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NASA picks a dozen science and tech projects to bring to the surface of the Moon – TechCrunch

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With the Artemis mission scheduled to put boots on lunar regolith as soon as 2024, NASA has a lot of launching to do — and you can be sure none of those launches will go to waste. The agency just announced 12 new science and technology projects to send to the Moon’s surface, including a new rover.

The 12 projects are being sent up as part of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, which is — as NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has emphasized strongly — part of an intentional increase in reliance on private companies. If a company already has a component or rover or craft ready to go and meeting a program’s requirements, why should NASA build it from scratch at great cost?

In this case, the selected projects cover a wide range of origins and intentions. Some are repurposed or spare parts from other missions, like the Lunar Surface Electromagnetics Experiment. LuSEE is related to the Park Solar Probe’s STEREO/Waves instrument and pieces from MAVEN, re-engineered to make observations and measurements on the Moon.

Others are quite new. Astrobotic, which was also recently awarded an $80 million contract to develop its Peregrine lunar lander, will now also be putting together a rover, which it calls MoonRanger (no relation to the NES game). This little bot will autonomously traverse the landscape within half a mile or so of its base and map it in 3D.

The new funding from NASA amounts to $5.6 million, which isn’t a lot to develop a lunar rover from scratch — no doubt it’s using its own funds and working with its partner, Carnegie Mellon University, to make sure the rover isn’t a bargain-bin device. With veteran rover engineer Red Whittaker on board, it should be a good one.

“MoonRanger offers a means to accomplish far-ranging science of significance, and will exhibit an enabling capability on missions to the Moon for NASA and the commercial sector. The autonomy techniques demonstrated by MoonRanger will enable new kinds exploration missions that will ultimately herald in a new era on the Moon,” said Whittaker in an Astrobotic news release.

The distance to the lunar surface isn’t so far that controlling a rover directly from the surface is nearly impossible, like on Mars, but if it can go from here to there without someone in Houston twiddling a joystick, why shouldn’t it?

To be clear, this is different from the upcoming CubeRover project and others that are floating around in Astrobotic and Whittaker’s figurative orbits.

“MoonRanger is a 13 kg microwave-sized rover with advanced autonomous capabilities,” Astrobotic’s Mike Provenzano told me. “The CubeRover is a 2 kg shoebox-sized rover developed for light payloads and geared for affordable science and exploration activities.”

While both have flight contracts, CubeRover is scheduled to go up on the first Peregrine mission in 2021, while MoonRanger is TBD.

Another NASA selection is the Planetary Science Institute’s Heimdall, a new camera system that will point downward during the lander’s descent and collect super-high-resolution imagery of the regolith before, during and after landing.

heimdall

“The camera system will return the highest resolution images of the undisturbed lunar surface yet obtained, which is important for understanding regolith properties. We will be able to essentially video the landing in high resolution for the first time, so we can understand how the plume behaves – how far it spreads, how long particles are lofted. This information is crucial for the safety of future landings,” said the project’s R. Aileen Yingst in a PSI release.

The regolith is naturally the subject of much curiosity, since if we’re to establish a semi-permanent presence on the Moon we’ll have to deal with it one way or another. So projects like Honeybee’s PlanetVac, which can suck up and test materials right at landing, or the Regolith Adherence Characterization, which will see how the stuff sticks to various materials, will be invaluable.

RadSatg Deployed w Crop

RadSat-G deployed from the ISS for its year-long mission to test radiation tolerance on its computer systems

Several projects are continuations of existing projects that are great fits for lunar missions. For example, the lunar surface is constantly being bombarded with all kinds of radiation, since the Moon lacks any kind of atmosphere. That’s not a problem for machinery like wheels or even solar cells, but for computers, radiation can be highly destructive. So Brock LaMere’s work in radiation-tolerant computers will be highly relevant to landers, rovers and payloads.

LaMere’s work has already been tested in space via the Nanoracks facility aboard the International Space Station, and the new NASA funding will allow it to be tested on the lunar surface. If we’re going to be sending computers up there that people’s lives will depend on, we better be completely sure they aren’t going to crash because of a random EM flux.

The rest of the projects are characterized here, with varying degrees of detail. No doubt we’ll learn more soon as the funding disbursed by NASA over the next year or so helps flesh them out.

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Still can’t buy a Raspberry Pi board? Things aren’t getting better anytime soon

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Raspberry Pi Foundation

Shortages for lots of tech components, including things like DDR5 and GPUs, have eased quite a bit since the beginning of 2022, and prices have managed to go down as availability improves. But that reprieve hasn’t come for hobbyists hoping to get a Raspberry Pi, which remains as hard to buy today as it was a year ago.

The most recent update on the situation comes from Raspberry Pi founder Eben Upton via YouTuber Jeff Geerling—Upton told Geerling that Pi boards are subject to the same supply constraints since the last time he wrote a post about the situation in April. Around 400,000 Pi boards are still produced per month, and some of these are being earmarked to be sent out to consumer retail sites. But Upton says that most of these are still being reserved for and sold to commercial customers who rely on Pi boards to run their businesses.

In short, the update is that there is no update. Upton said in April (and nearly a year ago, when the company raised the price for a Pi board for the first time) that the Broadcom processors at the heart of older Pi boards have been particularly difficult to source, but that high demand had been just as big an issue. Demand for Pi boards increased during the pandemic, and there was no more manufacturing capacity available to meet this demand. Upton said a year ago that there were “early signs that the supply chain situation is starting to ease,” but backed-up demand could still explain the short supply even if the Pi’s components have gotten easier to buy.

If you’re trying to buy a Raspberry Pi in the US or other regions, the rpilocator spreadsheet can be a valuable resource, letting you know when various models are in stock for ordering at most common Pi retailers. According to the tracker, few Pi 4 boards of any stripe were available to buy through September, though, and if you’re looking for a specific RAM capacity, you will be stuck waiting even longer. Businesses that want to inquire about buying Pis are still encouraged to contact the business@raspberrypi.com email address to make their case.

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Google prototypes, open sources an extra-long keyboard with one row of keys

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Enlarge / Google Japan jokes that you can increase productivity by having two people type on the keyboard simultaneously.

Google Japan has a history of joke keyboard concepts that challenge common notions of computing input. The latest concept, the Gboard Stick Version, places every key in the same row, so hunting and pecking can take a more linear approach.

As shown in Google Japan’s YouTube video below, it appears Google Japan actually prototyped the lengthy keyboard. Google will not be mass-producing or selling it, but there are GitHub files available with open source firmware, circuit diagrams, and design drawings to build the keyboard yourself. The GitHub page is careful to note that “this is not an officially supported Google product.” Google Japan’s blog post from Saturday said you could make the Gboard Stick Version with a 3D printer.

Google Japan’s video for the Gboard Stick Version.

As designed, the keyboard is an extraordinary 5.25 feet (1,600 mm) longIf you think that’s lengthy, the company said the original prototype was 7.87 feet (2,400 mm) long. The keyboard uses 17 boards total, including 16 for mounting the keys and a control board.

Google Japan jestingly argues that this design is more convenient for cluttered desks, storage, and finding the right keys when typing. Google Japan’s video shows the keyboard with an alphabetical layout, as a user initiates touch typing by memorizing the distance of individual keys from the left border. Alternatively, it’s ‘easy’ to find P, for example, knowing that it’s the 17th key in from the left (the first key from the left is a search button, not A). Surely, this is all simpler than hunting and pecking up, down, left, and right on a traditional keyboard layout.

Google Japan’s page for the keyboard also suggests you can use it with a QWERTY or ASCII code layout.

Google Japan also pointed to the keyboard's single row simplifying cleaning.
Enlarge / Google Japan also pointed to the keyboard’s single row simplifying cleaning.

Many detailed use cases for this one-row keyboard are clearly jokes, from using it to measure your kid’s height and get items dropped behind the couch, to using it as a walking stick, or the “bug-fixing module,” aka net, that turns the keyboard into a bug catcher in case you encounter bugs when coding (get it?).

But one purported benefit we could actually get behind is how much personal space the keyboard naturally enforces in the office and beyond:

The keyboard looks to be a natural safe-distance buffer for those who have to return to the office.
Enlarge / The keyboard looks to be a natural safe-distance buffer for those who have to return to the office.

Google Japan’s outlandish keyboard concepts have been going on for years as a way to promote Google’s Gboard keyboard app. Past iterations have included the Gboard Teacup Version and Gboard Spoon Bending Version.

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The Pixel 6a for $350 ($100 off) makes for an incredible deal

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The Pixel 7 might be arriving this week, but if you’re not interested in any of that newfangled flagship stuff, have we got a deal for you! The Pixel 6a, Google’s cheaper, simpler smartphone, is on sale at Amazon and Best Buy for $100 off. That makes for a pretty incredible $349 price tag instead of the normal $449. If you don’t count bundling deals that require signing up for a new phone line, this is the lowest price we’ve seen the phone at.

The Pixel 6a is a dead simple 6.1-inch phone that covers all the basics. It has a 6.1-inch 1080p, 60 Hz display, 6GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, and a 4410 mAh battery. The phone has nearly every feature you could want, including an in-screen fingerprint reader, IP67 dust and water resistance, NFC, and Wi-Fi 6e compatibility. The biggest downside is that there’s no wireless charging. The headline feature is the flagship-class SoC, the same Google Tensor chip you get in the Pixel 6, but for a low (and now even lower) price. The Tensor won’t win any benchmark wars, but at this price, the only other comparable device is the iPhone SE.

As for why you might hold out a bit and get the Pixel 7 instead, you’d be getting a major screen upgrade if you buy the (probably $900) Pixel 7 Pro, which will pack a 6.7-inch 120 Hz display. You’d also be doubling the RAM (12GB) and upgrading the camera setup from the ancient IMX 363 sensor that powers the Pixel 6a. That would be more than double the price of this phone. though. Like we said in our review, if you’re not a phone snob (guilty), the Pixel 6a is the perfect phone for normal people.

Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

Listing image by Ron Amadeo

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