An Evening With Space Shuttle Atlantis

When I got the call asking if I’d be willing to fly down to Kennedy Space Center and cover an event, I agreed immediately. Then about a week later, I remembered to call back and ask what I was supposed to be doing. Not that it mattered, I’d gladly write a few thousand words about the National Crocheting Championships if they started holding them at KSC. I hadn’t been there in years, since before the Space Shuttle program had ended, and I was eager to see the exhibit created for the fourth member of the Shuttle fleet, Atlantis.

So you can imagine my reaction when I learned that the event Hackaday wanted me to cover, the Cornell Cup Finals, would culminate in a private viewing of the Atlantis exhibit after normal park hours. After which, the winners of the competition would be announced during a dinner held under the orbiter itself. It promised to be a memorable evening for the students, a well deserved reward for the incredible work they put in during the competition.

Thinking back on it now, the organizers of the Cornell Cup and the staff at Kennedy Space Center should truly be commended. It was an incredible night, and everyone I spoke to felt humbled by the unique experience. There was a real, palpable, energy about it that you simply can’t manufacture. Of course, nobody sitting under Atlantis that night was more excited than the students. Though I may have come in as a close second.

I’ll admit it was somewhat bittersweet to see such an incredible piece of engineering turned into a museum piece; it looked as if Atlantis could blast off for another mission at any moment. But there’s no denying that the exhibit does a fantastic job of celebrating the history and accomplishments of the Space Shuttle program. NASA officially considers the surviving Shuttle orbiters to be on a “Mission of Inspiration”, so rather than being mothballed in a hangar somewhere in the desert, they are out on display where the public can get up close and personal with one of humanities greatest achievements. Judging by the response I saw, the mission is going quite well indeed.

If you have the means to do so, you should absolutely make the trip to Cape Canaveral to see Atlantis and all the other fascinating pieces of space history housed at KSC. There’s absolutely no substitute for seeing the real thing, but if you can’t quite make the trip to Florida, hopefully this account courtesy of your humble scribe will serve to give you a taste of what the exhibit has to offer.

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Exploring The Dell N1108T-ON Ethernet Switch

In an era where everything seems to be getting “smarter” every year, it will probably come as no surprise to find that even relatively middling networking hardware is now packing advanced features and considerable computational power. A case in point is the Dell N1108T-ON Ethernet switch. Despite only costing around $100 USD on the second hand market, [Ben Cox] discovered this particular switch was capable of a lot more than what was advertised by poking around its onboard operating system.

It all started by plugging into the serial port on the front of the switch, which [Ben] happily notes is an integrated FTDI USB serial adapter to make life easy. Booting into recovery mode gave him local shell access, and some poking around determines it’s the sort of BusyBox-powered Linux system that you’d expect on an embedded device. The biggest discoveries were that it was running a relatively recent kernel (3.8.1), and that it apparently had Python installed.

The reverse shell Python script

From there, [Ben] found out that these switches have a feature where the administrator can install and run Python “applications” by packaging them up as tarballs and copying them from a USB flash drive. So he wrote up a simple Python program that used the socket library to open up a reverse shell to his desktop computer, and to his surprise, it worked perfectly on the first try. Now with root access, the fun really started.

The next step was getting an SSH installed and running on the switch, so that he didn’t have to do the reverse shell trick every time. He then started installing the packages necessary to turn the switch into a secure VPN tunnel with Wireguard. This took a little fiddling as [Ben] didn’t have the option of installing the normal Wireguard kernel module, but he eventually got the necessary tools modified and cross-compiled to ARM. He believes this is just the start of what’s capable on devices like this, and we’re interested in seeing where the community goes from here.

We’ve seen hackers add management capability to a “dumb” unmanaged switch in the past, but software modifications like this promise to make the creation of custom, secure, networks far easier even on a hacker’s budget. A lot has certainly changed since the last time we saw somebody really dive into a professional Ethernet switch.

Modeling The Classic 555 Timer On A Breadboard

Over the years, readers have often commented that microcontrollers (or more specifically, the Arduino) are overkill for many of the projects they get used in. The admonition that the creator “Should have used a 555” has become something of a rallying cry for those who think modern electronic hobbyists are taking the easy way out.

But what if you think even the lowly 555 timer is overkill? In that case, perhaps you’ll be interested in a recent blog post by [TheMagicSmoke], where the reader is walked through the process of creating an analog of the classic integrated circuit on a somewhat larger scale. Finally, we can replace that cheap and handy IC with a mass of wires and components.

Alright, so you’ve probably guessed that there’s no practical reason to do this. Outside of some theoretical MacGyver situation in which you needed to create a square wave using parts salvaged from devices laying around, anyway. Rather, the project is presented as a good way to become more confident with the low-level operation of electronic circuits, which is something we think everyone can agree is a good thing.

The components used include a 74S00 quad NAND gate, a LM358 dual operational amplifier, a 2N2222A transistor, and a handful of passive components. [TheMagicSmoke] not only explains how the circuit is constructed, but shows the math behind how it all works. Finally, an oscilloscope is used to verify it’s operating as expected.

We respect a hacker on a mission, just last month [TheMagicSmoke] put together a similar “back to basics” post on how to interface with an I2C EEPROM.

You Wouldn’t Download A Nuclear Reactor, But Could You?

By pretty much any metric you care to use, the last couple of decades has been very good for the open source movement. There was plenty of pushback in the early days, back when the only people passionate about the idea were the Graybeards in the IT department. But as time went on, more and more developers and eventually companies saw the benefit of sharing what they were working on. Today, open source is effectively the law of the land in many fields, and you don’t have to look far to find the community openly denouncing groups who are keeping their source under lock and key.

The open source submarine that won 2017 Hackaday Prize.

In the last few years, we’ve even seen the idea gain traction in the hardware field. While it’s not nearly as prevalent as opening up the software side of things, today it’s not uncommon to see hardware schematics and PCB design files included in project documentation. So not only can you download an open source operating system, web browser, and office suite, but you can also pull down all the information you need to build everything from a handheld game system to an autonomous submarine.

With so many projects pulling back the curtain, it’s not unreasonable to wonder where the limits are. There’s understandably some concerns about the emerging field of biohacking, and anyone with a decent 3D printer can download the files necessary to produce a rudimentary firearm. Now that the open source genie is out of the bottle, it seems there’s precious little that you can’t download from your favorite repository.

Scratching an exceptionally surprising entry off that list is Transatomic, who late last year uploaded the design for their TAP-520 nuclear reactor to GitHub. That’s right, now anyone with git, some uranium, and a few billion dollars of seed money can have their very own Molten Salt Reactor (MSR). Well, that was the idea at least.

So six months after Transatomic dumped a little under 100 MB worth of reactor documentation on GitHub, is the world any closer to forkable nuclear power? Let’s find out.

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Wireless Mouse Power-Up: Logitech MX Master Gets USB-C And Big Battery

When the internal rechargeable battery in his wireless mouse died, [cmot17] decided it was the perfect excuse for making a couple of modifications. The Logitech MX Master isn’t exactly a budget mouse to begin with, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement. With the addition of a larger battery and USB-C charging port, a very nice mouse just got even better.

As it turns out, there’s plenty of empty space inside the Logitech MX Master, which made it easy to add a larger battery. The original 500 mAh pack was replaced with a new 950 mAh one, which is often sold under the model number 603443. Realistically, if you wanted to go even bigger it looks like any three wire 3.7 V Li-Po pack would probably work in this application, but nearly doubling the capacity is already a pretty serious bump.

Adding the USB-C connector ended up being quite a bit trickier. [cmot17] ordered a breakout board from Adafruit that was just a little too large to fit inside the mouse. In the end, not only did some of the case need to get cut away internally, but the breakout PCB itself got a considerable trimming. Once it was shoehorned in there, a healthy dose of hot glue was used to make sure nothing shifts around.

Since [cmot17] didn’t change the mouse’s original electronics, the newly upgraded Logitech MX Master won’t actually benefit from the faster charging offered by USB-C. If anything, it’s actually going to charge slower thanks to the beefier battery. But considering how infrequently it will need to be charged with the upgraded capacity (Logitech advertised 40 days with the original 500 mAh battery), we don’t think it will be a problem.

Over the years, we’ve seen plenty of stuff crammed into the lowly mouse. Everything from a full computer, to malicious firmware code has been grafted onto that most ubiquitous of computer peripherals. So in the grand scheme of things, this is perhaps one of the most practical mouse modifications to ever grace these pages.

Simulating The Enigma’s Oddball Cousin

Even if you wouldn’t describe yourself as a history buff, you’re likely familiar with the Enigma machine from World War II. This early electromechanical encryption device was used extensively by Nazi Germany to confound Allied attempts to eavesdrop on their communications, and the incredible effort put in by cryptologists such as Alan Turing to crack the coded messages it created before the end of the War has been the inspiration for several books and movies. But did you know that there were actually several offshoots of the “standard” Enigma?

For their entry into the 2019 Hackaday Prize, [Arduino Enigma] is looking to shine a little light on one of these unusual variants, the Enigma Z30. This “Baby Enigma” was intended for situations where only numerical data needed to be encoded. Looking a bit like a mechanical calculator, it dropped the German QWERTZ keyboard, and instead had ten buttons and ten lights numbered 0 through 9. If all you needed to do was send off numerical codes, the Z30 was a (relatively) small and lightweight alternative for the full Enigma machine.

Creating an open source hardware simulator of the Z30 posses a rather unique challenge. While you can’t exactly order the standard Enigma from Digi-Key, there are at least enough surviving examples that they’ve been thoroughly documented. But nobody even knew the Z30 existed until 2004, and even then, it wasn’t until 2015 that a surviving unit was actually discovered in Stockholm.

Of course, [Arduino Enigma] does have some experience with such matters. By modifying the work that was already done for full-scale Enigma simulation on the Arduino, it only took a few hours to design a custom PCB to hold an Arduino Nano, ten buttons with matching LEDs, and of course the hardware necessary for the iconic rotors along the top.

The Z30 simulator looks like it will make a fantastic desk toy and a great way to help visualize how the full-scale Enigma machine worked. With parts for the first prototypes already on order, it shouldn’t be too long before we get our first good look at this very unique historical recreation.

Up Your Game With A Battle Tested Input Device

If you’re looking to add some realism to your flight setup without converting the guest bedroom into a full-scale cockpit simulator, you might be interested in the compromise [MelkorsGreatestHits] came up with. He bolted a genuine military keypad to his PC joystick and instantly added 100% more Top Gun to his desktop.

The Rockwell Collins manufactured keypad came from eBay, and appears to have been used in aircraft such as the EA-6B Prowler and Lockheed C-130 Hercules for data input. Each key on the pad is wired to the 37 pin connector on the rear, which [MelkorsGreatestHits] eventually mapped out after some painstaking work with a breakout board.

Once the matrix was figured out, he made up a cable that would go from the connector to a Teensy 2.0 microcontroller. The Teensy reads the keypad status and converts button presses over to standard USB HID that can be picked up in any game.

The joystick side of the build is a VKB Gunfighter, which is already a pretty nice piece of kit on its own. No modifications were necessary to the joystick itself, other than the fact that it’s now mounted to the top of a black project enclosure. It still connects directly to the computer via its original USB cable, as the keypad has its own separate connection. As luck would have it, the joystick is almost a perfect fit in the opening on the keypad, which presumably would have been for a small screen when installed in the aircraft.

Finding cockpit components from military aircraft on eBay is not as hard as you may think; something to keep in mind if you ever decide to tackle that custom flight simulator build.