Spy Tech: How an Apollo Capsule Landed in Michigan after a Layover in the USSR

There’s an Apollo module on display in Michigan and its cold-war backstory is even more interesting than its space program origins.

Everyone who visits the Van Andel Museum Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan is sure to see the Apollo Command Module flanking the front entrance. Right now it’s being used as a different kind of capsule: a time capsule they’ll open in 2076 (the American tricentennial). If you look close though, this isn’t an actual Command Module but what they call a “boilerplate.”

Technically, these were mass simulators made cheaply for certain tests and training purposes. A full spacecraft costs a lot of money but these — historically made out of boilerplate steel — could be made with just the pieces necessary and using less expensive materials. What you might not know is that the boilerplate at the Van Ardel — BP 1227 — has a cold war spy history unlike any other boilerplate in the fleet.

The early life of BP 1227 is a little sketchy. It appears the Navy was using it for recovery training somewhere between the Azores and the Bay of Biscay in early 1969. We don’t know for sure if the picture to the left is BP 1227 or not. Comparing it to the one at the museum, it probably isn’t, but then again the museum’s does have a fresh paint job and possibly a top cap. Regardless, the picture to the left was from 1966 in the Atlantic, giving us an idea of how boilerplate capsules were put into service.

In those days — the height of the cold war — Naval ships were often followed by Soviet “fishing trawlers.” These were universally understood to be spy ships — Auxiliary, General Intelligence or AGI vessels.

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Marvel at Soviet-era Smart Display’s Tiny Size

The Soviet-era 490IP1 LED. The digit is a mere 2.5 mm in height. Pictured with the Texas Instruments TIL306. [image: industrialalchemy.org]
It’s easy to assume that older components will be less integrated and bulkier than we might otherwise expect. Then something seems ahead of its time, like the teeny-tiny 490IP1 LED which was produced in the former Soviet Union. [AnubisTTP] obtained and shared images of this tiny integrated single digit LED display in which the number measures a scant 2.5 mm tall; in production it was made easier to read with an external bubble lens magnifier clipped to the outside. The red brick the 490IP1 is pictured with is the Texas Instruments TIL306, a relatively normal sized DIP component with similar functionality.

The 490IP1 is called an intelligent LED display because the package contains a decade counter and driver circuitry for the integrated seven-segment LED digit, complete with a carry signal that meant multiple displays could be chained together. It is notable not just due to its size, but because the glass cover makes it easy to see the die inside, as well as the wire-bonded pads.

It’s always fascinating to see glimpses of the development path that display technologies took. It’s easy to take a lot of it for granted today, but back before technology was where it is now, all sorts of things were tried. Examples we’ve seen in the past include the fantastic (and enormous) Eidophor projector which worked by drawing images onto a rotating disk of oil with an electron gun. On the smaller end of things, the Sphericular display used optics and image masks to wring a compact 0-9 numerical display out of only a few lamps at the back of a box.

Custom Built Vacuum Tube Cassette Player

As we’ve said many times here on Hackaday, it’s not our place to question why people make the things they make. There’s a legitimate need or utility for many of the projects we cover, no doubt about it. But there’s also a large number of them which are so convoluted that they border on absurd. Not that we love the crazy ones any less, in fact, we usually like those the best.

So when we saw this incredible modification to a Panasonic RN-404 microcassette recorder which replaces the audio hardware with a custom built vacuum tube amplifier, we didn’t bother asking what the point was. Perhaps it’s an attempt to make the most impractical method for recording and playing back audio, or maybe it was just to see if it was possible. No matter why it was done, it’s here now and it’s absolutely glorious.

If the look of the hardware didn’t tip you off that this project makes use of old Soviet-era components, the video after the break certainly will. Specifically, it’s using 1ZH25R and 1S38A tubes which were originally intended for military use. Just like all cool old Soviet tech was. Say what you will about the Cold War, it certainly got the engineering juices flowing.

There’s quite a bit of information about how these ancient tubes were brought back to life by way of this gorgeous home-etched PCB. Suffice to say, working with tubes is an art to begin with, but working with such small and unique ones is on a whole new level.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen some tiny tubes make their way into a piece of consumer audio equipment, but this one certainly takes the top spot in terms of professional final results.

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Soviet Era Smoke Detector Torn Down, Revealing Plutonium

It’s widely known that a smoke detector is a good ionizing radiation source, as they contain a small amount of americium-241, a side product of nuclear reactors. But what about other sources? [Carl Willis] got hold of an old Soviet era smoke detector and decided to tear it down and see what was inside. This, as he found out, isn’t something you should do lightly, as the one he used ended up containing an interesting mix of radioactive materials, including small amounts of plutonium-239, uranium-237, neptunium-237 and a selection of others. In true hacker fashion, he detected these with a gamma ray spectroscope he has in his spare bedroom, shielded from other sources with lead bricks and copper and tin sheets. Continue reading “Soviet Era Smoke Detector Torn Down, Revealing Plutonium”

Soviet Portable Scopemeter Teardown

Browsing YouTube may prove to be your largest destroyer of productive time outside of Hackaday, once you have started looking at assorted Lincolnshire plumbers or young Ukrainians doing dangerous stunts it’s easy to lose an hour with very little to show for it. There is so much to divert our attention, it’s a wonder that any of us ever make anything!

So to ensure you lose a further quarter hour today, we’d like to bring you [Jesper Broe]’s demonstration and teardown of his latest oscilloscope. This might seem unpromising when we tell you it’s a single-trace model with a bandwidth of 10MHz, but don’t give up. This is a RIMEDA C1-112, a portable instrument made in Lithuania when the country was part of the Soviet Union, and its party piece is that it contains a digital multimeter with a vector display using the oscilloscope CRT.

We’re shown the compact device being unpacked, then put through its paces as an oscilloscope. It gives useful results above 10MHz, but it is visibly losing amplitude and eventually it has trouble triggering as the frequency increases. Interestingly all the controls work in the opposite direction to the ones you will be used to, anticlockwise rotation increases rather than decreases. Then we’re shown the multimeter function, which is compared to a modern DMM and found to be still pretty accurate after nearly three decades.

The ‘scope’s lid is then removed, and we see something of the logic boards that produce the digital display. A host of Soviet K155 series logic ICs are at the heart of it, and at the end of the video we’re shown a period review in Russian with a glimpse at the waveforms they produce to vector draw the figures.

Take a look at the video below the break, we’re sure you’ll agree it’s an instrument that many of us would still find useful today.

Continue reading “Soviet Portable Scopemeter Teardown”

Building a Satellite-Tracking System With Cold War Tech

The things Hackaday readers come up with and post over on Hackaday.io never cease to amaze us. If you’ve never checked it out, be careful — you can easily spend hours (or weeks) of your life just skimming through the projects that have been logged there. Many of the builds use modern development tools like Arduino and Raspberry Pi, but every so often we come across a project that takes a more difficult road.

That’s the case with [Keplermatik’s] Cold War-era satellite-tracking project, also aptly named Keplermatik. This a build that’s still in progress, which just means you’ve got the privilege of following along as it progresses! What makes this project so special? Aside from the fact that it’s purpose is to track satellites, we think the sole use of vintage tech is a very cool and very ambitious goal.

IV-22 VFD displays will be used for the "Soviet" side of the console
IV-22 VFD displays will be used for the “Soviet” side of the console

[Keplermatik] plans to split the satellite-tracking console into two sides: an American-tech side for tracking the satellite’s position, and a Soviet-tech side for tuning the radio and positioning the antenna. The idea is that he’ll get to use vintage technology from both sides of the Iron Curtain. That should lead to some very interesting lessons about how these kinds of systems were designed by each side during the Cold War.

The build is still in its adolescence, but is definitely worth following along with. But, if you’re craving more Soviet tech and need it right now, be sure to check out this post on Russian Cold War vacuum tubes.


Sputnik’s Transmitter Beeps Again

Sputnik. The first artificial satellite, the launch of which precipitated the space race. Without the frenetic pace of technological advancement as the USA and the USSR vied with each other during the decade following its launch it is safe to say that we might not yet have many of the tools and components we take for granted as electronics enthusiasts and makers today.

[Frank Waarsenburg PA3CNO] has taken on the interesting task of recreating one of the Sputnik radio transmitters using a set of the original Russian tubes.

Sputnik itself was an astounding achievement for the team of engineers and scientists who put it into orbit, but the drive to beat the USA to the post within the 1957 International Geophysical Year meant that it was a surprisingly simple device. A sphere pressurised with nitrogen and with those iconic whip antennas mounted on its outside, containing a battery, 20 and 40 MHz tube radio transmitters, and a fan cooling system. Its design was a Soviet state secret, but in 2013 [Oleg, RV3GM] located the schematic used for the transmitter.

The tubes are slightly unusual, being a wire-ended design with all electrodes mounted on rods the length of the glass envelope. This design feature gave them a resistance to acceleration and vibration, making them suitable for use in aircraft, missiles, and rockets.

[Frank] faced one or two hurdles during his construction, including the development of a suitable power supply and finding an unfortunate bug in the Russian schematic. If you speak Dutch or are prepared to use a translation tool his full write-up can be found in the Dutch-language RAZzies magazine, December issue featuring the power supply (PDF, Dutch), and January issue featuring the transmitter (PDF, Dutch).

The Sputnik satellite has not appeared on its own in these pages before, but we have recently featured the early OSCAR amateur radio satellites and the revival of a piece of space-race-era Soviet rocket technology.

Via [Stefan, HB9TWS], whose English-language coverage of the transmitter was of great help.