Credit Card Sized Spacecraft Poised to Sail to Alpha Centauri

As a space-faring species, we’ve done a fair job of exploring and exploiting our local neighborhood. We’re pretty good at putting people and machines into orbit, but our galactic-scale signature is pretty tiny. Our radio signals are no more than 100 light-years away, and our farthest physical artifact isn’t even a light-day away from us 40 years after it launched.

Clearly we need to do a better job of getting out there, and that’s the goal of Breakthrough Initiatives’ Starshot program, which aims to launch a nano-spacecraft to Alpha Centauri and get it there fast. The program aims to build solar-powered credit card-sized spacecraft with sensors, cameras, communications, and even MEMS thrusters for attitude control. Motive power will come from solar sails catching laser light shined onto it from Earth, eventually accelerating the craft to 20% of the speed of light and reaching its destination within a generation.

The thought that we could start spreading ourselves out into the galaxy within the lifespan of most of the people on Earth is intoxicating. Sure, a wafer of silicon is a far cry from a sleek starship with powerful warp engines and all the finest appointments, or a gritty star freighter that can make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. But the laws of physics and the limits of engineering conspire to keep us mostly stuck at the bottom of a deep gravity well, and if this means sending fleets of nanobots across the galaxy in our stead, so be it.

And no matter what form our first galactic spacecraft take, you can bet that the Deep Space Network will be supporting the mission. For now, you can listen in on the program’s test satellites currently in orbit if you tune to 437.240 MHz.

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This 6502 Computer Project Is A Work Of Art

If you were a home constructor in the 8-bit era, the chances are that if you built a microcomputer system you would have ended up with a bare printed circuit board and a terminal. If you were on a budget you might have had a piece of stripboard as well, or maybe even wire-wrap. Beautiful cases were out of reach, they came with expensive commercial computers that were not the preserve of impoverished hobbyists.

Constructing an 8-bit machine in 2017 is a much easier process, there are many more options at your disposal. There is no need to make a bare PCB when you have a 3D printer, and this is demonstrated perfectly by [Dirk Grappendorf]’s 6502 computer project. He’s built from scratch an entire 6502 system, with a text LCD display, and housed it in a case with a keyboard that would put to shame all but the most expensive commercial machines from back in the day.

But this is more than just a hobby project thrown together that just happens to have a nice case, he’s gone the extra mile to the extent that this is professional enough that it could have been a product. If you’d been offered [Dirk]’s machine in 1980 alongside the competitors from Apple and Commodore, you’d certainly have given it some consideration.

We’ve seen retrocomputers too numerous to mention on these pages over the years, so if they are your thing perhaps it’s time to draw your attention to our VCF West reports, and to our reviews of computer museums in Germany, and Cambridge or Bletchley, UK.

Thanks [Colin] for the tip.

Forget Troy. Try HelenOS

Even though it seems like there are a lot of operating system choices, the number narrows if you start counting kernels, instead of distributions. Sure, Windows is clearly an operating system family, and on the Unix-like side, there is Linux and BSD. But many other operating systems–Ubuntu, Fedora, Raspian–they all derive from some stock operating system. There are some outliers, though, and one of those is HelenOS. The open source OS runs on many platforms, including PCs, Raspberry PIs, Beaglebones, and many others.

Although the OS isn’t new, it is gaining more features and is now at version 0.7. You can see a video about some of the new features, below.

According to the project’s web site:

HelenOS is a portable microkernel-based multiserver operating system designed and implemented from scratch. It decomposes key operating system functionality such as file systems, networking, device drivers and graphical user interface into a collection of fine-grained user space components that interact with each other via message passing. A failure or crash of one component does not directly harm others. HelenOS is therefore flexible, modular, extensible, fault tolerant and easy to understand.

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DPS5005 Makes Digital Power Supply a Snap

Few pieces of gear are more basic to electronics than some kind of power supply. It might be a box of batteries, or it might be a high-end lab supply. [Andreas] took a DPS5005 power supply module that has USB and Bluetooth and used it to build a very capable switching power supply which he then used to build a source measuring unit.

The user interface on the diminutive module is simplistic, so [Andreas] appreciated the PC-based software that can control the supply remotely. The module can output up to 50V, but you should plan accordingly as it does need 1.1 times the maximum voltage output on the input. It will work with lower input voltages, but it just won’t be able to output as high a voltage.

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Hackaday Links: August 20, 2017

Foam core, dollar tree foam board, Adams foam board, or whatever we’re calling a thin sheet of foam sandwiched between two pieces of poster board, is an invaluable hacker’s tool. Everyone should have a few sheets on hand, and not just because each sheet is a dollar each at any Dollar Store. [Eric] has been working on a technique to create compound curves in foam board, and the results look great. It’s a true three-dimensional plane with weird curves, and certainly has applications for something.

The Apollo Lunar Module is the first, and only manned space-only spacecraft ever made. The design of this spacecraft isn’t constrained by trivialities like ‘atmosphere’, and the design didn’t need ‘bulkheads thicker than a stack of paper towels’. It is a beautiful ship, and now a company wants to produce a gorgeous 1/32 scale model of the LEM. The goal is $25k, which is quite high for the real space modeling market, but if this GoFundMe campaign succeeds, this will be one of the finest real space models ever created. It’ll also match the scale of the 1/32 Revell CSM.

Speaking of Apollo-related technology, here’s a slight bit of drama. [Fran] has been working on recreating the DSKY — the user interface for the Apollo Guidance Computer — for a few years now. She’s set up a crowdfunding campaign to recreate the electroluminescent, screen printed segment display, and things are going great. Now there’s a company selling commercial DSKYs (with a stupid TFT display), that potentially uses the same art. Is this copyright infringement? Maybe, but probably not. It is a dick move not to credit [Fran], though.

The Monoprice Mini Delta is phenomenal. More on that in a bit.

There’s a complete solar eclipse happening across the United States tomorrow. Many schools should have started classes by then, but they’re calling tomorrow a snow day. Everyone who is traveling to see the eclipse is probably already where they’re going to be, and there are clouds on the horizon. Literal clouds. Everyone is watching the weather channel to see what the cloud cover will be tomorrow. Some people don’t have to worry: [Dan] is building a high-altitude balloon to get 100,000 feet above any clouds. There’s a 360° camera onboard, and the resulting video will be awesome. At least one person in Charleston will be renting a plane; I question the wisdom of renting a 172 over a Piper or Cirrus or another low-wing plane, but whatever. If you’re working on a project that will look at the eclipse from above the clouds, leave a note in the comments. For those of you looking at clouds tomorrow, Hackaday is doing another eclipse meet up on the Pacific coast of Mexico on April 8, 2024.

Hackaday Prize Entry: SafeRanger, a Roving Power Plant Monitor

Engineering student [Varun Suresh] designed his SafeRanger rover to inspect oil and gas power plants for abnormal temperatures as well as gas leaks. The rover explores critical areas of the factory, and data is sent to a control center for analysis.

[Varun] built his robot around a Devastator chassis kit from DFRobot, and equipped it with a FLIR Lepton thermal camera and an MQ2 gas sensor, both monitored by a Raspberry Pi. The twin brushless DC motors are controlled by an L293D motor driver IC in conjunction with an Arduino Nano; steering is accomplished with an HC-05 Bluetooth module and a mobile app.

We could see technology like this being implemented in a labyrinthine facility where a human inspector might have a difficult time reaching every nook and cranny. Or just let it wander ar0und, looking for trouble?

Don’t Miss Watching this Solar Eclipse High Altitude Balloon Online

[Dan Julio] let us know about an exciting project that he and his team are working on at the Solid State Depot Makerspace in Boulder: the Solar Eclipse High Altitude Balloon. Weighing in at 1 kg and bristling with a variety of cameras, the balloon aims to catch whatever images are able to be had during the solar eclipse. The balloon’s position should be trackable on the web during its flight, and some downloaded images should be available as well. Links for all of that are available from the project’s page.

High altitude balloons are getting more common as a platform for gathering data and doing experiments; an embedded data recorder for balloons was even an entry for the 2016 Hackaday Prize.

If all goes well and the balloon is able to be recovered, better images and video will follow. If not, then at least a post-mortem of what the team thinks went wrong will be posted. Launch time in Wyoming is approximately 10:40 am Mountain Time (UTC -07:00) Mountain Daylight Time (UTC -06:00) on Aug 21 2017, so set your alarm!