Humanity has been wondering about whether life exists beyond our little backwater planet for so long that we’ve developed a kind of cultural bias as to how the answer to this central question will be revealed. Most of us probably imagine that NASA or some other space agency will schedule a press conference, an assembled panel of scientific luminaries will announce the findings, and newspapers around the world will blare “WE ARE NOT ALONE!” headlines. We’ve all seen that movie before, so that’s the way it has to be, right?
Probably not. Short of an improbable event like an alien spacecraft landing while a Google Street View car was driving by or receiving an unambiguously intelligent radio message from the stars, the conclusion that life exists now or once did outside our particular gravity well is likely to be reached in a piecewise process, an accretion of evidence built up over a long time until on balance, the only reasonable conclusion is that we are not alone. And that’s exactly what the announcement at the end of last year that the Mars rover Perseverance had discovered evidence of organic molecules in the rocks of Jezero crater was — another piece of the puzzle, and another step toward answering the fundamental question of the uniqueness of life.
Discovering organic molecules on Mars is far from proof that life once existed there. But it’s a step on the way, as well as a great excuse to look into the scientific principles and engineering of the instruments that made this discovery possible — the whimsically named SHERLOC and WATSON.
Continue reading “SHERLOC And The Search For Life On Mars”
One of the brave but unsuccessful plays from Nokia during their glory years was the N-Gage, an attempt to merge a Symbian smartphone and a handheld game console. It may not have managed to dethrone the Game Boy Advance but it still has a band of enthusiasts, and among them is [Michael Fitzmayer] who has produced a CMake-based toolchain for the original Symbian SDK. This is intended to ease development on the devices by making them more accessible to the tools of the 2020s, and may serve to bring a new generation of applications to those old Nokias still lying forgotten in dusty drawers.
In much of the public imagination, the invention of the smartphone came with the release of the first Apple iPhone in 2007. Hackaday readers will of course trace the smartphone back much further than that to an original IBM prototype, and will remind any doubters that the Nokias which the iPhone vanquished were very successful smartphones without any of Cupertino’s magic in sight. Nokia’s tragedy was that they appeared not to understand what they had in Symbian, and released a bewildering array of devices intended to satisfy every possible market without recognizing that the market they needed to serve was their customers being easily able to run the apps of their choice on the things.
Symbian itself has long ago become a piece of abandonware, but during its chequered history there was a period in which an open-source version was released. It would be nice to think that projects such as this one might revive interest in this capable yet forgotten operating system, as with the passage of a decade the cost of hardware which might run it has fallen to the point of affordability. Does anyone want to relive the 2000s?
Header image: Evan-Amos, Public domain.
Today’s supply chain issues can make it hard to buy microcontrollers, or really any kind of semiconductor. But for those keeping retrocomputers alive, this problem has always existed: ancient components might have been out of production for decades, with a dwindling supply of second-hand parts or “new old stock” as the only option. If a rare CPU breaks, you might have no option but to replace the entire computer.
[Piotr Patek] ran into this issue when he obtained an Elektronika MK-85 programmable calculator with a broken CPU. Unable to find a replacement, he decided instead to build a pin-compatible CPU unit based on an STM32 microcontroller. Of course no modern CPU is pin-compatible with a Soviet design from the 1980s, so [Piotr] had to design a small interposer PCB to match the original pinout. This also gave him enough space to add an efficient DC/DC converter chip that generates the 2.5 V supply for the STM32.
As for the software, [Piotr] managed to port the original BASIC interpreter, which was written in PDP-11 assembly, to a modern equivalent written in C. While he was at it, he fixed a few bugs that had been sitting there for about 35 years. The updated CPU also allows the MK-85 to run circles around its contemporary siblings: [Piotr] timed it to be about thirty times faster than the original chip, while using a comparable amount of power.
If you also happen to have an MK-85 with a dodgy CPU, you’ll be pleased to find that the schematics and source code to [Piotr]’s modification are all available on his blog. This is probably the first calculator CPU update we’ve seen, although we’ve featured other ancient calculators updated with new firmware, and some completely new calculator designs based on classic hardware.
Thanks for the tip, [cmholm]!