the water, make it easy to operate, and don’t spend a ton of money. To achieve that, he used 1/2″ PVC pipe and fittings to build the frame and painted it yellow for visibility. A dry tube for the electronics was fashioned from 4″ ABS pipe. The positive buoyancy provided by the dry tube is almost canceled out by the water flooding the frame through weep holes and the lead shot ballast stored in the landing skids. Propulsion is provided by bilge pump cartridges with 3D-printed ducted propellers. A nice touch is a separate topside control box with a screen for the ROV’s camera that talks to a regular RC controller, along with simplified controls and automatic station keeping. Check out the recent swimming pool test in the video below.

There’s a lot going on under the sea, and plenty of ways to explore it. You could deploy sensors shaped like clams, zap underwater lice with lasers, or even glide your way to a Hackaday Prize.

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Japanese ISS Supply Ship Dual-Purposed As Tether Experiment

When a rocket sends a capsule up with supplies for the International Space Station, they usually send a bunch of their trash back down with it, all of which burns up in the atmosphere on re-entry. But as long as you’ve got that (doomed) vehicle up there, you might as well do some science with it along the way. And that’s exactly what the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) is doing with their Kounotori 6 supply ship that just left the ISS on Friday.

The experiment is with an electromagnetic tether that can be used to either turn electrical energy into kinetic or vice-versa. When you string a long conducting wire outwards from earth, the two ends pass through the earth’s magnetic field at different altitudes and thus pass through magnetic fields with different strengths, and an electrical potential is generated. In the KITE experiment (translated), a resistive load and an electron emitter on the supply ship are designed to burn up this electrical energy, lowering the ship’s kinetic energy, and dropping its orbit down to earth.
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Can A Kickstarter Project Actually Build A Space Elevator?

It’s the stuff that Science Fiction is made of: an elevator that climbs its way into space rather than needing a rocket to get there. Can it be done? No. But this Kickstarter project aims to fund research that will eventually make a space elevator possible. They’re already way over their goal, and plan to use the extra funds to extend the reach of the experiments.

A complete success would be a tether that reaches into space, held taught by a weight which is pulled away from earth by centrifugal force. That’s not really on the radar yet (last we heard humans weren’t capable of producing a substance strong enough to keep the tether from snapping). What is in the works is a weather balloon supporting a ribbon which a robot can climb. The team isn’t new to this, having built and tested several models at University and then in a start-up company that closed its doors a few years ago. Now they’re hoping to get a 3-5 kilometer ribbon in the air and to build a new robot to climb it.

For now we’ll have to be satisfied with the 1000 ft. climb video after the break. But we hope to see an Earth-Moon freight system like the one shown in the diagram above before the end of our lifetimes.

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