Apollo: The Alignment Optical Telescope

The Apollo program is a constant reminder that we just don’t need so much to get the job done. Sure it’s easier with today’s tools, but hard work can do it too. [Bill Hammack] elaborates on one such piece of engineering: The Alignment Optical Telescope.

The telescope was used to find the position of the Lunar Module in space so that its guidance computer could do the calculations needed to bring the module home. It does this using techniques that we’ve been using for centuries on land and still use today in space; although now it’s done with computer vision. It was used to align the craft to the stars. NASA used stars as the fixed reference points for the coordinate system used to locate objects in space. But how was this accomplished with great precision?

The alignment optical telescope did this by measuring two unknowns needed by the guidance computer. The astronaut would find the first value by pointing the telescope in the general area necessary to establish a reading, then rotate the first reticle (a horizontal line) on the telescope until it touched the correct star. A ring assembly was then adjusted, moving an Archimedes spiral etched onto the viewfinder. When the spiral touches the star you can read the second value, established by how far the ring has been rotated.

If you’ve ever seen the Lunar Module in person, your first impression might be to giggle a bit at how crude it is. The truth is that much of that crudeness was hard fought to achieve. They needed the simplest, lightest, and most reliable assembly the world had ever constructed. As [Bill Hammack] states at the end of the video, breaking the complicated tool usually used into two simple dials is an amazing engineering achievement.

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Big Brother and Others Are Watching Your Car

We are all (hopefully) aware that we can be watched while we’re online. Our clicks are all trackable to some extent, whether it’s our country’s government or an advertiser. What isn’t as obvious, though, is that it’s just as easy to track our movements in real life. [Saulius] was able to prove this concept by using optical character recognition to track the license plate numbers of passing cars half a kilometer away.

To achieve such long distances (and still have clear and reliable data to work with) [Saulius] paired a 70-300 mm telephoto lens with a compact USB camera. All of the gear was set up on an overpass and the camera was aimed at cars coming around a corner of a highway. As soon as the cars enter the frame, the USB camera feeds the information to a laptop running openALPR which is able to process and record license plate data.

The build is pretty impressive, but [Saulius] notes that it isn’t the ideal setup for processing a large amount of information at once because of the demands made on the laptop. With this equipment, monitoring a parking lot would be a more feasible situation. Still, with even this level of capability available to anyone with the cash, imagine what someone could do with the resources of a national government. They might even have long distance laser night vision!

Single Molecule Detects Light

Everything is getting smaller all the time. Computers used to take rooms, then desks, and now they fit in your pocket or on your wrist. Researchers that investigate light sensors have known that individual diarylethene molecules can exist in two states: one where it conducts electricity and one where it doesn’t. A visible photon causes the molecule to be electrically open and ultraviolet causes it to close. But there’s a problem.

light600Placing electrodes on the molecule interferes with the process. Depending on the kind of electrode, the switch will get stuck in the on or off position. Researchers at Peking University in Beijing determined that placing some buffering material between the molecule and the electrodes would reduce the interference enough to maintain correct operation. What’s more the switches remain operable for a year, which is unusually long for this kind of construct.

Using chemical vapor deposition and electron beam lithography, the team produced over 40 working single molecule switches. These devices could be useful in optical computing and other applications. Future work will include developing multilevel switches comprised of multiple molecules.

If you want something more macroscopic, you might try using an LED to sense light. A switch is fine, but sometimes you want to generate a signal.

Graphene Optical Boom Emits Light with No Diode

When a supersonic aircraft goes faster than the speed of sound, it produces a shockwave or sonic boom. MIT researchers have found a similar optical effect in graphene that causes an optical boom and could provide a new way to convert electricity into light.

The light emission occurs due to two odd properties of graphene: first, light gets trapped on the surface of graphene, effectively slowing it down. In addition, electrons pass through at very high speeds. Interestingly, the speeds are nearly the same–that is, electrons and trapped light travel at almost the same speed. The researchers found a way to make the electrons move faster than the speed of light (in the graphene) and thus created Cerenkov emissions. Because of the structure of graphene, the resulting light is intense and tightly focused.

The researchers speculate that this technique could be important in building graphene-based optical chips. We’ve talked about mixed graphene and semiconductor chips before. Graphene is pretty exotic stuff. It can even fold itself.

[HomoFaciens] Shows Off With DIY Paper Printer

[HomoFaciens] is always making us feel silly about our purchases. Did we really need to buy a nice set of stepper motors for that automation project? Couldn’t we have just used some epoxy and a threaded rod to make an encoder? Did we need to spend hours reading through the documentation for an industrial inkjet head? Couldn’t we just have asked ourselves, “What would [HomoFaciens] do?” and then made a jailhouse tattoo gun attached to a broken printer carriage and some other household tech trash?

In his continuing work for his Hackaday prize entry, which we have covered before, his latest is a ink (…drop? ) printer. We think the goal is a Gingery book for CNC.  He begins to combine all his previous work into a complete assembly. The video, viewable after the break, starts by explaining the function of a salvaged printer carriage. A motor attached to a belt moves the carriage back and forth; the original linear encoder from the printer is used for positional feedback.

The base of the printer is a homemade y-carriage with another salvaged printer motor and encoder driving a threaded rod. The positional feedback for this axis is provided by a optical mouse gliding on a sheet of graph paper.  The printer nozzle is a cup of ink with a solenoid actuated needle in it. When the needle moves in a hole at the bottom, it dispenses ink.

As always, [HomoFaciens] makes something that is the very definition of a hack. Commenters will have to go elsewhere to leave their favorite debasement.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Optical Experiments Using Low Cost Lasercut Parts

Experimenting with optics can be great fun and educational. Trouble is, a lot of optical components are expensive. And other support paraphernalia such as optical benches, breadboards, and rails add to the cost. [Peter Walsh] and his team are working on designing a range of low-cost, easy to build, laser cut optics bench components. These are designed to be built using commonly available materials and tools and can be used as low-cost teaching tools for high-schools, home experimenters and hacker spaces.

They have designed several types of holders for mounting parts such as lasers, lenses, slits, glass slides, cuvettes and mirrors. The holder parts are cut from ¼ inch acrylic and designed to snap fit together, making assembly easy. The holders consist of two parts. One is a circular disk with three embedded neodymium magnets, which holds the optical part. The other is the base which has three adjustment screws which let you align the optical part. The magnets allow the circular disk to snap on to the screws on the base.

A scope for improvement here would be to use ball plunger screws instead of the regular ones. The point contact between the spherical ball at the end of the screw and the magnet can offer improved alignment. A heavy, solid table with a ferrous surface such as a thick sheet of steel can be used as a bench / breadboard. Laser cut alignment rods, with embedded magnets let you set up the various parts for your experiment. There’s a Wiki where they will be documenting the various experiments that can be performed with this set. And the source files for building the parts are available from the GitHub repository.

Check out the two videos below to see how the system works.

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Optical Rectenna Converts Light to DC

Using multiwall carbon nanotubes, researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology have created what they say are the first optical rectennas–antennas with rectifiers that produce DC current. The work could lead to new technology for advanced photodetectors, new ways to convert waste heat to electricity and, possibly, more efficient ways to capture solar energy.

A paper in Nature Nanotechnology describes how light striking the nanotube antennas create a charge that moves through attached rectifiers. Challenges included making the antennas small enough for optical wavelengths, and creating  diodes small enough and fast enough to work at the extremely short wavelengths. The rectifiers switch on and off at petahertz speeds (something the Institute says is a record).  Continue reading “Optical Rectenna Converts Light to DC”