If you’re a space fan, these are very exciting days. There’s so much happening overhead that sometimes it can be difficult to keep up with the latest news. Artemis I just got back from the Moon, the International Space Station crew are dealing with a busted Soyuz, SpaceX is making incredible progress with their Starship architecture, CubeSats are being flung all over the solar system, and it seems like every month a new company is unveiling their own commercially-developed launch vehicle.
So with everything going on, we wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t heard about NASA’s Lunar Flashlight mission. The briefcase-sized spacecraft was launched aboard a special “rideshare” flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket back on December 11th — tagging along with two other craft heading to our nearest celestial neighbor, the Japanese Hakuto-R lander, and a small rover developed by the United Arab Emirates. There was a time when a launch like that would have been big news, but being that it was only the second of seven launches that SpaceX performed in December alone, it didn’t make many headlines.
But recently, that’s started to change. There’s a growing buzz around Lunar Flashlight, though unfortunately, not for the reasons we’d usually hope. It seems the diminutive explorer has run into some trouble with its cutting-edge “green” propellant system, and unless the issue can be resolved soon, the promising mission could come to an end before it even had a chance to start.
To place a satellite in orbit satisfactorily it is necessary not only to hitch a ride on a rocket, but also to put it in the right orbit for its task, and once it is there, to keep it there. With billions of dollars or roubles of investment over six decades of engineering behind them the national space agencies and commercial satellite builders solved these problems long since, but replicating those successes for open source microsatellites still represents a significant engineering challenge. One person working in this field is [Michael Bretti], who is doing sterling work with a shoestring budget on open source electric thrusters for the smallest of satellites, and he needs your help in crowdfunding a piece of equipment.
As part of his testing he has a vacuum chamber, and when he places a thruster inside it he has to create a space-grade vacuum . This is no easy task, and to achieve it he has two pumps. The first of these, a roughing pump, is a clapped-out example that has clearly reached the end of its days, and it is this that he needs your help to replace. His GoFundMe page has a modest target of only $4,200 which should be well within the capabilities of our community in reaching, and in supporting it you will help the much wider small satellite community produce craft that will keep giving us interesting things from space for years to come.
When you look back on the development history of any technology, it’s clear that the successful products eventually reach an inflection point, the boundary between when it was a niche product and when it seems everyone has one. Take 3D-printers, for instance; for years you needed to build one if you wanted one, but now you can buy them in the grocery store.
It seems like we might be getting closer to the day when satellites reach a similar inflection point. What was once the province of nations with deep pockets and military muscles to flex has become far more approachable to those of more modest means. While launching satellites is still prohibitive and will probably remain so for years to come, building them has come way, way down the curve lately, such that amateur radio operators have constellations of satellites at their disposal, small companies are looking seriously at what satellites can offer, and even STEM programs are starting to get students involved in satellite engineering.
Michael Bretti is on the leading edge of the trend toward making satellites more DIY friendly. He formed Applied Ion Systems to address one of the main problems nano-satellites face: propulsion. He is currently working on a range of open-source plasma thrusters for PocketQube satellites, a format that’s an eighth the size of the popular CubeSat format. His solid-fuel electric thrusters are intended to help these diminutive satellites keep station and stay in orbit longer than their propulsion-less cousins. And if all goes well, someday you’ll be able to buy them off-the-shelf.
Join us for the Hack Chat as Michael discusses the design of plasma thrusters, the details of his latest testing, and the challenges of creating something that needs to work in space.
Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.
Spaceflight is inherently dangerous. It takes a certain type of person to willingly strap into what’s essentially a refined bomb and hope for the best. But what might not be so obvious is that the risks involved aren’t limited to those who are personally making the trip. The construction and testing of space-bound vehicles poses just as much danger to engineers here on the ground as it does to the astronauts in orbit. Arguably, more so. Far more individuals have given their lives developing rocket technology than have ever died in the cockpit of one of them.
Ultimately, this is because of the enormous amount of energy stored in the propellants required to make a rocket fly. Ground support personnel need to exercise great care even when dealing with “safe” propellants, such as the classic combination of kerosene and liquid oxygen. On the other end of the spectrum you have chemicals that are so unstable and toxic that they can’t be handled without special training and equipment.
One of the most dangerous chemicals ever used in rocket propulsion is hydrazine; and yet from the Second World War to the present day, it’s been considered something of an occupational hazard of spaceflight. While American launch vehicles largely moved away from using it as a primary propellant, hydrazine is still commonly used for smaller thrusters on spacecraft.
But soon, that might change. NASA has been working on a project they call the Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM) which is specifically designed to reduce modern spacecraft’s dependency on hydrazine. In collaboration with the Air Force Research Laboratory at California’s Edwards Air Force Base, the space agency has spearheaded the development of a new propellant that promises to not just replace hydrazine, but in some scenarios even outperform it.
So what’s so good about this new wonder fuel, called AF-M315E? To really understand why NASA is so eager to power future craft with something new, we first have to look at the situation we’re in currently.
The Kepler spacecraft is in the final moments of its life. NASA isn’t quite sure when they’ll say their last goodbye to the space telescope which has confirmed the existence of thousands of exoplanets since its launch in 2009, but most estimates give it a few months at best. The prognosis is simple: she’s out of gas. Without propellant for its thrusters, Kepler can’t orient itself, and that means it can’t point its antenna to Earth to communicate.
Now far as spacecraft failures go, propellant depletion isn’t exactly unexpected. After all, it can’t pull into the nearest service station to top off the tanks. What makes the fact that Kepler will finally have to cease operations for such a mundane reason interesting is that the roughly $600 million dollar space telescope has already “died” once before. Back in 2013, NASA announced Kepler was irreparably damaged following a series of critical system failures that had started the previous year.
But thanks to what was perhaps some of the best last-ditch effort hacking NASA has done since they brought the crew of Apollo 13 home safely, a novel way of getting the spacecraft back under control was implemented. While it was never quite the same, Kepler was able to continue on with modified mission parameters and to date has delivered so much raw data that scientists will be analyzing it for years to come. Not bad for a dead bird.
Before Kepler goes dark for good, let’s take a look at how NASA managed to resurrect this planet hunting space telescope and greatly expand our knowledge of the planets in our galaxy.
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.
Yes, we’ll come right out and say it – it’s a giant fan, and it blows. Or more accurately, it’s four moderately sized fans in one fetching wrist-mounted package. The one thing that seems completely absent from the video is an answer to the obvious question – why? Other than doing damage to the hearing of anyone nearby in an enclosed space, [Ivan] demonstrates its use with the help of a skateboard in the back end of the video.
It’s built with off-the-shelf RC parts and the body is 3D printed. This is the kind of print you want to get right first time – it takes several days to print and uses a significant amount of filament.