Active Signal Tracer Probe Has AGC

[Electronics Old and New] has a new version of one of his old projects. The original project was an active probe. He took what he learned building that probe and put it into a new probe design. He also added automatic gain control or AGC. You can see a video explanation of the design below. The probe is essentially a high-impedance input using a JFET that can amplify audio or demodulated RF signals, which is a handy device to have when troubleshooting radios.

The audio amplifier is a simple LM386 circuit. The real work is in the input stage and the new AGC circuit. Honestly, we’ve used the amplifier by itself for a similar function, although the raw input impedance of the chip is only about 50K and is less in many circuits that use a pot on the input. Having a JFET buffer and an RF demodulating diode is certainly handy. You’d think the AGC block would be in the audio stage. However, the design uses it ahead of the detector which is great as long as the amplifier can handle the RF frequency you are interested in. In this case, we think he’s mostly working on old tube AM radios, so the max signal is probably in the neighborhood of 1 MHz.

A similar device was a Radio Shack staple for many years

The module is made to amplify an electret microphone using a MAX9814 which has AGC. The module had a microphone that came off for this project. The datasheet doesn’t mention an upper frequency limit, but a similar Maxim part mentions its gain is greater than 5 at 600 kHz, so for the kind of signals this is probably used for, it should work well. We wondered if you could use the module and dispense with the JFET input. The chip probably has a pretty high input impedance, but the datasheet doesn’t give a great indication.

For years we used a signal tracer from Radio Shack which — if we could still find it — now has an LM386 inside of it after the original electronics failed decades ago. In those days, fixing an AM radio involved either using a device like this to find where you did and didn’t have a signal or injecting signals at different points in the radio. Two sides of the same coin. For example, if you could hear a signal at the volume control — that indicated the RF stages were good and you had a problem on the audio side. Conversely, if you injected a signal at the volume control, not hearing would mean the same thing. Once you knew if the problem was in the RF or AF side, you’d split that part roughly in half and repeat the operation until you were down to one bad stage. Of course, you could use signal generators and scopes, but in those days you weren’t as likely to have those.

Heathkit, of course, had their own version. It even had on of those amazing magic eye tubes.

Continue reading “Active Signal Tracer Probe Has AGC”

Ion Thrusters: Not Just For TIE Fighters Anymore

Spacecraft rocket engines come in a variety of forms and use a variety of fuels, but most rely on chemical reactions to blast propellants out of a nozzle, with the reaction force driving the spacecraft in the opposite direction. These rockets offer high thrust, but they are relatively fuel inefficient and thus, if you want a large change in velocity, you need to carry a lot of heavy fuel. Getting that fuel into orbit is costly, too!

Ion thrusters, in their various forms, offer an alternative solution – miniscule thrust, but high fuel efficiency. This tiny push won’t get you off the ground on Earth. However, when applied over a great deal of time in the vacuum of space, it can lead to a huge change in velocity, or delta V.

This manner of operation means that an ion thruster and a small mass of fuel can theoretically create a much larger delta-V than chemical rockets, perfect for long-range space missions to Mars and other applications, too. Let’s take a look at how ion thrusters work, and some of their interesting applications in the world of spacecraft!

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3D Printable Scope Probe Adapts To Your Needs

If there’s one this we electronics engineers are precious about, it’s our test gear. The instruments themselves can be obscenely expensive, since all that R&D effort needs to be paid back over a much smaller user base compared to say a DVD player. The test probes themselves can often come with an eye-watering price tag as well. Take the oscilloscope probe, pretty much everyone who tinkers with hardware will be familiar with. It’s great for poking around, looking desperately for inspiration when you’re getting stuck in with some debug, but you’ve only got two hands, and that doesn’t leave any spare for button pushing.

Hands-free probing solutions exist, but they can be pricey, flimsy or just a pain to use. Sometimes you just want to solder a wire and leave the probe attached, hoping the grounding lead doesn’t fall off and short something. We’ve seen many solutions to this, so here’s yet another one you can 3D print yourself, so it’s almost free to make.

The two-part 3D printed assembly embeds a pair of wires with a Molex 0008500113 sprung terminal on one end, which can be terminated with your choice of pins, headers or just a pair of plain ‘ol wires. Once you’ve dropped your wiring of choice inside, simply glue the halves with a little cyanoacrylate and you’re good to go. Designed around the Siglent 200MHz PP215 specifically, it is likely compatible with many other brands. Thingiverse only has STL files (sigh!) so it may be tricky to adapt it to your exact probe dimensions, but the idea is good at least.

There is no shortage of electronics probing solutions out there, and boy have we covered a few over the years, here’s a low-cost current probe, an Open Source 2 GHz scope probe, and if you want to get really hacky, look no further for inspiration than the 2019 Hackaday SuperCon SMD Challenge.

Thanks [daniel] for the tip!

Macro Model Makes Atomic Force Microscopy Easier To Understand

For anyone that’s fiddled around with a magnifying glass, it’s pretty easy to understand how optical microscopes work. And as microscopes are just an elaboration on a simple hand lens, so too are electron microscopes an elaboration on the optical kind, with electrons and magnets standing in for light and lenses. But atomic force microscopes? Now those take a little effort to wrap your brain around.

Luckily for us, [Zachary Tong] over at the Breaking Taps YouTube channel recently got his hands on a remarkably compact atomic force microscope, which led to this video about how AFM works. Before diving into the commercial unit — but not before sharing some eye-candy shots of what it can do — [Zach] helpfully goes through AFM basics with what amounts to a macro version of the instrument.

His macro-AFM uses an old 3D-printer as an X-Y-Z gantry, with a probe head added to the printer’s extruder. The probe is simply a sharp stylus on the end of a springy armature, which is excited into up-and-down oscillation by a voice coil and a magnet. The probe rasters over a sample — he looked at his 3D-printed lattices — while bouncing up and down over the surface features. A current induced in the voice coil by the armature produces a signal that’s proportional to how far the probe traveled to reach the surface, allowing him to map the sample’s features.

The actual AFM does basically the same thing, albeit at a much finer scale. The probe is a MEMS device attached to — and dwarfed by — a piece of PCB. [Zach] used the device to image a range of samples, all of which revealed fascinating details about the nanoscale realm. The scans are beautiful, to be sure, but we really appreciated the clear and accessible explanation of AFM.

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Open-Source 2 GHz Oscilloscope Probe

If you do any work with high-speed signals, you quickly realize that probing is an art unto itself. Just having a fast oscilloscope isn’t enough; you’ve got to have probes fast enough to handle the signals you want to see. In this realm, just any old probe won’t do: the input capacitance of the classic RC probe you so often see on low-bandwidth scopes starts to severely load down a circuit well below 1 GHz. That’s why we were really pleased to see [Andrew Zonenberg’s] new open-source design for a 2 GHz resistive probe hit Kickstarter.

The design of this new probe looks deceptively simple. Known as a Z0-probe, transmission-line probe, or resistive probe, the circuit works as a voltage divider, created from the 50-Ohm input impedance of a high-speed oscilloscope input and an external resistor, to reduce loading on the circuit-under-test. In this case, the input resistance has been chosen to be 500 Ohms, yielding a 10x probe. In theory, building such a probe is as simple as soldering a resistor to the end of a piece of coaxial cable. You can do exactly that, but in practice, optimizing a design is much more complex. As you can see in the schematic, just choosing a resistor of the right value doesn’t cut it at these frequencies. Even the tiny 0402-size resistors have parasitic capacitance and inductance that affect the response, and choosing a combination of parts that add to the correct resistance but reduce the overall capacitive loading makes a huge difference.

2 GHz Passive Probe Schematic

Don’t be fooled: the relatively simple schematic belies the complexity of such a design. At these speeds, the PCB layout is just as much of a component as the resistors themselves, and getting the transmission-line and especially the SMA footprint launch correct is no easy task. Using a combination of modeling with the Sonnet EM simulator and empirical testing, [Andrew] has ended up with a design that’s flat (+/- 1 dB) out to 1.98 GHz, with a 10-90% rise time of 161 ps. That’s a fast probe.

The probe comes in a few options, from fully assembled with traceable specs to a DIY solder-it-yourself version. You probably know which of these options you need.

We really like to see this kind of knowledge and thoroughness go into a project, and we’d love to see the Kickstarter project reach its goals, but perhaps the best part is that the design is permissively open-source licensed. This is a case where having the board layout open-sourced is key; the schematic tells you maybe half of what’s really going on in the circuit, and getting the PCB right yourself can be a long and frustrating exercise. So, have a look at the project, and if you haven’t got probes suitable for your fastest scopes, build one, or better yet, support the development of this exciting design.

We’ve seen [Andrew’s] oscilloscope work before, like glscopeclient, his remote oscilloscope utility program.

Supercon SMD Challenge Gets 3D Printed Probes: Build Your Own

This year was the second SMD challenge at Supercon, so it stands to reason we probably learned a few things from last year. If you aren’t familiar with the challenge, you are served some pretty conventional tools and have to solder a board with LEDs getting progressively smaller until you get to 0201 components. Those are challenging even with proper tools, but a surprising number of people have managed to build them even using the clunky, large irons we provide.

During the first challenge, we did find one problem though. The LEDs are all marked for polarity. However, since we don’t provide super high power magnification, it was often difficult to determine the polarity, especially on the smaller parts. Last year, [xBeau] produced some quick LED testers to help overcome this problem. This year we refined them a bit.

As you can see, the 2018 model was a very clever use of what was on hand. A CR2032 holder powered the probes and the probes themselves were two resistors. If you can get the LED to light with the probes you know which lead is the anode and which is the cathode. A little red ink makes it even more obvious. Continue reading “Supercon SMD Challenge Gets 3D Printed Probes: Build Your Own”

A DIY EMC Probe From Semi-Rigid Coax And An SDR

Do you have an EMC probe in your toolkit? Probably not, unless you’re in the business of electromagnetic compatibility testing or getting a product ready for the regulatory compliance process. Usually such probes are used in anechoic chambers and connected to sophisticated gear like spectrum analyzers – expensive stuff. But there are ways to probe the electromagnetic mysteries of your projects on the cheap, as this DIY EMC testing setup proves.

As with many projects, [dimtass]’ build was inspired by a video over on EEVblog, where [Dave] made a simple EMC probe from a length of semi-rigid coax cable. At $10, it’s a cheap solution, but lacking a spectrum analyzer like the one that [Dave] plugged his cheap probe into, [dimtass] went a different way. With the homemade probe plugged into an RTL-SDR dongle and SDR# running on a PC, [dimtass] was able to get a decent approximation of a spectrum analyzer, at least when tested against a 10-MHz oven-controlled crystal oscillator. It’s not the same thing as a dedicated spectrum analyzer – limited bandwidth, higher noise, and not calibrated – but it works well enough, and as [dimtass] points out, infinitely hackable through the SDR# API. The probe even works decently when plugged right into a DSO with the FFT function running.

Again, neither of these setups is a substitute for proper EMC testing, but it’ll probably do for the home gamer. If you want to check out the lengths the pros go through to make sure their products don’t spew signals, check out [Jenny]’s overview of the EMC testing process.

[via RTL-SDR.com]