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Hackaday Links: December 4, 2022

Well, this is embarrassing! Imagine sending a multibillion-dollar rover to an ancient lakebed on Mars only to discover after a year of poking around at the rocks that it might not actually have been a lake after all. That seems to be the impression of Jezero Crater that planetary scientists are forming after looking at the data coming back from Perseverance since it nailed the landing in what sure as heck looked like a dried-up lake, complete with a river delta system. A closer look at the sediments Perseverance has been sampling reveals a lot of the mineral olivine, which on Earth is rare near the surface because it readily reacts with water. Finding lots of olivine close below the surface of Jezero suggests that it either wasn’t all that watery once upon a time, or that what water was there was basically ice cold. The results are limited to where the rover has visited, of course, and the nice thing about having wheels is that you can go somewhere else. But if you were hoping for clear signs that Jezero was once a lake teeming with life, you might have to keep waiting.

In other space news, we have to admit to taking NASA to task a bit in the podcast a couple of weeks back for not being quite up to SpaceX’s zazzle standards with regard to instrumenting the SLS launch. Yeah, a night launch is spectacular, but not having all those internal cameras like the Falcon has just sort of left us flat. But we should have been more patient, because the images coming back from Artemis 1 are simply spectacular. We had no idea that NASA attached cameras to the solar panels of the Orion spacecraft, which act a little like selfie sticks and allow the spacecraft to be in the foreground with Earth and the Moon in the background. Seeing Earth from lunar distance again for the first time in 50 years has been a real treat, and getting our satellite in the frame at the same time is a huge bonus.

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Building A Replica Of An Obscure Romanian Computer

We’ve all seen emulated Apple II and Commodore 64 boards about the place. Few of us have heard of the Romanian ZX Spectrum clone known as the Cobra, let alone any efforts to replicate one. However, [Thomas Sowell] has achieved just that, and has shared the tale with us online.

The Cobra was named for its origins in the city of Brasov – hence, COmputer BRasov. The replica project was spawned for a simple reason. Given that sourcing an original Romanian Cobra would be difficult, [Thomas] realized that he could instead build his own, just as many Romanians did in the 1980s. He set about studying the best online resources about the Cobra, and got down to work.

The build started with board images sourced from Cobrasov.com, and these were used to get a PCB made. [Thomas] decided to only use vintage ICs sourced from the Eastern Bloc for authenticity’s sake, too. Most came from the former USSR, though some parts were of East German, Romanian, or Czechoslovakian manufacture. The project took place prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, so there weren’t any hassles shipping across borders.

With everything hooked up and the EEPROMs given a real Cobra ROM image, the computer burst into life. There were some hiccups, with an overheating video IC and some memory glitches. However, with some nifty tweaks and replacements subbed in, the computer came good. Other work involved adding a custom keyboard and modifying 3.5″ floppy drives to work with the system.

Overall, the build is a faithful tribute to what was an impressive piece of engineering from behind the Iron Curtain. [Thomas]’s work also embodies the DIY ethos behind many homebrew Cobra computers built back in the day.

If all this talk has got you curious about the full history of the Cobra and Romania’s underground computer movement, we have everything you’re looking for right here!

Loki Is Part Cyberdeck, Part Sinclair Spectrum, And Pretty Tricky

You’ve got to watch out for Loki — he’s a trickster, after all, and he might make you think this semi-cyberdeck mash-up machine is named after him, when the backstory on this build is more interesting than anything in the current Marvel scene.

According to [Steve Anderson], Loki was the name of a mocked-up machine that Sinclair teased in the mid-1980s as a competitor for the Amiga. [Steve] coveted the vaporware machine and never quite got over it, but rather than pine for something that never existed, he created his own Loki. He only loosely qualifies the machine as a cyberdeck — it has some features of the genre, like a Raspberry Pi and a cast-off iPad screen for a display, but isn’t really intended to be as portable as a real cyberdeck. To scratch his Sinclair itch, the machine also includes a ZX Uno, which is an FPGA emulator of the Sinclair Spectrum. The keyboard is hand-wired using mechanical switches, and is backed up by a Pico running custom software so it can talk both USB and PS/2.

[Steve] has much more detail on Loki and his other cyberdeck builds over on his blog, which you should probably check out. Somewhat surprisingly, it doesn’t look like he’s entered Loki in our new Cyberdeck Contest that just launched. Hopefully that’s just an oversight.

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Hackaday Links: June 26, 2022

Head for the hills!! We’re all doomed! At least that’s the impression you might get from the headlines about the monster Earth-facing sunspot this week. While any sunspot that doubles in size within a matter of days as AR3038 has done is worth looking at, chances are pretty low that it will cause problems here on Earth. About the best this class of sunspot can manage is an M-class solar flare, which generally cause radio blackouts only at the poles, and may present a radiation problem for the crew of the ISS. So no, this sunspot is probably not going to kill us all. But then again, this is the 2020s, and pretty much everything bad seems like it’s possible.

Speaking of bad outcomes, pity the poor Sonos customers and their ongoing battle with the company’s odd “glitches.” For whatever reason, customers have been getting shipments of Sonos products they never ordered, with at least one customer getting over $15,000 worth of products shipped. The customer reports ordering five Sonos items, but the company saw fit to fill the order six times, stuffing their apartment with goods. Sonos doesn’t appear to be doing much to make it right; while offering the customer free shipping labels to return the goods, they were expected to schlep the packages to a UPS store. And then there’s the money — Sonos charged the customer for all the unordered goods, and won’t issue a refund till it’s all returned.

If you’ve ever wondered exactly what the signals going up and down your cable line look like, you’ll want to check out this video from Double A Labs. Using an RTL-SDR dongle and some spectrum analyzer software they probed the RF signals on the cable, with some fascinating results. The first 11 minutes or so of the video are devoted to setting up the hardware and software, although there is some interesting stuff about broadband network architecture right up at the start. The scans are interesting — you can clearly see the 6-MHz quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) digital channels. We were surprised to learn that these start at just about the FM broadcast band — about 108 MHz. There were a couple of little surprises hiding in the spectrum, like two unmodulated analog TV carriers in one spot, and the fact that there are over 400 virtual channels jammed into 41 6-MHz QAM channels. Broadband indeed.

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Teensy Spectrum Analyzer Has 170 Channels

While high-fidelity audio has come a long way in the past several decades, a lot of modern stereo equipment is still missing out on some of the old analog meters that were common on amplifiers and receivers of the 60s through the 80s. Things like VU meters don’t tend to be common anymore, but it is possible to build them back in to your sound system with the help of some microcontrollers. [Mark] shows us exactly how to reclaim some of the old-school functionality with this twin audio visualizer display.

Not only does this build include two displays, but the microcontroller is keeping up with 170 channels in real-time in order to drive the display. What’s more impressive is that it’s being done all on a Teensy 4.1. To help manage all of the data and keep the speed as fast as possible it uses external RAM soldered to the board, and a second Teensy audio board is used to do the real time FFT analysis. Most of the channels are sent to the display hosting the spectrum analyzer but two are reserved for left and right stereo VU meters on the second display.

The project from [Mark] is originally based on this software from [DIYLAB] so everything is open-source. While it was originally built for a specific piece of hardware, [Mark] has it set up with a line in and line out plus a microphone input so it can be used for virtually any audio hardware now. For another take on the classic VU meter, take a look at this design based on an Arudino instead.

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Detect Starlink Satellites Passing By

The Starlink beta has semi-officially ended, but it seems as though the global chip shortage is still limiting how many satellites are flying around the world for broadband internet access for those that might not be served by traditional ISPs. Not every location around the world has coverage even if you can get signed up, so to check that status the hard way you can always build a special antenna that tracks the Starlink beacons as they pass overhead.

[Derek] is using this project to show of some of his software-defined radio skills, so this will require an SDR that can receive in the 1600 MHz range. It also requires a power injector to power the satellite receiver, but these are common enough since they are used to power TV antennas. The signals coming from the Starlink satellites have a very high signal-to-noise ratio so [Derek] didn’t even need a dish to focus the signals. This also helped because the antenna he is using was able to see a much wider area as a result. Once everything was set up and the computer was monitoring the correct location in the spectrum, he was able to see very clearly how often a satellite passed him by.

Of course, [Derek] lives in an area with excellent coverage so this might be a little more difficult for those in rural areas, but possibly not for long as the goal of Starlink is to bring broadband to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it. There is some issue with how much these satellites might interfere with other astronomical activities though, so take that with a grain of salt.

Thanks to [Spritle] for the tip!

More Software-Defined Radio Projects Using DragonOS

DragonOS, a Debian-based Linux distribution specifically packaged for software-defined radio functionality, roared onto the wavelengths during the beginnings of the various pandemic lockdowns last year. Since then [Aaron], the creator of the OS, has been busy adding features to the distribution as well as creating plenty of videos which show off its capabilities and also function as how-tos for people who might want to learn about software-defined radio. The latest is a video about using this software to detect radio signals in certain specified spectrums.

This build uses two  RTL-SDR devices paired with the DragonOS software suite to automatically detect active frequencies within a specified frequency range and that aslo exceed a threshold measured above the average noise floor. The video includes the setup of the software and its use in detecting these signals, but also includes setup of influxdb and Grafana which provide logging capabilities as well. Using this setup, multiple receivers either local or over the internet can then be configured to dump all the identified frequencies, powers, and time stamps into DragonOS.

[Aaron] has also been helping developers to build the SDR4space.lite application which includes GPS support, so he hopes that in a future video a user will be able to easily associate location to identified frequencies. Projects like these also serve as a reminder that getting into software-defined radio is as easy as buying a $10 USB radio receiver and configuring some free software to do anything that you can imagine like tracking ships and airplanes in real time.

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