Hackaday Podcast 042: Capacitive Earthquakes, GRBL On ESP32, Solenoid Engines, And The TI-99 Space Program

Hackaday Editors Elliot Williams and Mike Szczys talk turkey on the latest hacks. Random numbers, art, and electronic geekery combine into an entropic masterpiece. We saw Bart Dring bring new life to a cool little multi-pen plotter from the Atari age. Researchers at UCSD built a very very very slow soft robot, and a broken retrocomputer got a good dose of the space age. A 555 is sensing earthquakes, there’s an electric motor that wants to drop into any vehicle, and did you know someone used to have to read the current time into the telephone ad nauseam?

Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!

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TI-99/4A KSP Controller Has A Handle On Vintage NASA Styling

[MelkorsGreatestHits] had an extra USB MAME board burning a hole in his parts bin, so he turned it into fuel for this far-out Kerbal Space Program controller. Cool your jets — no fully-functioning TI-99/4As were harmed in the making of this baby. Besides, this is a KAL 9000 from Kexas Instruments. See the badges?

After donating the usable parts deemed unnecessary for space exploration, [MelkorsGreatestHits] had even more room inside the case for the throng of toggles that make this controller so touchable. We love the two tiers of toggles here — the important ones are separated with 3D-printed Space Shuttle-style switch guards, and the super-important toggles have flip-up covers to protect them from errant flicks of the hand. The vintage embosser labels are an impressive touch, and make us wish we had one that stamps vertically.

[MelkorsGreatestHits] modeled the combo throttle/roll handle and the joystick after the Apollo 11 command module controls. Unfortunately, the MAME board didn’t like his 3-axis analog joystick, so both are 2-axis and give WASD control. Good enough to get to the Mün!

We’ve seen more than a few KSP controllers around here, but none so overdone as this wonderful stand-up command station.

Via r/DIY

Launching A Custom Kerbal Panel

[Matthew Peverill] is a busy PhD student who loves to make time for a little Kerbal Space Program. He was tired of using such pedestrian controls as a keyboard and mouse for such important work, and wanted something a little more like they have down in Houston.

For this project, he’s focusing on the inputs more than anything else. The intent is not to play solely from this control panel, but to strike a balance between fun inputs and accurate control without screwing up favorite game play modes. It’s based on an Arduino Due, and uses some custom I²C multiplexer boards to wrangle all the various inputs.

We love the look of this panel, especially the appropriately Futura-fonted labels and all the toggle switches. Matthew took inspiration and guidance for this project from a couple of sources, so he’s definitely following in the Hackaday spirit of standing on the shoulders of giants. He’s moved through two prototypes and is working out the bugs before making the next one. The final version will be made of backlit transparent acrylic, and you know we can’t wait to see that.

What, you don’t have access to a laser cutter? Just build a control panel into an old Heathkit trainer or something.

See Starlink’s “Space Train” Before It Leaves The Station

Have you looked up into the night sky recently and seen a bizarre line of luminous dots? Have you noticed an uptick in the number of UFO reports mentioned in the news and social media? If so, you may have already been touched by what many have come to affectionately call Elon Musk’s “Space Train”: a line of tightly grouped Starlink satellites that are making their way around the globe.

Some have wondered what’s so unique about the Starlink satellites that allows them to be visible from the ground by the naked eye, but that’s actually nothing new. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time, for both the observer and the spacecraft in question. The trick is having the object in space catch the light from the Sun when it has, from the observer’s point of view, already set. It’s essentially the same reason the Moon shines at night, but on a far smaller scale.

The ISS as it travels through Earth’s night and day

The phenomena is known as “satellite flare”, and chasing them is a favorite pastime of avid sky watchers. If you know when and where to look on a clear night, you can easily spot the International Space Station as it zips across the sky thanks to this principle. NASA even offers a service which uses email or SMS to tell you when the ISS should be visible from your location.

What makes the Starlink satellites unique isn’t that we can see them from the ground, but that there’s so many of them flying in a straight line. The initial launch released 60 satellites in a far tighter formation than we’ve ever seen before; Elon even warned that collisions between the individual Starlink satellites wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. The cumulative effect of these close proximity satellite flares is a bit startling, and understandably has people concerned about what the night sky might look like when all 12,000 Starlink satellites are in orbit.

The good news is, the effect is only temporary. As the satellites spread out and begin individual maneuvers, that long line in the sky will fade away. But before Elon’s “Space Train” departs for good, let’s look at how it was created, and how you can still catch a glimpse of this unique phenomena.

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Sim Panel Proves You Can Always Use More Buttons

Many people enjoy playing flight simulators or making the occasional orbit in Kerbal Space Program, but most are stuck controlling the onscreen action with nothing more exotic than a keyboard and mouse. A nice compromise for those that don’t have the space (or NASA-sized budget) to build a full simulator cockpit is a USB “button box” that you can plug in whenever you need a couple dozen extra knobs, switches, and lights.

If you’ve been considering building one for yourself, this incredible build by [nexprime] should prove quite inspirational. Now at this point, a box of buttons hooked up to a microcontroller isn’t exactly newsworthy. But there are a few features that [nexprime] packed in which we think make this particular build worth taking a closer look at.

For one, the powder coated 8.5” x 10” enclosure is absolutely gorgeous. The console itself was purchased from a company called Hammond Manufacturing, but of course it still took some work to turn it into the object you’re currently drooling over. A CNC machine was used to accurately cut out all the necessary openings, and the labels were laser etched into the powder coat.

But not all the labels. One of the things we like best about this build is that [nexprime] thought ahead and didn’t just design it for one game. Many of the labels are printed on strips of paper which slide into translucent plastic channels built into the front of the box. Not only does this allow you to change out the overlays for different games, but the paper labels look fantastic when lit with the LED strips placed behind the channels.

Internally, [nexprime] used a SparkFun Pro Micro paired with a SX1509 I/O expander. The electronics are all housed on professionally manufactured PCBs, which gives the final build an incredibly neat look despite packing in 68 separate inputs for your gaming pleasure. On the software side this box appears as a normal USB game controller, albeit one with a crazy number of buttons.

If this build doesn’t have enough switches and buttons for you, don’t worry. This Kerbal Space Program cockpit has banks of switches below and above the player, so one can more realistically scramble for the correct onet to flip when things start going sideways. On the other hand, we’ve seen slightly less intense builds if you’re not quite ready to take out a loan just to get into orbit.

Building A Better Kerbal Space Program Controller

If you have even the most passing interest in space and what it takes to get there, you’ve probably already played Kerbal Space Program (KSP). If you haven’t, then you should set aside about ten hours today to go check that out real quick. Don’t worry, Hackaday will still be here when you get back. Right now you need to focus on getting those rockets built and establishing a network of communication satellites so you can get out of low orbit.

For those of you who’ve played the game (or are joining us again after playing KSP for the prescribed 10, 12, 16 hours), you’ll know that the humble computer keyboard is not very well suited to jaunts through space. You really want a joystick and throttle at the absolute minimum for accurate maneuvers, but even you’ll be spending plenty of time back on the keyboard to operate the craft’s various systems. If you want the ultimate KSP control setup, you’ll need to follow in the footsteps of [Hugo Peeters] and build your own. Luckily for us, he’s written up an exceptionally well detailed guide on building KSP controllers that should prove useful even if you don’t want to clone his.

Wiring switches and buttons to the Arduino.

At the most basic level, building a KSP controller consists of hooking a bunch of switches and buttons to a microcontroller such as the Arduino or Teensy, and converting those to USB HID key presses that the game understands. This works fine up to a point, but is limited because it’s only a one-way method of communication. For his controller, [Hugo] forked KSPSerialIO, a plugin for KSP that allows bidirectional communication between the game and your controller, enabling things like digital readouts of speed and fuel levels on the controller’s panel.

Once the logistics of how you’ll talk to the game are settled, the rest is really up to the individual. The first step in building your own KSP controller is deciding what you want it to do. Are you looking to fly planes? Control a rover? Maybe you just want a master control panel for your space station. There’s a whole lot of things you can build in KSP, and the layout, inputs, and displays on your controller should ideally reflect your play style.

[Hugo] went with a fairly general purpose panel, but did spend quite a bit of extra time to get some slick LED bar graphs hooked up to display resource levels of different systems on his craft. That’s an extra step that isn’t strictly required for a build like this, but once you see it, you’re going to have a hard time not wanting to include it on your own panel. He also went through the expense of having the panel and case professionally laser cut and etched, which definitely gives it a polished feel.

We’ve covered quite a number of custom KSP controllers here at Hackaday. The overlap between KSP players and hackers seems unusually high, but of course a game that lets you build and fly contraptions of your own design does sound like something that would be right up our alley.

Hackaday Links: June 4, 2017

Quick question: what was the first personal computer? We love pointless arguments over technological history, so let’s just go down the list. It wasn’t an IBM, and the guy who invented the personal computer said he didn’t invent the personal computer. The Apple I is right out, and there were some weird Italian things that don’t quite count. Here’s an auction for, “The first personal computer”, a MICRAL N, released in 1974. There’s an 8080 running at 500kHz with 16kB of RAM and ‘mixed memory’. This is an important bit of history that belongs in a museum, and the auction will start at €20,000. The starting price might be a bit high; recently an original Apple I sold at auction for €90,000. This is a pittance for what these things usually go for. Is the market for vintage retrocomputers dropping out from underneath us? Only time will tell.

In Upstate NY? There’s a Hacker con going on June 16-17. You can get 20% off your ticket to ANYCon by using the code ‘HACKADAY’.

Colorblind? Hackaday readers suffer from colorblindness at a higher rate than the general population. [João] created this really neat tool to differentiate colors on a screen. Windows only, but still handy.

Everyone’s excited about the $150 3D printer that will be released by Monoprice sometime this summer. Here’s a $99 3D printer. Yes, it’s a Kickstarter so the standard warnings apply, but this bot does have a few things going for it. It uses actual NEMA 17 motors, and the people behind this printer actually have experience in manufacturing hardware. The downsides? It’s entirely leadscrew driven, so it’s going to be very, very slow.

What do you call the dumbest person with an EE degree? An engineer. It’s at this point where you should realize the value of a tertiary education is not defined by the most capable graduates; it’s defined by the least capable graduates.

Here’s your Sunday evening viewing: [Bunnie] gave a talk on RISC-V and the expectations of Open Hardware.

Hey, OpenBuilds has a new Mini Mill. It’s a basic CNC router designed for small ~1HP Bosch or Dewalt laminate trimmers. Small, but capable.

Kerbal Space Program, the only video game that should be required study materials at the Air Force Academy, Embry-Riddle and for everyone working at NASA, has been acquired by Take-Two Interactive. By all accounts, this is good news. According to reports, the original dev team left for Valve a few months ago, reportedly because of terrible conditions at Squad, the (former) developer of KSP.

The Stratolaunch carrier aircraft has rolled out of the hangar. It’s two 747s duct speed taped together.