Astro Pi Mk II, The New Raspberry Pi Hardware Headed To The Space Station

Back in 2015, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Tim Peake brought a pair of specially equipped Raspberry Pi computers, nicknamed Izzy and Ed, onto the International Space Station and invited students back on Earth to develop software for them as part of the Astro Pi Challenge. To date, more than 50,000 young people have had their code run on one of the single-board computers; making them arguably the most popular, and surely the most traveled, Raspberry Pis in the solar system.

While Izzy and Ed are still going strong, the ESA has decided it’s about time these veteran Raspberries finally get the retirement they’re due. Set to make the journey to the ISS in December aboard a SpaceX Cargo Dragon, the new Astro Pi MK II hardware looks quite similar to the original 2015 version at first glance. But a peek inside its 6063-grade aluminium flight case reveals plenty of new and improved gear, including a Raspberry Pi 4 Model B with 8 GB RAM.

The beefier hardware will no doubt be appreciated by students looking to push the envelope. While the majority of Python programs submitted to the Astro Pi program did little more than poll the current reading from the unit’s temperature or humidity sensors and scroll messages for the astronauts on the Astro Pi’s LED matrix, some of the more advanced projects were aimed at performing legitimate space research. From using the onboard camera to image the Earth and make weather predictions to attempting to map the planet’s magnetic field, code submitted from teams of older students will certainly benefit from the improved computational performance and expanded RAM of the newest Pi.

As with the original Astro Pi, the ESA and the Raspberry Pi Foundation have shared plenty of technical details about these space-rated Linux boxes. After all, students are expected to develop and test their code on essentially the same hardware down here on Earth before it gets beamed up to the orbiting computers. So let’s take a quick look at the new hardware inside Astro Pi MK II, and what sort of research it should enable for students in 2022 and beyond.

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Hackaday Links: March 14, 2021

It’ll be Pi Day when this article goes live, at least for approximately half the globe west of the prime meridian. We always enjoy Pi Day, not least for the excuse to enjoy pie and other disc-shaped foods. It’s also cool to ponder the mysteries of a transcendental number, which usually get a good treatment by the math YouTube community. This year was no disappointment in this regard, as we found two good pi-related videos, both by Matt Parker over at Standup Maths. The first one deals with raising pi to the pi to the pi to the pi and how that may or may not result in an integer that’s tens of trillions of digits long. The second and more entertaining video is a collaboration with Steve Mould which aims to estimate the value of pi by measuring the volume of a molecular monolayer of oleic acid floating on water. The process was really interesting and the results were surprisingly accurate; this might make a good exercise to do with kids to show them what pi is all about.

Remember basic physics and first being exposed to the formula for universal gravitation? We sure do, and we remember thinking that it should be possible to calculate the force between us and our classmates. It is, of course, but actually measuring the attractive force would be another thing entirely. But researchers have done just that, using objects substantially smaller than the average high school student: two 2-mm gold balls. The apparatus the Austrian researchers built used 90-milligram gold balls, one stationary and one on a suspended arm. The acceleration between the two moves the suspended ball, which pivots a mirror attached to the arm to deflect a laser beam. That they were able to tease a signal from the background noise of electrostatic, seismic, and hydrodynamic forces is quite a technical feat.

We noticed a lot of interest in the Antikythera mechanism this week, which was apparently caused by the announcement of the first-ever complete computational model of the ancient device’s inner workings. The team from University College London used all the available data gleaned from the 82 known fragments of the mechanism to produce a working model of the mechanism in software. This in turn was used to create some wonderful CGI animations of the mechanism at work — this video is well worth the half-hour it takes to watch. The UCL team says they’re now at work building a replica of the mechanism using modern techniques. One of the team says he has some doubts that ancient construction methods could have resulted in some of the finer pieces of the mechanism, like the concentric axles needed for some parts. We think our friend Clickspring might have something to say about that, as he seems to be doing pretty well building his replica using nothing but tools and methods that were available to the original maker. And by doing so, he managed to discern a previously unknown feature of the mechanism.

We got a tip recently that JOGL, or Just One Giant Lab, is offering microgrants for open-source science projects aimed at tackling the problems of COVID-19. The grants are for 4,000โ‚ฌ and require a minimal application and reporting process. The window for application is closing, though — March 21 is the deadline. If you’ve got an open-source COVID-19 project that could benefit from a cash infusion to bring to fruition, this might be your chance.

And finally, we stumbled across a video highlighting some of the darker aspects of amateur radio, particularly those who go through tremendous expense and effort just to be a pain in the ass. The story centers around the Mt. Diablo repeater, an amateur radio repeater located in California. Apparently someone took offense at the topics of conversation on the machine, and deployed what they called the “Annoy-o-Tron” to express their displeasure. The device consisted of a Baofeng transceiver, a cheap MP3 player loaded with obnoxious content, and a battery. Encased in epoxy resin and concrete inside a plastic ammo can, the jammer lugged the beast up a hill 20 miles (32 km) from the repeater, trained a simple Yagi antenna toward the site, and walked away. It lasted for three days and while the amateurs complained about the misuse of their repeater, they apparently didn’t do a thing about it. The jammer was retrieved six weeks after the fact and hasn’t been heard from since.

Do Androids Search For Cosmic Rays?

We always like citizen science projects, so we were very interested in DECO, the Distributed Electronic Cosmic-ray Observatory. That sounds like a physical location, but it is actually a network of cell phones that can detect cosmic rays using an ordinary Android phone’s camera sensor.

There may be some privacy concerns as the phone camera will take a picture and upload it every so often, and it probably also taxes the battery a bit. However, if you really want to do citizen science, maybe dedicate an old phone, put electrical tape over the lens and keep it plugged in. In fact, they encourage you to cover the lens to reduce background light and keep the phone plugged in.

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Citizen Science Hack Chat With Ben Krasnow

Join us on Wednesday, April 29 at noon Pacific for the Citizen Science Hack Chat with Ben Krasnow!

For most of human history, there was no such thing as a professional scientist. Those who dabbled in “natural philosophy” were mainly men — and occasionally women — of privilege and means, given to spend their time looking into the workings of the world. Most went where their interest lay, exploring this facet of geology or that aspect of astronomy, often combining disciplines or switching to new ones as they felt like it. They had the freedom to explore the universe without the pressure to “publish or perish,” and yet they still often managed to pull back the curtain of ignorance and superstition that veiled the world for eons, at least somewhat.

In their footsteps follow today’s citizen scientists, a relatively small cohort compared to the great numbers of professional scientists that universities churn out year after year. But where these credentialed practitioners are often hyper-focused on a particular sub-field in a highly specialized discipline, the citizen scientist enjoys more freedom to explore the universe, as his or her natural philosopher forebears did. These citizen scientists — many of whom are also traditionally credentialed — are doing important work, and some are even publishing their findings in mainstream journals.
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NASA Needs Help From Gamers And Citizen Scientists

NASA would like you to help them explore — not space — but the bottom of the ocean. For now, you’ll need an Apple device, although an Android version is in the works. While it might seem strange for the space agency to look underwater, the images they need to process are from fluid-lensing cameras that use techniques originally meant to remove distortion from the atmosphere from pictures of outer space. Turns out they can also unravel distortion caused by the ocean and clearly image coral reefs.

The phone app is in the form of a game and, according to NASA, even a first grader could play it. In the game, you are in command of an ocean research vessel, theย Nautilus. You dive to examine coral and identify what you see. The game generates training data for a supercomputer at the Ames Research Center so it can recognize coral types even when taken with more conventional cameras.

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Oceanography As Open As The Seas

With Earth in the throes of climate change and no suitable Planet B lined up just yet, oceanography is as important now as it has ever been. And yet, the instruments relied upon for decades to test ocean conditions are holding steady within the range of expensive to prohibitively expensive. Like any other area of science, lowering the barrier of entry has almost no disadvantages — more players means more data, and that means more insight into the inner workings of the briny deep.

[Oceanography for Everyone] aims to change all that by showing the world just how easy it is to build an oceanographic testing suite that measures conductivity (aka salinity), temperature, and depth using common components. OpenCTD is designed primarily for use on the continental shelf, and has been successfully tested to a depth of 100 meters.

An Adalogger M0 and RTC Featherwing run the show from their waterproof booth in the center of the PVC tube. There’s a 14-bar pressure sensor for depth, a trio of DS18B20s for temperature averaging, and a commercial conductivity probe that gathers salinity data. These sensors are fed through a 3D-printed base plate and ultimately potted in stainless steel epoxy. The other end of the tube is sealed with a mechanical plug that seats and unseats with the whirl of a wingnut.

We particularly like the scratch-built magnetic slide switch that turns OpenCTD on and off without the need to open the cylinder. If you’d like to build one of these for yourself, take a deep dive into [Oceanography for Everyone]’s comprehensive guide — it covers the components, construction, and calibration in remarkable detail. The switch is explained starting on page 50. You can find out more about the work Oceanography for Everyone is doing at their site.

As far as cheap waterproof enclosures go, PVC is a great choice. It works well for underwater photography, too.

HF Propagation And Earthquakes

For all the successes of modern weather forecasting, where hurricanes, blizzards, and even notoriously unpredictable tornadoes are routinely detected before they strike, reliably predicting one aspect of nature’s fury has eluded us: earthquakes. The development of plate tectonic theory in the middle of the 20th century and the construction of a worldwide network of seismic sensors gave geologists the tools to understand how earthquakes happened, and even provided the tantalizing possibility of an accurate predictor of a coming quake. Such efforts had only limited success, though, and enough false alarms that most efforts to predict earthquakes were abandoned by the late 1990s or so.

It may turn out that scientists were looking in the wrong place for a reliable predictor of coming earthquakes. Some geologists and geophysicists have become convinced that instead of watching the twitches and spasms of the earth, the state of the skies above might be more fruitful. And they’re using the propagation of radio waves from both space and the ground to prove their point that the ionosphere does some interesting things before and after an earthquake strikes.

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