Space Propulsion: Separating Fact From Science Fiction

An unfortunate property of science-fiction is that it is, tragically, fiction. Instead of soaring between the stars and countless galaxies out there, we find ourselves hitherto confined to this planet we call Earth. Only a handful of human beings have ever made it as far as the Earth’s solitary moon, and just two of our unmanned probes have made it out of the Earth’s solar system after many decades of travel. It’s enough to make one despair that we’ll never get anywhere near the fantastic future that was seemingly promised to us by science-fiction.

Yet perhaps not all hope is lost. Over the past decades, we have improved our chemical rockets, are experimenting with various types of nuclear rockets, and ion thrusters are a common feature on modern satellites as well as for missions within the solar system. And even if the hype around the EMDrive vanished as quickly as it had appeared, the Alcubierre faster-than-light drive is still a tantalizing possibility after many years of refinements.

Even as physics conspires against our desire for a life among the stars, what do our current chances look like? Let’s have a look at the propulsion methods which we have today, and what we can look forward to with varying degrees of certainty.

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Logic Chip Teardown From Early 1990s IBM ES/9000 Mainframe

The 1980s and early 1990s were a bit of an odd time for semiconductor technology, with the various transistor technologies that had been used over the decades slowly making way for CMOS technology. The 1991-vintage IBM ES/9000 mainframe was one of the last systems to be built around bipolar transistor technology, with [Ken Shirriff] tearing into one of the processor modules (TCM) that made up one of these mainframes.

A Thermal Conduction Module from an IBM ES/9000 mainframe.

Five of these Thermal Conduction Modules (127.5 mm a side) made up the processor in these old mainframes. Most of note are the use of the aforementioned bipolar transistors and the use of DCS-based (differential current switch) logic. With the already power-hungry bipolar transistors driven to their limit in the ES/9000, and the use of rather massive DCS gates, each TCM was not only fed many amperes of electricity, but also capable of dissipating up to 600 Watts of power.

Each TCM didn’t contain a single large die of bipolar transistors either, but instead many smaller dies were bonded on a specially prepared ceramic layer in which the wiring was added through a very precise process. While an absolute marvel of engineering, the ES/9000 was essentially a flop, and by 1997 IBM too would move fully to CMOS transistor technology.

Over the years we’ve featured a lot of [Ken]’s work, perhaps you’d like to know more about his techniques.

MicroLEDs: Lighting The Way To A Solid OLED Competitor

We’re accustomed to seeing giant LED-powered screens in sports venues and outdoor displays. What would it take to bring this same technology into your living room? Very, very tiny LEDs. MicroLEDs.

MicroLED screens have been rumored to be around the corner for almost a decade now, which means that the time is almost right for them to actually become a reality. And certainly display technology has come a long way from the early cathode-ray tube (CRT) technology that powered the television and the home computer revolution. In the late 1990s, liquid-crystal display (LCD) technology became a feasible replacement for CRTs, offering a thin, distortion-free image with pixel-perfect image reproduction. LCDs also allowed for displays to be put in many new places, in addition to finally having that wall-mounted television.

Since that time, LCD’s flaws have become a sticking point compared to CRTs. The nice features of CRTs such as very fast response time, deep blacks and zero color shift, no matter the angle, have led to a wide variety of LCD technologies to recapture some of those features. Plasma displays seemed promising for big screens for a while, but organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) have taken over and still-in-development technologies like SED and FED off the table.

While OLED is very good in terms of image quality, its flaws including burn-in and uneven wear of the different organic dyes responsible for the colors. MicroLEDs hope to capitalize on OLED’s weaknesses by bringing brighter screens with no burn-in using inorganic LED technology, just very, very small.

So what does it take to scale a standard semiconductor LED down to the size of a pixel, and when can one expect to buy MicroLED displays? Let’s take a look. Continue reading “MicroLEDs: Lighting The Way To A Solid OLED Competitor”

Uplink System For High-Altitude Balloons

Most uses of high-altitude balloons are fairly simple: send balloon up, have it beam down measurements and images. While this is indeed straightforward, it is also very limiting. This is why [Dave Akerman] has been working on adding to the HAB balloons he regularly flies. This builds on the work [Dave] did back in 2015 with adding LoRa transceiver RF communication.

Since LoRa transceivers are by definition capable of bidirectional communication, this was very useful for adding simple but essential features such as retransmission of data in case e.g. part of some image or telemetry data is missing. Other interesting things one can do with bidirectional transmission include controlling individual balloons, and having them transmit or relay information between balloons.

A tricky thing which [Dave] describes in the blog post is making sure that both ends of the connection are actually listening using timing settings. The use of encryption is also strongly recommended, unless you want to risk someone hijacking your balloons. This has now all been implemented in the HAB Explora app for Android, as well as the application for Windows.

Header image: Antonino Vara, CC BY 4.0.

Is It A Lawnmower? Is It An RPi IRC Server? It’s Both!

Although first presented to the world as an April 1st joke, [Jotun]’s IRC-enabled lawnmower began life as the result of casual bantering among folk on the Undernet IRC network. When the project worked out better than probably anyone could have expected, it was presented as the Green Future of Undernet on April 1st. Joking aside, the project actually is pretty interesting and well-executed.

At the core is a Remington RM110, a fairly basic gas-powered push lawnmower. After years of use it wasn’t running so well any more, so [Jotun] took it apart and cleaned the engine, despite never having done so before. With that grimy task completed, a subsequent remark in an Undernet channel about linking the lawnmower to Undernet led to a Raspberry Pi 4 and various other components being ordered.

The view from the driver’s seat with the server box installed.

The write-up by [Jotun] provides a pretty good overview of the project’s history: from getting the Raspberry Pi 4 working with a UPS add-on, to getting the IRC server software working and serving clients, and putting a weather- and dust-proof box together with enough filtered ventilation to ensure that the freshly mowed grass doesn’t clog up the Raspberry Pi while keeping everything cool.

As a bonus, the system tracks the wheel revolutions so that [Jotun] can keep track of the square kilometers of grass he has cut, and reports this with an IRC bot to anyone interested on Undernet, in the channel #lawnmower. The only thing that isn’t working well yet so far is the live camera feed from the lawnmower, due to the obvious vibration issues, but [Jotun] reckons that can be solved in time.


TCam-Mini: Adding Wireless To Flir Lepton Thermal Imaging Sensors

With how expensive thermal cameras are, why not build your own? This is the goal with which [Dan Julio] set out a while ago, covering the project in great detail. While the ultimate goal is to create a stand-alone solution, with its own screen, storage and processing, the TCam-Mini is an interesting platform. Using the 160×120 pixel FLIR Lepton 3.5 thermal sensor, and combining it with a custom PCB and ESP32 module for wireless, he created a wireless thermal camera called the TCam-Mini along with accompanying software that can display the radiometric data.

The project is available on GitHub, as well as as a GroupGets crowd-funding campaign, where $50 gets one a TCam-Mini board, minus the $199 Lepton 3.5 sensor. Not cheap, but quite a steal relative to e.g. the FLIR One Pro camera add-on module. Compared to the aforementioned FLIR One Pro, there’s a definite benefit in having a more portable unit that is not reliant on a smartphone and accompanying FLIR app. Being able to load the radiometric data directly into a desktop application for processing makes it a closer match to the professional thermal cameras which [Dan] states that he’d like to get as close to in terms of features as possible.

Recently [Dan] has also begun to further characterize these Lepton sensors, in order to see whether their accuracy can be improved from the rated +/- 5-10 °C. For this he repurposed an old in-ear thermometer calibration device. Along with tweaking the ESP32 firmware, there is still a lot that can be done with the TCam-Mini, but it sure looks like a fun project to tinker with if one is into Leptons.

Direct Memory Access: Data Transfer Without Micro-Management

In the most simple computer system architecture, all control lies with the CPU (Central Processing Unit). This means not only the execution of commands that affect the CPU’s internal register or cache state, but also the transferring of any bytes from memory to to devices, such as storage and interfaces like serial, USB or Ethernet ports. This approach is called ‘Programmed Input/Output’, or PIO, and was used extensively into the early 1990s for for example PATA storage devices, including ATA-1, ATA-2 and CompactFlash.

Obviously, if the CPU has to handle each memory transfer, this begins to impact system performance significantly. For each memory transfer request, the CPU has to interrupt other work it was doing, set up the transfer and execute it, and restore its previous state before it can continue. As storage and external interfaces began to get faster and faster, this became less acceptable. Instead of PIO taking up a few percent of the CPU’s cycles, a big transfer could take up most cycles, making the system grind to a halt until the transfer completed.

DMA (Direct Memory Access) frees the CPU from these menial tasks. With DMA, peripheral devices do not have to ask the CPU to fetch some data for them, but can do it themselves. Unfortunately, this means multiple systems vying for the same memory pool’s content, which can cause problems. So let’s look at how DMA works, with an eye to figuring out how it can work for us.
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