We recently invited José Antonio Bagur to join us on EDUvision, to talk about his work on Quetzal-1; Guatemala’s first satellite. It was a hugely popular show with the Arduino and edutech communities, and we ran out of time before we could ask José all your space-based questions!
The range of questions you guys had around open-source, custom-built satellites were too good to go unanswered. So we brought him back for an EDUvision EXTRA. Melissa and Roxana teamed up to dig deeper into his amazing project.
José Antonio Bagur, and Quetzal-1
You can check out José’s first interview, which took place during the EDUvision livestream. But to quickly get you up to speed, let’s give José, and his pride and joy Quetzal-1, a quick introduction.
He’s a mechatronics engineer, university researcher and professor from Guatemala. He’s no stranger to the Arduino community either, as he regularly joins the Arduino team to host the Spanish-language Explore IoT webinars.
There are no formal aerospace science education programs in Guatemala, so José and his colleagues really had their work cut out designing and building the country’s first satellite! Over 100 people were involved in its development, which, of course, made plenty of use of Arduino.
In the EDUvision EXTRA video interview below, you can find out all about the incredible work they achieved. He talks about how they managed to get it into space, how it works, and what kind of challenges they faced throughout the project. Feel free to add any other questions you might have in the comments, over on the forum, or on social media.
Oh, and you’ll also find out where the name Quetzal-1 comes from!
Enjoy this extra slice of EDUvision goodness, and remember to join us on 20th May, 2021, for the next livestream. If you have a project you’d like to see featured live on EDUvision, let us know all about it. If it’s picked to be showcased, we’ll even send you some free Arduino swag.
Did you see the coolest International Space Station (ISS) on Earth on the blog last week? ISS Mimic is powered by Raspberry Pi, mirrors exactly what the real ISS is doing in orbit, and was built by NASA engineers to make the ISS feel more real for Earth-bound STEAM enthusiasts.
The team launched ISS Mimic in celebration of 20 years of continuous human presence in space on the ISS. And they’ve been getting lots of questions since we posted about their creation so, we asked them back to fill you in with a quick Q&A.
1. Since this is NASA-related, “MIMIC” must be an acronym, right?
Yes, we forced one: “Mechatronic Instantiated Model, Interactively Controlled”
2. What’s your subtitle?
“The second-most complicated International Space Station ever made”. We also like “1/100th scale for 1/100,000,000th cost”
3. Wait, are US tax dollars paying for you to make this?
No, it’s a volunteer project, but we do get lots of support. It’s done on our own time and money — though many NASA types and others have kicked in to help buy materials.
4. So you have supporters?
Yes — mostly other organisations that we have teamed up with. We partner with a non-profit makerspace near NASA, Creatorspace, for tools, materials, and outreach. And an awesome local 3D printer manufacturer, re:3D, has joined us and printed our (large) solar panels for free, and is helping to refine our models. They are also working towards making a kit of parts for sale for those who don’t have a printer or the time to print all the pieces, with a discount for educators.
Particularly helpful has been Space Center Houston (NASA’s visitor center), who invited us to present to the public and at an educator conference (pre-COVID), and allowed us to spend a full day filming in their beautiful facility. Our earliest supporter was Boeing, who we‘ve worked with to facilitate outreach to educators and students from the start.
5. How long have you been working on this?
5 years — a looong time. We spent much effort early on to establish the scale and feasibility and test the capabilities of 3D printing. We maintained a hard push to keep the materials cost down and reduce build time/complexity for busy educators. We always knew we’d use Raspberry Pi for the brain, but were looking for less costly options for the mechatronics. We’d still like to cut the cost down a lot to make the project more attainable for lower-income schools and individuals.
6. Have you done any outreach so far?
All of the support has allowed us to take our prototype to schools and STEM events locally. But we really want this to be built around the world to reach those who don’t have much connection to space exploration and hands-on STEM. The big build is probably most suitable for teens and adults, while the alternative builds (in-work) would be much more approachable for younger students.
7. So, this just for schools?
No, not at all. Our focus is to make it viable for schools/educators — in cost and build complexity — but we want any space nerd to be able to build their own and help drive the design.
8. Biggest challenge?
Gravity. And time to work on the project… and trying to keep the cost down.
9. What about a Lunar Gateway or Habitat version of ISS Mimic?
It’s on our radar! Another build that’s screaming to be made is hacking the LEGO ISS model (released this year) to rotate its joints and light LEDs.
Raspberry Pi on the real ISS
There are two Raspberry Pi computers aboard the real ISS right now! And even better, young people have the chance to write Python code that will run on them — IN SPACE — as part of the European Astro Pi Challenge.
A sci-fi writer wanted to add some realism to his fiction. The result: a Raspberry Pi-based Martian timepiece. Rosie Hattersley clocks in from the latest issue of The MagPi Magazine.
Ever since he first clapped eyes on Mars through the eyepiece of a telescope, Philip Ide has been obsessed with the Red Planet. He’s written several books based there and, many moons ago, set up a webpage showing the weather on Mars. This summer, Phil adapted his weather monitor and created a Raspberry Pi-powered Mars Clock.
After writing several clocks for his Mars Weather page, Phil wanted to make a physical clock: “something that could sit on my desk or such like, and tell the time on Mars.” It was to tell the time at any location on Mars, with presets for interesting locations “plus the sites of all the missions that made it to the surface – whether they pancaked or not.”
Another prerequisite was that the clock had to check for new mission file updates and IERS bulletins to see if a new leap second had been factored into Universal Coordinated Time.
“Martian seconds are longer,” explains Phil, “so everything was pointing at software rather than a mechanical device. Raspberry Pi was a shoo-in for the job”. However, he’d never used one.
“I’d written some software for calculating orbits and one of the target platforms was Raspberry Pi. I’d never actually seen it run on a Raspberry Pi but I knew it worked, so the door was already open.” He was able to check his data against a benchmark NASA provided. Knowing that the clocks on his Mars Weather page were accurate meant that Phil could focus on getting to grips with his new single-board computer.
He chose a 2GB Raspberry Pi 4 and official-inch touchscreen with a SmartiPi Touch 2 case. “Angles are everything,” he reasons. He also added a fan to lower the CPU temperature and extend the hardware’s life. Along with a power lead, the whole setup cost £130 from The Pi Hut.
Since his Mars Clock generates a lot of data, he made it skinnable so the user can choose which pieces of information to view at any one time. It can display two types of map – Viking or MOLA – depending on the co-ordinates for the clock. NASA provides a web map-tile service with many different data sets for Mars, so it should be possible to make the background an interactive map, allowing you to zoom in/out and scroll around. Getting these to work proved rather a headache as he hit incompatibilities with the libraries.
Learn through experience
Phil wrote most of the software himself, with the exception of libraries for the keyboard and FTP which he pulled from GitHub. Here’s all the code.
His decades as a computer programmer meant other aspects were straightforward. The hardware is more than capable, he says of his first ever experience of Raspberry Pi, and the SmartiPi case makers had done a brilliant job. Everything fit together and in just a few minutes his Raspberry Pi was working.
Since completing his Mars Clock Phil has added a pi-hole and a NAS to his Raspberry Pi setup and says his confidence using them is such that he’s now contemplating challenging himself to build an orrery (a mechanical model of the solar system). “I have decades of programming experience, but I was still learning new things as the project progressed,” he says. “The nerd factor of any given object increases exponentially if you make it yourself.”
A group of us NASA engineers work on the International Space Station (ISS) for our day-jobs but craved something more tangible than computer models and data curves to share with the world. So, in our free time, we built ISS Mimic. It’s still in the works, but we are publishing now to celebrate 20 years of continuous human presence in space on the ISS.
This video was filmed and produced by our friend, new teammate, and Raspberry Pi regular Estefannie of Estefannie Explains it All. Most of the images in this blog are screen grabbed from her wonderful video too.
What does Mimic do?
ISS Mimic is a 1% scale model of the International Space Station, bringing the American football field-sized beauty down to a tabletop-sized build. Most elements are 3D printed — even the solar arrays. It has 12 motors: 10 to control the solar panels and two to turn the thermal radiators. All of these are fed by live data streaming from the ISS, so what you see on ISS Mimic is what’s happening that very moment on the real deal up in space.
Despite the global ISS effort, most people seem to feel disconnected from space exploration and all the STEAM goodness within. Beyond headlines and rocket launches, even space enthusiasts may feel out of touch. Most of what is available is via apps and videos, which are great, but miss the physical aspect.
ISS Mimic is intended to provide an earthbound, tangible connection to that so-close-but-so-far-away orbiting science platform. We want space excitement to fuel STEAM interest.
Raspberry Pi brains and Braun
Users toggle through various touchscreen data displays of things like battery charge states, electrical power generated, joint angles, communication dish status, gyroscope torques, and even airlock air pressure — fun to watch prior to a spacewalk!
The user can also touchscreen-activate the physical model, in which case Raspberry Pi sends the telemetry along to Arduinos, which in turn command motors in the model to do their thing, rotating the solar panels and thermal radiators to the proper angle. The solar panel joints use compact geared DC motors with Hall-effect sensors for feedback. The sensor signals are sent back down to the Arduino, which keeps track of the position of each joint compared to ISS telemetry, and updates motor command accordingly to stay in sync.
The thermal radiator motors are simpler. Since they only rotate about 180° total, a simple RC micro servo is utilised with the desired position sent from an Arduino directly from the Raspberry Pi data stream.
When MIMIC is in ‘live mode’, the motor commands are the exact data stream coming from ISS. This is a fun mode to leave it in for long durations when it’s in the corner of the room. But it changes slowly, so we also include advanced playback, where prior orbit data stored on Raspberry Pi is played back at 60× speed. A regular 90-minute orbit profile can be played back in 90 seconds.
We also have ‘disco mode’, which may have been birthed during lack of sleep, but now we plan to utilise it whenever we want to grab attention — such as to alert users that the ISS is flying overhead.
We may have a mild LED addiction, and we have LEDs embedded where the ISS batteries would live at the base of the solar arrays. They change colour with the charge voltage, so we can tell by watching them when the ISS is going into Earth’s shadow, or when the batteries are fully charged, etc.
A few times when we were working on the model and the LEDs suddenly changed, we thought we had bumped something. But it turned out the first array was edging behind Earth. These are fun to watch during spacewalks, and the model gives us advanced notice that the crew is about to be in darkness.
We plan to cram more LEDs in to react to other data. The project is open source, so anyone can build one and improve the design — help wanted! After all, the ISS itself is a worldwide collaboration with 19 countries participating by providing components and crew.
Chaotic wire management
The solar panels on the ISS are mounted on what’s known as the ‘outboard truss’ — one each on the Port and Starboard ends of ISS. Everything on the outboard truss rotates together as part of the sun-tracking (in addition to each solar array rotating individually). So, you can’t just run the power/signal wires through the interface or they would twist and break. ISS Mimic has the same issue.
Even though our solar panels don’t generate power, their motors still require power and signals. The ISS has a specialised, unique build; but fortunately we were able to solve our problem with a simple slip ring design sourced from Amazon.
Wire management turned out to be a big issue for us. We had bird nests in several places early on (still present on the Port side solar), so we created some custom PCBs just for wire management, to keep the chaos down. We incorporated HDMI connectors and cables in some places to provide nice shielding and convenient sized coupling — actually a bit more compact than the Ethernet we’d used before.
Also, those solar panels are huge, and the mechanism that supports the outboard truss (everything on the sides that rotate together) on the ISS includes a massive 10 foot diameter bull gear called the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint. A pinion gear from a motor interfaces with this gear to turn it as needed.
We were pleasantly surprised that our 3D-printed bull gear held up quite well with a similar pinion-driven design. Overall, our 3D prints have survived better than expected. We are revamping most models to include more detail, and we could certainly use help here.
Our sights are set firmly on educators as our primary area of focus, and we’ve been excited to partner with Space Center Houston to speak at public events and a space exploration educator conference with international attendance earlier this year.
The feedback has been encouraging and enlightening. We want to keep getting feedback from educators, so please provide more insights via the contact info listed at the bottom.
NASA Mission Control — failure is actually an option… sometimes
A highlight for the team was when the ISS Mimic prototype was requested to live for a month in NASA’s Mission Control Center and was synced to live data during an historic spacewalk. Mimic experienced an ‘anomaly’ when a loose wire caused one of the solar panel motors to spin at 100× the normal rate.
You’ll be happy to know that none of the engineering professionals were fooled into thinking the real ISS was doing time-trials. Did I mention it’s still a work in progress? You can’t be scared of failure (for non-critical applications!), particularly when developing something brand-new. It’s part of shaking out problems and learning.
Space exploration has an exciting Future
It’s an exciting time in human and robotic spaceflight, with lots of budding projects and new organisations joining the effort. This feels like a great time to deepen our connection to this great progress, and we hope ISS Mimic can help us to do that, as well as encourage more students to play in coding, mechatronics, and STEAM.
High-school student Eleanor Sigrest successfully crowdfunded her way onto a zero-G flight to test her latest Raspberry Pi-powered project. NASA Goddard engineers peer reviewed Eleanor’s experimental design, which detects unwanted movement (or ‘slosh’) in spacecraft fluid tanks.
The apparatus features an accelerometer to precisely determine the moment of zero gravity, along with 13 Raspberry Pis and 12 Raspberry Pi cameras to capture the slosh movement.
What’s wrong with slosh?
The Broadcom Foundation shared a pretty interesting minute-by-minute report on Eleanor’s first hyperbolic flight and how she got everything working. But, in a nutshell…
You don’t want the fluid in your space shuttle tanks sloshing around too much. It’s a mission-ending problem. Slosh occurs on take-off and also in microgravity during manoeuvres, so Eleanor devised this novel approach to managing it in place of the costly, heavy subsystems currently used on board space craft.
Eleanor wanted to prove that the fluid inside tanks treated with superhydrophobic and superhydrophilic coatings settled quicker than in uncoated tanks. And she was right: settling times were reduced by 73% in some cases.
At just 13 years old, Eleanor won the Samueli Prize at the 2016 Broadcom MASTERS for her mastery of STEM principles and team leadership during a rigorous week-long competition. High praise came from Paula Golden, President of Broadcom Foundation, who said: “Eleanor is the epitome of a young woman scientist and engineer. She combines insatiable curiosity with courage: two traits that are essential for a leader in these fields.”
That week-long experience also included a Raspberry Pi Challenge, and Eleanor explained: “During the Raspberry Pi Challenge, I learned that sometimes the simplest solutions are the best. I also learned it’s important to try everyone’s ideas because you never know which one might work the best. Sometimes it’s a compromise of different ideas, or a compromise between complicated and simple. The most important thing is to consider them all.”
Do you know young people who dream of sending something to space? You can help them make that dream a reality!
We’re calling on educators, club leaders, and parents to inspire young people to develop their digital skills by participating in this year’s European Astro Pi Challenge.
The European Astro Pi Challenge, which we run in collaboration with the European Space Agency, gives young people in 26 countries* the opportunity to write their own computer programs and run them on two special Raspberry Pi units — called Astro Pis! — on board the International Space Station (ISS).
This year’s Astro Pi ambassador is ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet. Thomas will accompany our Astro Pis on the ISS and oversee young people’s programs while they run.
And the young people need your support to take part in the Astro Pi Challenge!
Astro Pi is back big-time!
The Astro Pi Challenge is back and better than ever, with a brand-new website, a cool new look, and the chance for more young people to get involved.
During the last challenge, a record 6558 Astro Pi programs from over 17,000 young people ran on the ISS, and we want even more young people to take part in our new 2020/21 challenge.
So whether your children or learners are complete beginners to programming or have experience of Python coding, we’d love for them to take part!
You and your young people have two Astro Pi missions to choose from: Mission Zero and Mission Space Lab.
Mission Zero — for beginners and younger programmers
In Mission Zero, young people write a simple program to take a humidity reading onboard the ISS and communicate it to the astronauts with a personalised message, which will be displayed for 30 seconds.
Mission Zero is designed for beginners and younger participants up to 14 years old. Young people can complete Mission Zero online in about an hour following a step-by-step guide. Taking part doesn’t require any previous coding experience or specific hardware.
All Mission Zero participants who follow the simple challenge rules are guaranteed to have their programs run aboard the ISS in 2021.
All you need to do is support the young people to submit their programs!
Mission Zero is a perfect activity for beginners to digital making and Python programming, whether they’re young people at home or in coding clubs, or groups of students or club participants.
We have made some exciting changes to this year’s Mission Zero challenge:
Participants will be measuring humidity on the ISS instead of temperature
For the first time, young people can enter individually, as well as in teams of up to 4 people
You have until 19 March 2021 to support your young people to submit their Mission Zero programs!
Mission Space Lab — for young people with programming experience
In Mission Space Lab, teams of young people design and program a scientific experiment to run for 3 hours onboard the ISS.
Mission Space Lab is aimed at more experienced or older participants up to 19 years old, and it takes place in 4 phases over the course of 8 months.
Your role in Mission Space Lab is to mentor a team of participants while they design and write a program for a scientific experiment that increases our understanding of either life on Earth or life in space.
The best experiments will be deployed to the ISS, and teams will have the opportunity to analyse their experimental data and report on their results.
* ESA Member States in 2020: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Latvia, and the United Kingdom. Other participating states: Canada, Latvia, Slovenia, Malta.