As Chinese Wheels Touch Martian Soil And Indian Astronauts Walk Towards The Launch Pad, Can We Hope For Another Space Race?

If you were born in the 1960s or early 1970s, the chances are that somewhere in your childhood ambitions lay a desire to be an astronaut or cosmonaut. Once Yuri Gagarin had circled the Earth and Neil Armstrong had walked upon the Moon, millions of kids imagined that they too would one day climb into a space capsule and join that elite band of intrepid explorers. Anything seems possible when you are a five-year-old, but of course the reality remains that only the very fewest of us ever made it to space.

Did You Once Dream Of The Stars?

The Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in Finland in 1961. Arto Jousi, Public domain.
The Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in Finland in 1961. Arto Jousi, Public domain.

The picture may be a little different for the youth of a few decades later though, did kids in the ’90s dream of the stars? Probably not. So what changed as Shuttle and Mir crews were passing overhead?

The answer is that the Space Race between the USA and Soviet Union which had dominated extra-terrestrial exploration from the 1950s to the ’70s had by then cooled down, and impressive though the building of the International Space Station was, it lacked the ability to electrify the public in the way that Sputnik, Vostok, or Apollo had. It was immensely cool to people like us, but the general public were distracted by other things and their political leaders were no longer ready to approve money-no-object budgets. We’d done space, and aside from the occasional bright spot in the form of space telescopes or rovers trundling across Mars, that was it. The hit TV comedy series The Big Bang Theory even had a storyline that found comedy in one of its characters serving on a mission to the ISS and being completely ignored on his return.

A few years ago a Chinese friend at my then-hackerspace was genuinely surprised that I knew the name of Yang Liwei, the Shenzhou 5 astronaut and the first person launched by his country into space. He’s a national hero in China but not so much on the rainy edge of Europe, where the Chinese space programme for all its progress at the time about a decade after Yang’s mission had yet to make a splash beyond a few space watchers and enthusiasts in hackerspaces. But this might be beginning to change.

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China’s Mars Rover Goes Exploring

China’s space program has big goals and is already starting to achieve them. Recently, the China National Space Administration has landed its first rover on Mars, and begun to explore the surface of the red planet.

It’s a huge step, and something only previously achieved successfully by NASA. Let’s take a look at the Chinese project, its goals, and see how it compares to the American rovers that have also roamed so far away.

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Hackaday Links: May 2, 2021

Mars is getting to be a busy place, what with helicopters buzzing around and rovers roving all about the place. Now it’s set to get a bit more crowded, with the planned descent of the newly-named Chinese Zhurong rover. Named after the god of fire from ancient Chinese mythology, the rover, which looks a little like Opportunity and Spirit and rides to the surface aboard something looking a little like the Viking lander, will carry a suite of scientific instruments around Utopia Planitia after it lands sometime this month. Details are vague; China usually plays its cards close to the vest, and generally makes announcements only when a mission is a fait accompli. But it appears the lander will leave its parking orbit, which it entered back in February, sometime this month. It’s not an easy ride, and we wish Zhurong well.

Speaking of space, satellites don’t exactly grow on trees — until they do. A few groups, including a collaboration between UPM Plywood and Finnish startup Arctic Astronautics, have announced intentions to launch nanosatellites made primarily of wood. Japanese logging company Sumitomo Forestry and Kyoto University also announced their partnership, formed with the intention to prove that wooden satellites can work. While it doesn’t exactly spring to mind as a space-age material, wood does offer certain advantages, including relative transparency to a wide range of the RF spectrum. This could potentially lead to sleeker satellite designs, since antennae and sensors could be located inside the hull. Wood also poses less of a hazard than a metal spaceframe does when the spacecraft re-enters the atmosphere. But there’s one serious disadvantage that we can see: given the soaring prices for lumber, at least here in the United States, it may soon be cheaper to build satellites out of solid titanium than wood.

If the name Ian Davis doesn’t ring a bell with you, one look at his amazing mechanical prosthetic hand will remind you that we’ve been following his work for a while now. Ian suffered a traumatic amputation of the fingers of his left hand, leaving only his thumb and palm intact, and when his insurance wouldn’t pay for a prosthetic hand, he made his own. Ian has gone through several generations, each of which is completely mechanical and controlled only by wrist movements. The hands are truly works of mechanical genius, and Ian is now sharing what he’s learned to help out fellow hand-builders. Even if you’re not building a hand, the video is well worth watching; the intricacy of the whiffle-tree mechanism used to move the fingers is just a joy to behold, and the complexity of movement that Ian’s hand is capable of is just breathtaking.

If mechanical hands don’t spark your interest, then perhaps the engineering behind top fuel dragsters will get you going. We’ll admit that most motorsports bore us to tears, even with the benefit of in-car cameras. But there’s just something about drag cars that’s so exciting. The linked video is a great dive into the details of the sport, where engines that have to be rebuilt after just a few seconds use, fuel flows are so high that fuel lines the size of a firehouse are used, and the thrust from the engine’s exhaust actually contributes to the car’s speed. There’s plenty of slo-mo footage in the video, including great shots of what happens to the rear tires when the engine revs up. Click through the break for more!

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: May 2, 2021”