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Crowdfunded spacecraft LightSail 2 prepares to go sailing on sunlight – TechCrunch

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Among the many spacecraft and satellites ascending to space on Monday’s Falcon Heavy launch, the Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 may be the most interesting. If all goes well, a week from launch it will be moving through space — slowly, but surely — on nothing more than the force exerted on it by sunlight.

LightSail 2 doesn’t have solar-powered engines, or use solar energy or heat for some secondary purpose; it will literally be propelled by the physical force of photons hitting its immense shiny sail. Not solar wind, mind you — that’s a different thing altogether.

It’s an idea, explained Planetary Society CEO and acknowledged Science Guy Bill Nye said in a press call ahead of the launch, that goes back centuries.

“It really goes back to the 1600s,” he said; Kepler deduced that a force from the sun must cause comet tails and other effects, and “he speculated that brave people would one day sail the void.”

So they might, as more recent astronomers and engineers have pondered the possibility more seriously.

“I was introduced to this in the 1970s, in the disco era. I was in Carl Sagan’s astronomy class… wow, 42 years ago, and he talked about solar sailing,” Nye recalled. “I joined the Planetary Society when it was formed in 1980, and we’ve been talking about solar sails around here ever since then. It’s really a romantic notion that has tremendous practical applications; there are just a few missions that solar sails are absolutely ideal for.”

Those would primarily be long-term, medium-orbit missions where a craft needs to stay in an Earth-like orbit, but still get a little distance away from the home planet — or, in the future, long-distance missions where slow and steady acceleration from the sun or a laser would be more practical than another propulsion method.

Mission profile

The eagle-eyed among you may have spotted the “2” in the name of the mission. LightSail 2 is indeed the second of its type; the first launched in 2015, but was not planned to be anything more than a test deployment that would burn up after a week or so.

That mission had some hiccups, with the sail not deploying to its full extent and a computer glitch compromising communications with the craft. It was not meant to fly via solar sailing, and did not.

“We sent the CubeSat up, we checked out the radio, the communications, the overall electronics, and we deployed the sail and we got a picture of that deployed sail in space,” said COO Jennifer Vaughn. “That was purely a deployment test; no solar sailing took place.”

The spacecraft itself, minus the sail, of course.

But it paved the way for its successor, which will attempt this fantastical form of transportation. Other craft have done so, most notably JAXA’s IKAROS mission to Venus, which was quite a bit larger — though as LightSail 2’s creators pointed out, not nearly as efficient as their craft — and had a very different mission.

The brand new spacecraft, loaded into a 3U CubeSat enclosure — that’s about the size of a loaf of bread — is piggybacking on an Air Force payload going up to an altitude of about 720 kilometers. There it will detach and float freely for a week to get away from the rest of the payloads being released.

Once it’s safely on its own, it will fire out from its carrier craft and begin to unfurl the sail. From that loaf-sized package will emerge an expanse of reflective Mylar with an area of 32 square meters — about the size of a boxing ring.

Inside the spacecraft’s body is also what’s called a reaction wheel, which can be spun up or slowed down in order to impart the opposite force on the craft, causing it to change its attitude in space. By this method LightSail 2 will continually orient itself so that the photons striking it propel it in the desired direction, nudging it into the desired orbit.

1 HP (housefly power) engine

The thrust produced, the team explained, is very small — as you might expect. Photons have no mass, but they do (somehow) have momentum. Not a lot, to be sure, but it’s greater than zero, and that’s what counts.

“In terms of the amount of force that solar pressure is going to exert on us, it’s on the micronewton level,” said LightSail project manager Dave Spencer. “It’s very tiny compared to chemical propulsion, very small even compared to electric propulsion. But the key for solar sailing is that it’s always there.”

“I have many numbers that I love,” cut in Nye, and detailed one of them: “It’s nine micronewtons per square meter. So if you have 32 square meters you get about a hundred micronewtons. It doesn’t sound like much, but as Dave points out, it’s continuous. Once a rocket engine stops, when it runs out of fuel, it’s done. But a solar sail gets a continuous push day and night. Wait…” (He then argued with himself about whether it would experience night — it will, as you see in the image below.)

Bruce Betts, chief scientist for LightSail, chimed in as well, to make the numbers a bit more relatable: “The total force on the sail is approximately equal to the weight of a house fly on your hand on Earth.”

Yet if you added another fly every second for hours at a time, pretty soon you’ve got a really considerable amount of acceleration going on. This mission is meant to find out whether we can capture that force.

“We’re very excited about this launch,” said Nye, “because we’re going to get to a high enough altitude to get away from the atmosphere, far enough that we’ll really gonna be able to build orbital energy and take some, I hope, inspiring pictures.”

Second craft, same (mostly) as the last

The LightSail going up this week has some improvements over the last one, though overall it’s largely the same — and a relatively simple, inexpensive craft at that, the team noted. Crowdfunding and donations over the last decade have provided quite a bit of cash to pursue this project, but it still is only a small fraction of what NASA might have spent on a similar mission, Spencer pointed out.

“This mission is going to be much more robust than the previous LightSail 1, but as we said previously, it’s done by a small team,” he said. “We’ve had a very small budget relative to our NASA counterparts, probably 1/20th of the budget that a similar NASA mission would have. It’s a low-cost spacecraft.”

Annotated image of LightSail 2, courtesy of Planetary Society.

But the improvements are specifically meant to address the main problems encountered by LightSail 2’s predecessor.

Firstly, the computer inside has been upgraded to be more robust (though not radiation-hardened) and given the ability to sense faults and reboot if necessary — they won’t have to wait, as they did for LightSail 1, for a random cosmic ray to strike the computer and cause a “natural reboot.” (Yes, really.)

The deployment of the sail itself has also improved. The previous one only extended to about 90% of its full width and couldn’t be adjusted after the fact. Subsequently tests have been done, Betts told me, to exactly determine how many revolutions the motor must make to extend the sail to 100%. Not only that, but they have put markings on the extending booms or rods that will help double check how deployment has gone.

“We also have the capability on orbit, if it looks like it’s not fully extended, we can extend it a little bit more,” he said.

Once it’s all out there, it’s uncharted territory. No one has attempted to do this kind of mission, even IKAROS, which had a totally different flight profile. The team is hoping their sensors and software are up to the task — and it should be clear whether that’s the case within a few hours of unfurling the sail.

It’s still mainly an experiment, of course, and what the team learns from this they will put into any future LightSail mission they attempt, but also share it with the spaceflight community and others attempting to sail on sunlight.

“We all know each other and we all share information,” said Nye. “And it really is — I’ve said it as much as I can — it’s really exciting to be flying this thing at last. It’s almost 2020 and we’ve been talking about it for, well, for 40 years. It’s very, very cool.”

LightSail 2 will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy no sooner than June 24th. Keep an eye on the site for the latest news and a link to the live stream when it’s almost time for takeoff.

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Microsoft trackers run afoul of DuckDuckGo, get added to blocklist

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Aurich Lawson

DuckDuckGo, the privacy-minded search company, says it will block trackers from Microsoft in its desktop web browser, following revelations in May that certain scripts from Bing and LinkedIn were getting a pass.

In a blog post, DuckDuckGo founder Gabriel Weinberg says that he’s heard users’ concerns since security researcher Zach Edwards’ thread that “we didn’t meet their expectations around one of our browser’s web tracking protections.” Weinberg says that, over the next week, the company’s browser will add Microsoft to the list of third-party tracking scripts blocked by its mobile and desktop browsers, as well as extensions for other browsers.

“Previously, we were limited in how we could apply our 3rd-Party Tracker Loading Protection on Microsoft tracking scripts due to a policy requirement related to our use of Bing as a source for our private search results,” Weinberg writes. “We’re glad this is no longer the case. We have not had, and do not have, any similar limitation with any other company.”

There are a lot of pervasive, identifying things that load up on most modern webpages. At issue in DuckDuckGo’s apps was its default blocking of scripts from companies like Facebook and Google loading on third-party websites. DuckDuckGo, which uses Microsoft’s Bing as one of its sources for search results, had to allow some of Microsoft’s trackers to load “due to a policy requirement.” In a Reddit response at the time of the revelation, Weinberg noted that Microsoft’s trackers were still blocked in most ways, like utilizing third-party cookies for fingerprinting visitors.

There’s more to the delicate dance between DuckDuckGo and Microsoft than just trackers, however. Microsoft also provides ads that run on DuckDuckGo’s search results. To allow advertisers to see when someone has clicked an ad on DuckDuckGo and arrived at their page, the DuckDuckGo apps won’t block requests from bat.bing.com. Weinberg notes that you can avoid this by turning off ads in DuckDuckGo search entirely. The company is working on validating ads in ways that can be non-tracking, Weinberg writes, akin to similar efforts by Safari and Firefox.

Finally, DuckDuckGo aims to be more open about its tracker blocking. The company committed its tracker blocklist to a public GitHub repository yesterday and published a new help doc on its tracking protections.

It can look like a lot of work over two scripts, but then DuckDuckGo lives inside the tricky balance of trying to make its search product convenient and relevant while offering its users as much privacy as websites can stand before breaking. And the 15-year-old company from Paoli, Pennsylvania, can’t just leave Bing behind entirely. Weinberg noted in his May Reddit response that most of its traditional search results and images come from Bing. “Really only two companies (Google and Microsoft) have a high-quality global web link index” due to the billion-dollar cost, Weinberg wrote. Every company that wants to provide search to the world faces either a duopoly or a very long journey.

Microsoft, meanwhile, continues to expand its advertising markets, most recently to Netflix, and, potentially, into its own operating system. Its advertising revenue was $3 billion for the quarter ending June 30, an increase of 15 percent year over year but the lowest growth rate in more than a year.

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Sonic the Hedgehog doesn’t need easily legible legends on his mechanical keyboard

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Enlarge / Sonic the Hedgehog mechanical keyboard.

When you’re a beloved blue eulipotyphla with the speed of a race car, all the golden rings, a pal like Tails, and even a pair of hit feature films, you start feeling like you can do anything. That includes typing on a truncated mechanical keyboard without letters, numbers, or any other legends written on the top of the keycaps.

Higround, known for gaming gear, is releasing today a trio of 65 percent mechanical keyboards made in collaboration with Sega, as spotted by Nintendo Wire, as well as other Sega-focused gear, including keycaps and mousepads.

Dreamcast's <i>Sonic Adventure 2</i> mechanical keyboard.
Enlarge / Dreamcast’s Sonic Adventure 2 mechanical keyboard.

Pictures from the brand show a trio of keyboards coming to life with colorful details delivering nostalgic imagery anywhere from, depending on the keyboard, the loops and rings of the Green Hill Zone in 1991‘s Sonic the Hedgehog to the contrasting profiles of Sonic and Knuckles from 2001’s Sonic Adventure 2 to the rainbow-colored arrow keys mimicking console controller buttons in tribute to Sega’s last globally released console, the Dreamcast.

The PBT, dye-sublimated keycaps on the keyboards are 1.5 mm thick, according to Higround, and ditch informative legends on their topsides in favor of an artful appearance when viewing the keyboard from the top down. But from a typical seated position, you should be able to see legends side-printed on the front of the keycaps. You don’t have to be a touch typist to use the Sega keyboards, but if you’re not, they’ll be harder to use at first than the typical keyboard.

Sega Dreamcast mechanical keyboard.
Enlarge / Sega Dreamcast mechanical keyboard.

Sonic’s gotta go fast, so it’s fitting that the keyboards use Speed Silver linear mechanical switches from TTC. They’re specced for about 3.4 mm total travel, with a 1.08 mm actuation point and 45 grams of force to actuate (if you’re unsure of what that means, check out our mechanical keyboard guide). Those numbers make them a bit shorter to actuate and bottom out than the common Cherry MX Red switch (4mm / 2mm / 45gf); although, Higround could have gone shorter with low-profile mechanical switches to fit the speed theme even more.

The mechanical switches have Sonic-blue-like housing.

The mechanical switches have Sonic-blue-like housing.

If you’re looking for a speedy way to complete those spreadsheets, the Sega keyboards aren’t a winning fit since they lack a numpad.

Ultimately, you need a combination of Sega and linear typing fandom and the ability to work without a numpad (some touch-typing skills wouldn’t hurt either) in order for these keyboards to be something that can help you level up your productivity, rather than an interesting collector’s item.

But the keyboards aren’t as polarizing as they could be… at least they don’t make you type in Elvish.

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This 6-inch board turns a Raspberry Pi module into a DIY router

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Enlarge / Let your Pi do the work while the CM4 Router Board handles the connections.

If you’re intrigued by the prospect of building a DIY router, Seeed Studio has a board that’s just waiting to put a Raspberry Pi Computing Module 4 (CM4) to work. Assuming, of course, that you can find the Pi module.

Seeed’s CM4 Router Board adds two full-speed gigabit network ports, two USB 2.0 ports, a microSD slot, an HDMI out, a GPIO interface for Raspberry Pi HAT add-ons, and a 0.91-inch OLED display to your Pi CM4. Having the CM4 at the system’s core gives you 32 different options for RAM, storage, and wireless capabilities on your homebrew router. The Router Board comes with OpenWRT installed, but it could run Ubuntu, Raspberry OS, or any other Pi-friendly system.

Seeed notes that beyond DIY routers, the CM4 Router Board could also become a gateway, mini-NAS, wireless network bridge, or mini-server. You can buy a Pi CM4 with wireless capabilities, but you’ll likely need (or prefer) a separate Wi-Fi setup connected to your DIY router.

Why not just plug a USB-to-Ethernet adapter into the Pi you already have? Seeed says its board’s RTL8111E controller chip “offers better performance, lower CPU usage, and higher stability for a long time work [sic] compared with a USB network card.”

The CM4 Router Board should be available for around $55 soon at both Seeed and Mouser Electronics, though the latter cites an 11-week lead time beyond its initial stock.

Those hunting for a Raspberry Pi CM4 board might consider Ars commenter MightyPez’s advice to keep an eye on Pi stock monitor Rpilocator, which offers RSS feeds. You can even set up push notifications with Rpilocator’s official Python script.

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