X-Ray Defeats Letterlocking — Unfolds And Reads Letter Sealed Since 1697

Over recent years we’ve been treated to a series of fascinating advances in the world of x-ray imaging, as  researchers have developed their x-ray microtomography techniques and equipment to the point at which they can probe and then computationally reconstruct written material within objects such as letters or scrolls in museum collections whose value or fragility means they can’t be opened and read conventionally. There is more to this challenge than simply extracting the writing though, in addition to detecting the ink the researchers also have to unpick the structure of whatever it was written upon. A particular challenge comes from letterpackets, the art of folding a letter into its own envelope, and a newly-published Nature Communications paper details work from a team of academics in the USA, the UK, and the Netherlands in tackling it.

Letterpackets were more than a practical method of packaging a missive for the mail, they also had a security function often called Letterlocking. A packet would be folded in such a way as to ensure it was impossible to open without tearing or otherwise damaging the paper, and their structure is of especial interest to historians. The researchers had a unique resource with which to work; the Brienne collection is a trunk full of undeliverable mail amassed by a 17th century postmaster couple in Den Haag in the Netherlands, and now in the possession of the Beeld en Geluid museum in that city. In it were a cache of letters including 577 never-opened letterpackets, and the x-ray technique promised a means to analyse these without compromising them.

A letter imaged using the technique.
A letter imaged using the technique.

The researchers have developed an entirely computational technique for the virtual unfolding process. Starting with a 3D volumetric x-ray scan of the unopened packet they then identify the various layers of paper and the bright spots which denote the ink. Their algorithm has to cope with areas in which two or more layers are tightly in contact, for example when multiple levels are folded, and then unpick the resulting 3-dimensional mesh into a 2-dimensional sheet. Their process for mapping the crease pattern involves applying a colour map representing the mean curve radius at a given point. The final section of the paper looks at the multiple different methods of letterlocking, and attempts to categorise them all including a security rating for each. It’s evident that this could be a highly personalised process, indeed they give as an example a letter from Mary Queen of Scots that used an intricate spiral folding technique to identify its sender.

It’s clear that this technique will reveal many more fascinating historical documents as it is both refined and extended across the many more collections of further artefacts that have lain waiting for it. As they say, individual letters do not necessarily contain earth-shattering historical discoveries, but taken together they shed an important light on the social history of past centuries.

One of the names on the paper is [David Mills], whose work has featured here before.

This CT Scan Of A PCB Is The Accidental ASMR We Didn’t Know We Needed

At risk of getting any ASMR buffs who might be reading cranky because there’s no audio, [Chris], or [@no1089] on Twitter, has gifted us with this visually stunning scan of his Maxim MAX86160 in-ear heart monitor mounted on a rigidflex PCB. You can take a look, in the video below the break.

If you’re wondering why anyone would scan a board, other than boredom, know that it’s actually quite common. X-Ray machines are commonly used as a quick, passive way to check a board that’s fresh off the production line. These aren’t the X-Rays like those of broken bones you’re (hopefully not too) used to seeing though, they’re Computed Tomography scans (CT scans, CAT scans), in effect just 3D X-Rays.

CT Scan of a BGA

For electronics manufacturers and assemblers, CT scans are incredibly useful because they provide a non-destructive way to check for errors. For example, how do you know if that middle BGA pin is actually soldered correctly? You could run a functional test and make sure everything is working (at least, everything you check), but that takes time. The longer it takes to validate, the higher the manufacturing cost. In manager speak: “cost bad. Fast good.”

It’s also common to use a CT scan to create a full 3D model of a board. This makes it easy to check every little detail, especially the ones that are visually obscured by surface mount devices or critical signal paths that are buried under board layers.

Highlight of solder joints on small-outline integrated circuit (SOIC) to a PCB’s pads.

If you want to geek out on CT scans, you can learn more about the lab that did this scan or by wading into this unclassified research paper from Australia’s Cyber and Electronic Warfare Division.

But we know you really want more of this video, but better. And we’ve got the goods. For the chill folk among you, here’s a 55-minute version without all the CT scan info cluttering the screen. For those of you currently blasting eDM in your headphones, here’s a 30 second clip of it looping at ~5x speed. Eat your heart out:

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DIY X-Ray Machine Becomes CT Scanner

Once you’ve built your own X-ray machine to take 2D images of the insides of stuff, there’s really only one logical next step: building your own computed tomography (CT) scanner to get 3D reconstructions instead. That’s exactly what [Fran Piernas] has done, and documented over on hackaday.io. While the original X-ray machine build dealt with scary hardware stuff such as high voltage and ionizing radiation, this time it’s the turn of scary mathematics like inverse radon transforms.

The original build, which we wrote about in December, uses a commercial dental X-ray tube and a home-made 65 kV power supply to send X-rays through objects. Transmitted X-rays are viewed using an intensifying screen that converts the rays to visible light. The result is a 2D image similar to that we’re all familiar with.

To create a 3D reconstruction of an object, you need a number of X-ray images taken from different angles. If you’ve ever been unlucky enough to need a medical CT scan, you’ll remember staying motionless in the tunnel while the X-ray apparatus rotated around you. In this build, [Fran] rotates the object instead, using a motor that may have once been part of a microwave oven (one of those “mystery motors” we all have laying around). The required sequence of images is simply obtained by recording video of the X-ray screen while the motor rotates the object.

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New Part Day : A Sensor Chip For 3D Color X-Ray Imaging

We all know CERN as that cool place where physicists play with massive, superconducting rings to smash atoms and subatomic particles to uncover secrets of matter in the Universe. To achieve this aim, they need to do a ton of research in other areas, such as development of special particle detectors.

While such developments are essential to the core research needs of the Centre, they also lead to spinoff applications for the benefit of society at large. One such outcome has been the Medipix Collaborations – a family of read-out chips for particle imaging and detection that can count single photons, allowing X-rays and gamma rays to be converted to electrical signals. It may not be possible for us hackers to get our hands on these esoteric sensors, but these devices are pretty interesting and deserve a closer look. Medipix sensors work like a camera, detecting and counting each individual particle hitting the pixels when its electronic shutter is open. This enables high-resolution, high-contrast, noise hit free images – making it unique for imaging applications.

Some months back, CERN announced the first 3D color X-ray of a human made possible using the Medipix devices. The result is a high-resolution, 3D, color image of not just living structures like bones, muscular tissues and vessels, but metal objects too like the wrist watch, seen in the accompanying photograph. The Medipix sensors have been in development since the 1990’s and are presently in their 4th “generation”. Each chip consists of a top semiconducting sensor array, made from gallium arsenide or cadmium telluride. The charge collected by each pixel is transported to the CMOS ASIC electronics via “bump bonds”. The integration is vertical, with each sensing pixel connected via the bump bond to an analog section followed by a digital processing layer. Earlier versions were limited, by technology, in their tiling ability for creating larger matrices of multiple sensors. They could be abutted on three sides only, with the fourth being used for on-chip peripheral logic and wire-bond pads that permit electronic read-out. The latest Medipix4 Collaboration, still under some development, eliminates this short coming. Through-silicon-via (TSV) technology provides the possibility of reading the chips through copper-filled holes that bring the signals from the front side of the chip to its rear. All communication with the pixel matrix flows through the rear of the chip – the peripheral logic and control elements are integrated inside the pixel matrix.

The Analog front end consists of a pre-amplifier followed by a window discriminator which has upper and lower threshold levels. The discriminator has four bits for threshold adjustment as well as polarity sensing. This allows the capture window to be precisely set. The rest of the digital electronics – multiplexers, shift registers, shutter and logic control – helps extract the data.

Further development of the Medipix (Tech Brief, PDF) devices led to a separate version called Timepix (Tech Brief, PDF). These new devices, besides being able to count photons, are capable of two additional modes. The first mode records “Time-Over-Threshold”, providing rough analog information about the energy of the photon. It does this by counting clock pulses for the duration when the signal stays above the discrimination levels. The other mode, “Time of Arrival”, measures arrival time of the first particle to impinge on the pixel. The counters record time between a trigger and detection of radiation quanta with energy above the discrimination level, allowing time-of-flight applications in imaging.

Besides medical imaging, the devices have applications in space, material analysis, education and of course, high energy physics. Hopefully, in a few years, hackers will lay their hands on these interesting devices and we can get to know them better. At the moment, the Medipix website has some more details and data sheets if you would like to dig deeper. For an overview on the development of such single photon detectors, check out this presentation from CERN – “Single X-Ray Photon Counting Systems: Existing Systems, Systems Under Development And Future Trends” (PDF).

The Use And Abuse Of CT Scanners

David Mills is as a research scientist at the cutting edge of medical imaging. His work doesn’t involve the scanners you might find yourself being thrust into in a hospital should you be unfortunate enough to injure yourself. He’s working with a higher grade of equipment, he pushes the boundaries of the art with much smaller, very high resolution CT scanners for research at a university dental school.

He’s also a friend of Hackaday and we were excited for his talk on interesting uses for CT scanners at EMF Camp this summer. David takes us into that world with history of these tools, a few examples of teeth and bone scans, and then delves into some of the more unusual applications to which his very specialist equipment has been applied. Join me after the break as we cover the lesser known ways to put x-ray technology to work.

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Reverse Engineer An X-Ray Image Sensor

If you think of a medical x-ray, it is likely that you are imagining a photographic plate as its imaging device. Clipped to your tooth by your dentist perhaps, or one of the infamous pictures of the hands of [Thomas Edison]’s assistant [Clarence Madison Dally].

As with the rest of photography, the science of x-ray imaging has benefited from digital technology, and it is now well established that your hospital x-ray is likely to be captured by an electronic imaging device. Indeed these have now been in use for so long that their first generation can even be bought by an experimenter for an affordable sum, and that is what the ever-resourceful [Niklas Fauth] with the assistance of [Jan Henrik], has done. Their Trophy DigiPan digital x-ray image sensor was theirs for around a hundred Euros, and though it’s outdated in medical terms it still has huge potential for the x-ray experimenter.

The write-up is a fascinating journey into the mechanics of an x-ray sensor, with the explanation of how earlier devices such as this one are in fact linear CCD sensors which track across the exposed area behind a scintillator layer in a similar fashion to the optical sensor in a flatbed scanner. The interface is revealed as an RS422 serial port, and the device is discovered to be a standalone unit that does not require any commands to start scanning. On power-up it sends a greyscale image, and a bit of Sigrok examination of the non-standard serial stream was able to reveal it as 12-bit data direct from the sensor. From those beginnings they progressed to an FPGA-based data processor and topped it all off with a very tidy power supply in a laser-cut box.

It’s appreciated that x-rays are a particularly hazardous medium to experiment with, and we note from their videos that they are using some form of shielding. The source is a handheld fluoroscope of the type used in sports medicine that produces a narrow beam. If you remember the discovery of an unexpected GameBoy you will be aware that medical electronics seems to be something of a speciality in those quarters, as do autonomous box carriers.

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Software Update Destroys $286 Million Japanese Satellite

The Japanese X-ray telescope Hitomi has been declared lost after it disintegrated in orbit, torn apart when spinning out of control. The cause is still under investigation but early analysis points to bad data in a software package pushed shortly after an instrument probe was extended from the rear of the satellite. JAXA, the Japanese space agency, lost $286 million, three years of planned observations, and a possible additional 10 years of science research.

Hitomi, also known as ASTRO-H, successfully launched on February 17, 2016 but on March 26th catastrophe struck, leaving only pieces floating in space. JAXA, desperately worked to recover the satellite not knowing the extent of the failure. On April 28th they discontinued their efforts and are now working to determine the reasons for the failure, although a few weeks ago they did provide an analysis of the failure sequence at a press conference.

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