DIY Radio Telescopes Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, February 12 at noon Pacific for the DIY Radio Telescopes Hack Chat with James Aguirre!

For most of history, astronomers were privy to the goings-on in the universe only in a very narrow slice of the electromagnetic spectrum. We had no idea that a vibrant and wondrous picture was being painted up and down the wavelengths, a portrait in radio waves of everything from nearly the moment of creation to the movement of galaxies. And all it took to listen in was an antenna and a radio receiver.

Over the years, radio telescopes have gotten more and more sophisticated and sensitive, and consequently bigger and bigger. We’re even to the point where one radio telescope often won’t cut it, and astronomers build arrays of telescopes spread over miles and miles, some with antennas that move around on rails. In the search for signals, radio astronomy has become the very definition of “Big Science.”

But radio astronomy doesn’t have to be big to be useful. James Aguirre, an astronomer at the University of Pennsylvania, spends his days (and nights) studying the radio universe with those big instruments. But he’s also passionate about down-scaling things and teaching everyone that small radio telescopes can be built on the cheap. His Mini Radio Telescope project uses a cast-off satellite TV dish and a couple of hundred bucks worth of readily available gear to scan the skies for all sorts of interesting phenomena.

Dr. Aguirre will join us on the Hack Chat to discuss all things radio astronomy, and how you can get in on the radio action on the cheap. Chances are good your junk pile — or your neighbor’s roof — has everything you need, and you might be surprised how approachable and engaging DIY radio astronomy can be.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, February 12 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about. Continue reading “DIY Radio Telescopes Hack Chat”

Another IoT Debacle: Charter Offers Home Insecurity

If you are a glass-half-empty person, you’ll view Charter’s announcement that they will shutter their home security and smart home service on February 5th as another reason not to buy into closed-source IoT devices. If you are a glass-half-full person though, you’ll see the cable company’s announcement as a sign that a lot of Zigbee hardware will soon flood the surplus market. Ars Technica reports that after investigation it appears that some of the devices may connect to a standard Zigbee hub after a factory reset, but many others will definitely not.

As you might expect, users were less than thrilled. Especially those that shelled out thousands of dollars on sensors and cameras. This sort of thing might be expected if a company goes out of business, but Charter just doesn’t want to be in the home security business anymore.

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Stick Your Own Samples In The Cheetah SpecDrum

The Sinclair ZX Spectrum was a popular computer in the 8-bit era, and particularly so in its homeland of the United Kingdom. It was known more for its low cost than its capabilities, but it gained many add-ons over the years. One of those was the Cheetah SpecDrum, which turned the Spectrum into a rudimentary drum machine. [PianoMatt] wasn’t happy with the original drum samples, so he set about loading a custom kit into the SpecDrum.

The SpecDrum software initially came with extra sample tapes, so [PianoMatt] knew it was an achievable task to load in custom samples. Starting by loading the software in an emulator, the RAM was then exported as raw data and loaded up in Audacity. After some experimentation, it was determined the samples were stored in 8-bit format at a sample rate of approximately 20 kHz. With this figured out, it was then possible to load replacement samples directly into RAM through the emulator.

However, this wasn’t enough for [PianoMatt]. Further digging enabled him to reverse engineer the format of the replacement sample tapes. Armed with this knowledge, [PianoMatt] then generated his own tape, complete with proper headers and labels for each drum sound.

It’s a tidy effort to bring a more modern sound to a now positively ancient piece of hardware. We’d love to hear a track with drums courtesy of the SpecDrum, so we’ll keep an ear out on Soundcloud. Mucking around with old sound hardware is a popular pastime in these parts – we’ve even seen people go so far as to build bespoke Sega chiptune players from scratch. 

How 5G Is Likely To Put Weather Forecasting At Risk

If the great Samuel Clemens were alive today, he might modify the famous meteorological quip often attributed to him to read, “Everyone complains about weather forecasts, but I can’t for the life of me see why!” In his day, weather forecasting was as much guesswork as anything else, reading the clouds and the winds to see what was likely to happen in the next few hours, and being wrong as often as right. Telegraphy and better instrumentation made forecasting more scientific and improved accuracy steadily over the decades, to the point where we now enjoy 10-day forecasts that are at least good for planning purposes and three-day outlooks that are right about 90% of the time.

What made this increase in accuracy possible is supercomputers running sophisticated weather modeling software. But models are only as good as the raw data that they use as input, and increasingly that data comes from on high. A constellation of satellites with extremely sensitive sensors watches the planet, detecting changes in winds and water vapor in near real-time. But if the people tasked with running these systems are to be believed, the quality of that data faces a mortal threat from an unlikely foe: the rollout of 5G cellular networks.

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Creating 8-bit Games With The Multi Platform Arcade Game Designer

Creating a game from scratch can be hard work. There are concepts to be designed, coding to be done, and art to be created to make it all happen. However, it doesn’t always have to be quite so difficult. There are a variety of development tools that allow budding game designers to get started with a point-and-click approach. [Jonathan Cauldwell] has come up with just such a tool that lets you do just that, for a variety of 8-bit platforms.

[Jonathan]’s project is called the Multi Platform Arcade Game Designer, so named for its ability to create games for several 8-bit systems of yesteryear. Currently, the Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, and Acorn Atom are all supported, with plans to add more down the track.

Creating a game is a simple affair, which [Jonathan] explores in a video tutorial series. Sprite and background editors are built into the software. Scripts can be automatically generated to create a wide variety of basic game types, from scrolling shoot-em-ups to classic platformers. There’s also functionality that allows advanced users to add further functionality by supplying some of their own code.

If point-and-click isn’t for you, you can always forge your ZX Spectrum games the classic way, with assembly and BASIC. Video after the break.

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The Primordial Sinclair ZX Spectrum Emerges From The Cupboard

The Centre for Computing History in Cambridge, UK, receive many donations from which they can enrich their collection and museum displays. Many are interesting but mundane, but the subject of their latest video is far from that. The wire-wrapped prototype board they reveal with a flourish from beneath a folded antistatic mat is no ordinary computer, because it is the prototype Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

It came to the museum from Nine Tiles, a local consultancy firm that had been contracted by Sinclair Research in the early 1980s to produce the BASIC ROM that would run on the replacement for their popular ZX81 home microcomputer. The write-up and the video we’ve placed below the break give some detail on the history of the ROM project, the pressures from Sinclair’s legendary cost-cutting, and the decision to ship with an unfinished ROM version meaning that later peripherals had to carry shadow ROMs with updated routines.

The board itself is a standard wire-wrap protoboard with all the major Spectrum components there in some form.  This is a 16k model, there is no expansion connector, and the layout is back-to-front to that of the final machine. The ULA chip is a pre-production item in a ceramic package, and the keyboard is attached through a D connector. Decent quality key switches make a stark contrast to the rubber keys and membrane that Spectrum owners would later mash to pieces playing Daley Thompson’s Decathlon.

This machine is a remarkable artifact, and we should all be indebted to Nine Tiles for ensuring that it is preserved for those with an interest in computing to study and enjoy. It may not look like much, but that protoboard had a hand in launching a huge number of people’s careers in technology, and we suspect that some of those people will be Hackaday readers. We’ll certainly be dropping in to see it next time we’re in Cambridge.

If you haven’t been to the Centre for Computing History yet, we suggest you take a look at our review from a couple of years ago. And if prototype home computers are your thing, this certainly isn’t the first to grace these pages.

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Does WiFi Kill Houseplants?

Spoiler alert: No.

To come to that conclusion, which runs counter to the combined wisdom of several recent YouTube videos, [Andrew McNeil] ran a pretty neat little experiment. [Andrew] has a not inconsiderable amount of expertise in this area, as an RF engineer and prolific maker of many homebrew WiFi antennas, some of which we’ve featured on these pages before. His experiment centered on cress seeds sprouting in compost. Two identical containers were prepared, with one bathed from above in RF energy from three separate 2.4 GHz transmitters. Each transmitter was coupled to an amplifier and a PCB bi-quad antenna to radiate about 300 mW in slightly different parts of the WiFi spectrum. Both setups were placed in separate rooms in east-facing windows, and each was swapped between rooms every other day, to average out microenvironmental effects.

After only a few days, the cress sprouted in both pots and continued to grow. There was no apparent inhibition of the RF-blasted sprouts – in fact, they appeared a bit lusher than the pristine pot. [Andrew] points out that it’s not real science until it’s quantified, so his next step is to repeat the experiment and take careful biomass measurements. He’s also planning to ramp up the power on the next round as well.

We’d like to think this will put the “WiFi killed my houseplants” nonsense to rest – WiFi can even help keep your plants alive, after all. But somehow we doubt that the debate will die anytime soon.

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