Monthly Archives: August 2014

DIY Space: Print Your Own Spacecraft

3D model of Kepler. It’s yours, for free. Just go to the NASA 3D Resources site. That’s where this picture came from.

Have you ever wanted to build the Kepler satellite?  What about the current crowd favorite, the International Sun Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3)?  Or maybe you appreciate textures and just want to touch things, such as the moon’s surface, space shuttle flight panels (with switches),  or the surface of Chiron.  Maybe you’re a visual type, who truly appreciates images of NASA’s efforts in space.  If so, then the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has a great site for you.

Before you get excited, I must ask–do you have a 3-D printer?  If you do, terrific.  Even if you don’t, you might have access to one but don’t know it (a little bit more about this option later).  Either way, NASA’s site, “NASA 3D Resources (beta),” will probably be you’re favorite site for quite a while.  You can print out models, like the “New Horizons” spacecraft or the “Rosetta” satellite.  Maybe both.  Same for the textures and such.

The best part is these models is that NASA is providing these model files for FREE.  As in, it will only cost you whatever amount of electricity is needed to download the file and write to the storage drive.  Of course, you do need to have access to a 3D printer.  So if a friend of yours has one, maybe that person will be your best friend for a while.  Another option is the local library.  Yup, the library.  My local library just opened a Makerspace not too long ago, and among the nifty bits of equipment such as a laser cutter and a CNC machine, a 3D printer is available.  Or, if you have them in your area, go to the local Makerspace or TechShop.  While the library is probably one of the lowest cost options for us jobless, the others seem to have fairly reasonable rates for the different options they offer.

So, yes, you can build a NASA satellite.  They’re giving you the plans, and maybe you have the technology.  If so, have a great time!

Side note:  There’s a holiday Monday.  Not everyone takes that day off, but I intend to (likely I’ll be writing up the next post).  So, there will not be a post this Monday.  Enjoy Labor Day, my fellow ‘meruhcans.  The rest of you, have a great Monday.

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Providing Information Equality with Satellites

Outernet’s prototype portable satellite receiver dish terminal. Image from Outernet.

Outernet is proposing to broadcast information, via satellite, to portable base stations that are also wireless networks.  The wireless networks would be free and open to the very poor around the world.  Outernet wants to provide information equality to those poor people.

They mean well, I suppose.  And it’s a very interesting idea they’re pursuing with some simple but well-made hardware.  The hardware and idea, both developed by Outernet, seem to address a problem that maybe we in the “first” world see, but maybe someone who is just looking for a non-lethal drink of water or fighting for a meal may not even want.  It’s that whole “heirarchy of needs” thing that Outernet might be pushing against.

The idea and devices were developed by Outernet, who have designed a very portable satellite receiver dish.  Using existing terminals, Outernet would initially uplink their data to existing geosynchronous (GEO) communication satellites.  Eventually, Outernet proposes they’ll have their own ground system that will send data to cheaper low earth orbiting (LEO) cubesats that will then send information down to the receiver dish.

The dish would receive signals from a satellite.  The signal loops, sending the same data over and over.  The data within those signals has already been prepackaged in a way to be efficiently transmitted.  The satellite receiver dish would receive the transmitted data, and save it.  The data itself would be a “collection of the greatest works of humanity, as decided by humanity.” The collection resides on a storage drive in the receive dish, on a local wireless network, to be accessed by locals whenever they are in range.  The core of the collection would be all of Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg, open courseware, and works Outernet dubs as critical–all broadcast in various languages.  The information would always be updated, but it wouldn’t be a “real” internet connection, since no signal is generated from the satellite dish to the satellite.  And the presentation to the viewer wouldn’t be quite like what you or I are used to on the internet, due to data bandwidth constraints.

But, according to this Wired post, Outernet say they aren’t trying to solve an internet connectivity problem.  Rather, they are trying to resolve an information deficit/equality problem, and resolving that problem doesn’t necessarily require a two-way data connection, at least to the satellite.  This might work, but I do wonder if their identified customers will really appreciate this.

The internet is a good thing.  It’s helped to make things cheaper, provides access to knowledge, allows ideas to mingle, etc.  We recognize this in the US.  But here in the US even the poor have cable TV, access to cheap food, etc.  (although, I see a lot of homeless out there–and if my job situation keeps deteriorating, I may be joining them).  Access to banks, social and health nets, employment portals, have a network component to them now.  We all see the necessary as something useful, fun, interesting, and more.  So something like this might make sense to us.

But in areas where there are more fundamental survival issues, this may not be viewed as necessary at all.  Would a concept like information equality even make sense in that kind of scenario?  I guess we will find out by watching Outernet.  You can follow them by going to their site and reading their blog.  And people don’t have to buy their equipment.  They actually show some DIY instructions, based on a Raspberry Pi.

I wish them luck and I hope they do succeed in this endeavor.  If they’re right, maybe there is a thirst for more than the basics out there.  If you’re interested in following them, just go to their blog, here.

Image from Outernet.

I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me

Image from DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3–at 40 cm resolution. Not so bad, eh? Image hosted on DigitalGlobe’s site.

Well, maybe not me specifically, and certainly not right now. However, if someone really wanted to watch me closely, then DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3 satellite looks like it might be a decent tool to use for that.

DigitalGlobe just released an announcement and a few images produced from their latest satellite, WorldView-3.  The satellite has a more capable image sensor on board than previous DigitalGlobe satellites, and the pictures released on August 26, 2014, speak volumes about just how capable it might be.

The satellite was launched only a few weeks ago, on August 13, 2014.  It seems DigitalGlobe is wasting no time trying to bring the satellite on-line and are sharing these images to prove it.  A big “but” (everyone has one, according to Pee-Wee) is that the pictures aren’t the best resolution the satellite’s sensor can produce.  Every single image has been “resampled” to 40 cm, or a little less than 16 in, because the company is complying with regulatory restrictions.  The company will continue to comply with those restrictions until February 21, 2015, when the regulatory leash comes off and DigitalGlobe can release 30 cm (less than 12 in) resolution photos.

But, you, and many other interested people, can get a taste of the 40 cm re-sampled pictures just by viewing their slideshow of images of Madrid, Spain.  Their analysts are already identifying open car doors, freight cars, numbers on the runway, wear and tear of runways and roads, and a lot more.  Sure enough, when you look at the pictures, it looks like those are fairly identifiable.

Pretty neat, and there will be all sorts of applications arising to use the data in these images.  Unfortunately, there might be a downside.  I already wrote a short bit about China and its search for lawbreakers using images produced from their Gaofen-1 satellite.  But what if someone with a monetary interest, and a “use a hammer to resolve every problem” approach to customers starts using this data?  Say, like the US IRS?

Think this is unlikely?  Just think about the path our government agencies have been going down lately.  Still not convinced?  Well, there’s this story about the Lithuanian taxman using Google satellite imagery to find monetary miscreants.  Greece uses satellite imagery to find out if undeclared swimming pools have been built in backyards.  And while no one has said anything about our IRS using the internet satellite images for enforcement, they are already apparently using Facebook and Twitter to cross-reference taxpayer information.

Don’t misunderstand me.  It’s great to get better pictures from space of the things happening on the Earth.  But remember–there are a lot of consumers of this kind of imagery data.  Maybe we should start considering rules and regulations regarding which US government agency will be able to use them when US citizens are involved.  Some agencies don’t necessarily have your best interests at heart, and they are out to get you.  “I wonder who’s watching me now? [WHO?] The IRS?”

More Rabbits on the Moon?

The big guy is Moonraker, the one following is Tetris. Image hosted on Space.com.

There are several teams competing for Google’s Lunar XPRIZE.  One team is going their own way, because instead of using just one robot, the team, Hakuto (which is Japanese for rabbit), is using two.  The following information comes from Space.com’s recent post about Hakuto and the robot duo they are prototyping.

The bigger robot, looking like a white breadbox with white paddle wheels, is named Moonraker, while the smaller one, looking like a metal mini-vacuum cleaner, is called Tetris (right, I don’t know how they paired the names either).  Tetris is designed to be towed by Moonraker across the moon’s surface.  A fancier Tetris, one made of carbon fiber, seems to be coming up, though.

The “tow-line” can be extended, so Tetris can wander off a bit and explore craters and caves, using the line, still attached to Moonraker, to keep it from falling into a hole.  This particular robotic duo doesn’t just explore the moon’s surface, but can also get a glimpse of what is under it.  To get an idea of how the whole system works, there’s a video, also on Space.com’s site, but Youtube also just so happens to have it, so the video is shown below.

Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles also feature prominently in the demonstration as part of a human interface to the rovers.  Not sure if the VR gogglemaker foresaw this particular application for their goggles.  I am also not too sure how practical VR goggles would be for controlling rovers on other planets, considering time delays and possible bandwidth constraints.

However, Tetris, Moonraker, and the virtual reality goggles conspire to make an interesting lunar explorer concept with flexibility, although it’s also a little more complicated.   Hopefully all of Hakuto’s work will be rewarded in some way.

Uncovering Secret Sativa Farms From Space

Image from Xinhua, hosted on South China Morning Post Site.

Looks like some regional Chinese officials on the take have been found out, thanks to Chinese imagery satellites.  According to this South China Morning Post article, the first of the latest generation of Chinese imagery satellites, Gaofen-1, has been imaging an area in China that contained a very big marijuana farm.  The whacky weed farm is the biggest ever discovered since 1949.  Such a time span seems to indicate the pot farmers were very good at hiding their crops (possible), but maybe, in exchange for a small, unreported fee, local authorities weren’t trying very hard to disclose this newest discovery to their bigger brothers in the Chinese big-government sector.

Either way, the satellite’s images of the marijuana fields show a steady progression in Chinese imagery technology and Earth observation capabilities.  So perhaps their satellite imagery sensors are close to where US satellite technology was over 10 years ago.  This upgrade in imagery resolution might have caught someone off-guard, because there are certain ways to obscure these green ganjas, learned from US satellite plant detection attempts.  A simple search query “US Satellites marijuana detection” on DuckDuckGo immediately yielded a 420 Caribbean site with suggestions for how and where to plant marijuana crops to avoid overhead surveillance detection.

Those avoidance methods may or may not work.  Remember, some satellites, like DigitalGlobe’s Worldview-3, have different energy/color bands to detect particular wavelengths.  I’ve written about this sort of thing, here–start with Part 15, but 16 (careful, a small informational error in this article, but still useful), 17 (addresses error), 18, and a few others have wavelength/color information, too.  Apparently someone already learned some obscuration lessons (as evidenced by the 420 post), thanks to US and ESA drug war efforts, that Chinese Mary Jane cultivators are now re-learning.  Maybe China’s Great Firewall doesn’t allow easy access to such information?

The South China Morning Post’s article also noted that Gaofen-1 has helped analysts find opium fields and smuggling tunnels.  But, as I’ve noted with the Malaysian Airlines MH370 situation and why imagery satellites are having a difficult time with that mystery, the satellite operators have to know where to look in order to find the fields and tunnels.  So maybe some clever detective or miffed MAFIA-type gave a tip of where to look.

Gaofen-1 is one of two Gaofen satellites orbiting the Earth.  According to the Post, the Chinese would like to increase the number of satellites for their imagery constellation to seven, which means they will have beat DigitalGlobe’s current constellation of 5 imagery satellites.  But this kind of thing changes all the time, and government plans, even from a very top-down style of government, are very prone to political whims.