The folks at NASA are taking a well-deserved victory lap this week after the splashy reveal of the first scientific images from the James Webb Space Telescope. As we expected, the first public release included a lot of comparisons to images obtained from Hubble, as the general public understandably sees Webb as the successor to the venerable space telescope, now in its third decade of service. So for a “let’s see what this baby can do” image, they turned Webb loose on a tiny patch of sky in the southern hemisphere containing galactic cluster SMACS 0723, and sent back images and spectroscopic data from galaxies up to 13 billion light years away. There are plenty of analyses of Webb’s deep field and the other images in the first release, but we particularly liked the takes by both Anton Petrov and Dr. Becky. They both talk about the cooler scientific aspects of these images, and how Webb is much more than just a $10 billion desktop image generator.
The tech news channels were recently abuzz with stories about strange signals coming back from Voyager 1. While the usual suspects jumped to the usual conclusions — aliens!! — in the absence of a firm explanation for the anomaly, some of us looked at this event as an opportunity to marvel at the fact that the two Voyager spacecraft, now in excess of 40 years old, are still in constant contact with those of us back on Earth, and this despite having covered around 20 billion kilometers in one of the most hostile environments imaginable.
Like many NASA programs, Voyager has far exceeded its original design goals, and is still reporting back useful science data to this day. But how is that even possible? What 1970s-era radio technology made it onto the twin space probes that allowed it to not only fulfill their primary mission of exploring the outer planets, but also let them go into an extended mission to interstellar space, and still remain in two-way contact? As it turns out, there’s nothing magical about Voyager’s radio — just solid engineering seasoned with a healthy dash of redundancy, and a fair bit of good luck over the years.
The Voyager 1 interplanetary probe was launched in 1977 and has now reached interstellar space where it is the furthest-traveled man-made object. It’s hugely exceeded its original mission and continues to return valuable scientific data, but there’s an apparent fault which is leaving its controllers perplexed. Onboard is an attitude control system which keeps the craft’s antennas pointing at Earth, and while it evidently still works (as we’re still in touch with the probe) and other systems are fine, it’s started returning incomprehensible data. Apparently it’s developed a habit of reporting random data, or states the antenna can’t possibly be in.
That a 45 year old computer is still working at all is testament to the skills of its designers, and at 14.5 billion miles away a repair is impossible however much we’d be fascinated to know about the failure modes of old electronics in space. It’s postulated that they might simply live with the fault if the system is still working, issue a software fix, or find some way to use one of the craft’s redundant systems to avoid the problem. Meanwhile we can rest easily in our beds, because we’re still a couple of centuries away from its return as a giant alien sentient machine.
We’ve featured the Voyager program a few times before here at Hackaday, not least when we took a close look at one of its instruments.
Thanks [Jon Woodcock] for the tip.
When Star Trek: Voyager was in the development phase, concept art was created for a new style of tricorder to be used by the crew of the titular starship. But as it often the case with a younger sibling, the show ended up having to largely make do with the hand-me-down props from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which had recently finished its TV run.
Trek aficionado [Mangy_Dog] completed a jaw-dropping recreation of this unused tricorder design back in 2019, but unable to leave well enough alone, he’s recently completed a second version that truly raises the bar for fan replicas. It’s not hyperbole to say that the prop he’s created is of a far higher quality and fidelity than anything they would have had during the actual filming of the show.
Now you might be thinking that building the second version of the tricorder was easier than the first, and indeed, [Mangy_Dog] learned some important lessons from the earlier build. But that’s not to say that construction of this new replica, which was actually done on commission, went off without a hitch. In fact, he almost immediately ran into a serious problem. When he attempted to order a new display from Nextion, he found the quality had dropped significantly from the ones he’d used previously. The viewing angles and color reproduction were abysmal, so he was forced to go back to the drawing board and not only find a new display, but a completely new graphics chip to talk to it. Continue reading “Improving An Already Phenomenal Star Trek Prop”
With the 44th anniversary of the launch of Voyager I, [Daniel] decided to use GNU Radio to decode Voyager data. The data isn’t live, but a recording from the Green Bank Telescope. The 16 GB file is in GUPPI format which stores raw IQ samples.
The file contains 64 frequency channels of just under 3MHz each. The signal of interest is in one channel, so it is easy to just throw away the rest of the data.
NASA is always keen to highlight the space agency’s many successes, and rightly so — those who pay for these expensive projects have a right to know what they’re getting for their money. And so the news was recently sprinkled with stories of the discovery of electron bursts beyond the edge of our solar system, caused by shock waves from coronal mass ejection (CME) from our Sun reflecting and accelerating electrons in interstellar plasmas. It’s a novel mechanism and an exciting discovery that changes a lot of assumptions about what happens out in the lonely space outside of the Sun’s influence.
The recent discovery is impressive in its own right, but it’s even more stunning when you dig into the details of how it was made: by the 43-year-old Voyager spacecraft, each now about 17 light-hours away from Earth, and each carrying an instrument so simple and efficient that they’re still working all after this time — and which very nearly were left out of the mission’s science payload.
When it comes to antenna projects, we usually cover little ones here. From copper traces on a circuit board to hand-made units for ham radio. But every once in a while it’s fun to look at the opposite end of the spectrum, and anyone who craves such change of pace should check out DSS43’s upgrade currently underway.
Part of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) built to communicate with spacecraft that venture far beyond Earth, Deep Space Station 43 is a large dish antenna with a diameter of 70 meters and largest of the Canberra, Australia DSN complex. However, the raw reflective surface area is only as good as the radio equipment at its center, which are now outdated and thus focus of this round of upgrades.
The NASA page linked above offers a few pieces of fun trivia about DSS43 and its capabilities. If that whets an appetite for more, head over to Twitter for a huge treasure trove. Whoever is in charge of Canberra DSN’s Twitter account has an endless fountain of facts and very eager to share them in response to questions, usually tagged with #DSS43. Example: the weight of DSS43 is roughly 8.5 million kilograms, 4 million of which is moving structure. They also shared time lapse video clips of work in progress, one of which is embedded after the break.
Taking the uniquely capable DSS43 offline for upgrades does have some consequences, one of which is losing our ability to send commands to distant interplanetary probe Voyager 2. (Apparently smaller DSN dishes can be arrayed to receive data, but only DSS43 can send commands.) Such sacrifices are necessary as an investment for the future, with upgrade completion scheduled for January 2021. Just in time to help support Perseverance (formerly “Mars 2020”) rover‘s arrival in February and many more missions for years to come.