Custom Keyboard Goes Split, Gets Thin, Acquires Stained Wood

The hardware and software required to make DIY keyboards happen has gotten more and more accessible, and that means it’s easier than ever to make one’s ideal input device a reality from the ground up. For [Cameron Sun], his Ellipsis Split mechanical keyboard buildlog details his second effort, refining his original design from lessons learned the first time around. The new keyboard is slim, split into two, and has integrated wrist supports made from stained wood. The painting and wood treatment took a lot of work and patience, but it certainly paid off because the result looks amazing!

Small integrated OLED screen shows the current mode.

When we saw [Cameron]’s first custom keyboard, we admired the unique aluminum case and some nice touches like the physical toggle switches. Those tactile switches allow changing the keyboard to different modes, while also serving as a visual indicator. [Cameron] liked those switches too, but alas they just didn’t fit into the slim new design. However, he’s very happy with swapping modes in software and using a small OLED display as an indicator. What kind of different modes does his keyboard have? There’s Windows mode and Mac mode (which changes some hotkeys) as well as modes that change which keys in the thumb clusters do what (moving the space key to the left for easier gaming, for example.) After all, it’s not just the physical layout that can be customized with a DIY keyboard.

Interested in making your own custom keyboard? Be sure to look into this breakaway keyboard PCB concept before you start, because it just might make your custom build a lot easier.

Exploring The Clouds Of Venus; It’s Not Fantasy, But It Will Take Specialized Spacecraft

By now, you’ve likely heard that scientists have found a potential sign of biological life on Venus. Through a series of radio telescope observations in 2017 and 2019, they were able to confirm the presence of phosphine gas high in the planet’s thick atmosphere. Here on Earth, the only way this gas is produced outside of the laboratory is through microbial processes. The fact that it’s detectable at such high concentrations in the Venusian atmosphere means we either don’t know as much as we thought we did about phosphine, or more tantalizingly, that the spark of life has been found on our nearest planetary neighbor.

Venus, as seen by Mariner 10 in 1974

To many, the idea that life could survive on Venus is difficult to imagine. While it’s technically the planet most like Earth in terms of size, mass, composition, and proximity to the Sun, the surface of this rocky world is absolutely hellish; with a runaway greenhouse effect producing temperatures in excess of 460 C (840 F). Life, at least as we currently know it, would find no safe haven on the surface of Venus. Even the Soviet Venera landers, sent to the planet in the 1980s, were unable to survive the intense heat and pressure for more than a few hours.

While the surface may largely be outside of our reach, the planet’s exceptionally dense atmosphere is another story entirely. At an altitude of approximately 50 kilometers, conditions inside the Venusian atmosphere are far more forgiving. The atmospheric pressure at this altitude is almost identical to surface-level pressures on Earth, and the average temperature is cool enough that liquid water can form. While the chemical composition of the atmosphere is not breathable by Earthly standards, and the clouds of sulfuric acid aren’t particularly welcoming, it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that simple organisms could thrive in this CO2-rich environment. If there really is life on Venus, many speculate it will be found hiding in this relatively benign microcosm high in the clouds.

In short, all the pieces seem to be falling into place. Observations confirm a telltale marker of biological life is in the upper levels of the Venusian atmosphere, and we know from previous studies that this region is arguably one of the most Earth-like environments in the solar system. It’s still far too early to claim we’ve discovered extraterrestrial life, but it’s not hard to see why people are getting so excited.

But this isn’t the first time scientists have turned their gaze towards Earth’s twin. In fact, had things gone differently, NASA might have sent a crew out to Venus after the Apollo program had completed its survey of the Moon. If that mission had launched back in the 1970s, it could have fundamentally reshaped our understanding of the planet; and perhaps even our understanding of humanity’s place in the cosmos.

Continue reading “Exploring The Clouds Of Venus; It’s Not Fantasy, But It Will Take Specialized Spacecraft”

Historical Satellite Tracker Saved From Scrap Heap

In a bit of rare Australian space news, the  Arnhemland Historical Society has managed to save one of the satellite trackers used during the 1960s and 1970s from the scrap heap. As the Space Race intensified during the 1950s and 1960s, every nation wanted a piece of this new technology. A number of European nations banded together in the form of ELDO, the European Launcher Development Organisation.

Australia was a partner in this program, with launches of the Europa-1 and Europa-2 rockets taking place from Woomera, South Australia. Initially the UK’s cancelled Blue Streak IRBM program provided the first stage for Europa-1, but this was later replaced with the French Diamant. France also provided the Coralie second stage in addition to the German-developed Astris third stage.

The satellite tracker being dismantled at the South Australian defence base before it was trucked north. (Photo: Arnhemland Historical Society)

The first launch of the Europa-1 took place in 1966, with the rocket performing well, but inaccurate readings from a radar station leading to the rocket to be wrongly instructed to self-destruct. Of nine launches, four were successful, with the satellite trackers at Arnhemland providing tracking support. Ultimately, the many technical setbacks led to the demise of ELDO, and it was merged by the 1970s into what is now the European Space Agency, with its main launch site in Kourou, French Guiana.

Despite the lack of success, these early days at Woomera were instrumental in getting Europe’s feet wet in the development of the Ariane rockets. Woomera’s rocketing days may also not be over yet, with NASA having announced  in 2019 plans to use Woomera for launches.

Maybe one day Arnhemland will have its own space port, with the old satellite track on display to remind of those early days.

[Top photo: The ELDO satellite trackers were state-of-the-art when they stood in Gove in the 1960s. (Supplied: Arnhemland Historical Society)]

(Thanks, David)

What’s Inside An FPGA? Ken Shirriff Has (Again) The Answer

FPGAs are somewhat the IPv6 of integrated circuits — they’ve been around longer than you might think, they let you do awesome things that people are intrigued by initially, but they’ve never really broke out of their niches until rather recently. There’s still a bit of a myth and mystery surrounding them, and as with any technology that has grown vastly in complexity over the years, it’s sometimes best to go back to its very beginning in order to understand it. Well, who’d be better at taking an extra close look at a chip than [Ken Shirriff], so in his latest endeavor, he reverse engineered the very first FPGA known to the world: the Xilinx XC2064.

If you ever wished for a breadboard-friendly FPGA, the XC2064 can scratch that itch, although with its modest 64 configurable logic blocks, there isn’t all that much else it can do — certainly not compared to even the smallest and cheapest of its modern successors. And that’s the beauty of this chip as a reverse engineering target, there’s nothing else than the core essence of an FPGA. After introducing the general concepts of FPGAs, [Ken] (who isn’t known to be too shy to decap a chip in order to look inside) continued in known manner with die pictures in order to map the internal components’ schematics to the actual silicon and to make sense of it all. His ultimate goal: to fully understand and dissect the XC2064’s bitstream.

Of course, reverse engineering FPGA bitstreams isn’t new, and with little doubt, building a toolchain based on its results helped to put Lattice on the map in the maker community (which they didn’t seem to value at first, but still soon enough). We probably won’t see the same happening for Xilinx, but who knows what [Ken]’s up to next, and what others will make of this.