Hackaday Links: December 1, 2019

We can recall a book from our youth that cataloged some of the most interesting airplanes in the world. One particularly interesting beast was dubbed “The Super Guppy”, a hilariously distended cargo plane purpose-built for ferrying Saturn rocket sections around the US in the 1960s. We though the Guppies were long gone, victims like so many other fascinating machines of the demise of the Apollo program. It turns out we were only 4/5 right about that, since one of the original five Super Guppies is still in service, and was spotted hauling an Orion capsule from Florida to Ohio for vacuum testing. The almost 60-year-old plane, a highly modified C-97 Stratofreighter, still has a big enough fan-base to attract 1500 people to brave the Ohio cold and watch it land.

The news this week was filled with reports from Texas of a massive chemical plant explosion that forced the evacuation of 50,000 people from their homes the day before Thanksgiving. The explosion and ensuing fire at the TPC Group petrochemical plant were spectacular; thankfully, there were no deaths and only two injuries reported from the incident. The tie-in to the hacker community lies in what this plant made: butadiene, or synthetic rubber. The plant produced about 16% of the North American market’s supply of butadiene, which we know from previous coverage is one of the polymers in acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS. It remains to be seen if this will put a crimp in ABS printer filament supplies, or any of the hundreds of products that butadiene is in, including automotive tires and hoses.

Remember when “Cyber Monday” became a thing? We sure do; in the USA, it was supposed to be the first workday back from the Thanksgiving break which would afford those lacking a fast Internet connection at home the opportunity to do online shopping on company time. The idea seems so year 2000 now, but the name stuck, and all kinds of sales and bargains are now competing for your virtual attention and cyber dollars. That includes Tindie, of course, where the Cyber Monday Sale is running through December 6. There’s tons to chose from, including products that got started as Hackaday.io projects and certified open-source hardware products. Be sure to check out the Tindie Twitter feed and blog for extra discount codes, too.

Speaking of gift-giving, we got an interesting tip about a product we never knew we needed. Called “WorkBench”, it’s a modular development system that takes care of an oft-neglected side of prototyping: the physical and mechanical layout. Too often we just start with a breadboard on the bench, and while that’ll do for lots of smaller projects, as the build keeps growing and the breadboards keep coming, things can get out of hand. WorkBench aims to tidy things up by providing a basal platen onto which breadboards, microcontrollers, perfboards, or just about anything else can be snapped. Handles make the whole thing portable, and a clear acrylic cover protects your hard work.

We love to hear stories about citizen science, especially when the amateurs scoop the professionals. Astronomy seems to be a hotbed for this brand of discovery, usually as a lone astronomer peering into the night sky to see a comet or asteroid nobody has seen before. Catching a glitching pulsar in the act is an entirely different level of discovery, though. Back in February, Steve Olney detected a 2.5 parts-per-million increase in the 89-millisecond period of emissions for the Vela pulsar using his RTL-SDR-based observatory. Steve has some fascinating information about pulsars and his observatory on his website. Color us impressed that he was able to pull off this observation without the benefit of millions of dollars in equipment and a giant parabolic dish antenna.

It’s NICER In Orbit

Given the sheer volume of science going on as the International Space Station circles above our heads every 90 minutes or so, it would be hard for any one experiment to stand out. ISS expeditions conduct experiments on everything from space medicine to astrophysics and beyond, and the instruments needed to do the science have been slowly accreting over the years. There’s so much stuff up there that almost everywhere you turn there’s a box or pallet stuck down with hook-and-loop fasteners or bolted to some bulkhead, each one of them doing something interesting.

The science on the ISS isn’t contained completely within the hull, of course. The outside of the station fairly bristles with science, with packages nestled in among the solar panels and other infrastructure needed to run the spacecraft. Peering off into space and swiveling around to track targets is an instrument with the friendly name NICER, for “Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer.” What it does and how it does it is interesting stuff, and what it’s learning about the mysteries of neutron stars could end up having practical uses as humanity pushes out into the solar system and beyond.

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The Biggest Corner Antenna We’ve Ever Seen

Radio waves are received on antennas, for which when the signal in question comes over a long distance a big reflector is needed. When the reception distance is literally astronomical, the reflector has to be pretty darn big. [The Thought Emporium] wants to pick up signals from distant satellites, the moon, and hopefully a pulsar. On the scale of home-built amateur radio, this will be a monstrous antenna. The video also follows the break.

In hacker fashion, the project is built on a budget, so all the parts are direct from a hardware store, and the tools are already in your toolbox or hackerspace. Electrical conduit, chicken wire, PVC pipes, wood blocks, and screws make up most of the structure so put away your crazy links to Chinese distributors unless you need an SDR. The form of the antenna is the crucial thing, and the shape is three perpendicular panels as seen in the image and video. The construction in the video is just a suggestion, but it doesn’t involve welding, so that opens it to even more amateurs.

Even if you are not trying to receive a pulsar’s signature, we have hacks galore for radios and antennas.

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Black Holes And The Elusive Mystery That Lies Within An Equation

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” This famous quote by Isaac Newton points to an axiom that lies at the heart of The Sciences — knowledge precedes knowledge.

What we know today is entirely based upon what we learned in the past. This general pattern is echoed throughout recorded history by the revelation of one scientific mystery leading to other mysteries… other more compounding questions. In the vast majority of cases these mysteries and other questions are sprung from the source of an experiment with an unexpected outcome sparking the question: “why the hell did it do that?” This leads to more experiments which creates even more questions and next thing you know we go from moving around on horse-drawn carriages to landing drones on Mars in a few generations.

The observant of you will have noticed that I preceded a statement above with “the vast majority of cases.” Apart from particle physics, almost all scientific discovery throughout recorded history has been made via experiment and observation. There are a few, however, that have been discovered hidden within the confines of an equation, only later to be confirmed with observation. One such discovery is the Black Hole, and how it was stumbled upon on a dusty chalkboard in the early 1900s will be the focal point of today’s article.

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