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.
If you’ve been around long enough, you’ll know there’s a long history of advances in materials science that get blown far out of proportion by both the technical and the popular media. Most of the recent ones seem to center on the chemistry of carbon, particularly graphene and nanotubes. Head back a little in time and superconductors were all the rage, and before that it was advanced ceramics, semiconductors, and synthetic diamonds. There’s always some new miracle material to be breathlessly and endlessly reported on by the media, with hopeful tales of how one or the other will be our salvation from <insert catastrophe du jour here>.
While there’s no denying that each of these materials has led to huge advancements in science, industry, and the quality of life for billions, the development cycle from lab to commercialization is generally a tad slower than the press would have one believe. And so when a new material starts to gain traction in the headlines, as perovskites have recently, we feel like it’s a good opportunity to take a close look, to try to smooth out the ups and downs of the hype curve and manage expectations.
Hundreds of years from now, the story of humanity’s inevitable spread across the solar system will be a collection of engineering problems solved, some probably in heroic fashion. We’ve already tackled a lot of these problems in our first furtive steps into the wider galaxy. Our engineering solutions have taken humans to the Moon and back, but that’s as far as we’ve been able to send our fragile and precious selves.
While we figure out how to solve the problems keeping us trapped in the Earth-Moon system, we’ve sent fleets of robotic emissaries to do our exploration by proxy, to make the observations we need to frame the next set of engineering problems to be solved. But as we reach further out into the solar system and beyond, our exploration capabilities are increasingly suffering from communications bottlenecks that restrict how much data we can ship back to Earth.
We need to find a way to send vast amounts of data back as quickly as possible using as few resources as possible on both ends of the communications link. Doing so may mean turning away from traditional radio communications and going way, way up the dial and developing practical means for communicating with X-rays.
Elliot Williams and Mike Szczys look at all that’s happening in hackerdom. This week we dive deep into super-accurate clock chips, SPI and microcontroller trickery, a new (and cheap) part on the microcontroller block, touch-sensitive cloth, and taking a home X-ray to the third dimension. We’re saying our goodbyes to the magnificent A380, looking with skepticism on the V2V tech known as DSRC, and also trying to predict weather with automotive data. And finally, what’s the deal with that growing problem of electronic waste?
Links for all discussed on the show are found below. As always, join in the comments below as we’ll be watching those as we work on next week’s episode!
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).
We’re not quite sure what to say about this DIY X-ray machine. On the one hand, it’s a really impressive build, with incredible planning and a lot of attention to detail. On the other hand, it’s a device capable of emitting dangerous doses of ionizing radiation.
In the end, we’ll leave judgment on the pros and cons of [Fran Piernas]’ creation to others. But let’s just say it’s probably a good thing that a detailed build log for this project was not provided. Still, the build video below gives us the gist of what must have taken an awfully long time and a fair amount of cash to pull off. The business end is a dental X-ray tube of the fixed anode variety. We’ve covered the anatomy and physiology of these tubes previously if you need a primer, but basically, they use a high voltage to accelerate electrons into a tungsten target to produce X-rays. The driver for the high voltage supply, which is the subject of another project, is connected to a custom-wound transformer to get up to 150V, and then to a voltage multiplier for the final boost to 65 kV. The tube and the voltage multiplier are sealed in a separate, oil-filled enclosure for cooling, wisely lined with lead.
The entire machine is controlled over a USB port. An intensifying screen converts the X-rays to light, and the images of various objects are quite clear. We’re especially impressed by the fluoroscopic images of a laptop while its hard drive is seeking, but less so with the image of a hand, presumably [Fran]’s; similar images were something that [Wilhelm Röntgen] himself would come to regret.
Safety considerations aside, this is an incredibly ambitious build that nobody else should try. Not that it hasn’t been done before, but it still requires a lot of care to do this safely.
When it comes to inspection of printed circuits, most of us rely on the Mark I eyeball to see how we did with the soldering iron or reflow oven. And even when we need the help of some kind of microscope, our inspections are still firmly in the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Pushing the frequency up a few orders of magnitude and inspecting PCBs with X-rays is a thing, though, and can reveal so much more than what the eye can see.
Unlike most of us, [Tom Anderson] has access to X-ray inspection equipment in the course of his business, so it seemed natural to do an X-ray enhanced teardown and PCB inspection. The victim for this exercise was nothing special – just a cheap WiFi camera of the kind that seems intent on reporting back to China on a regular basis. The guts are pretty much what you’d expect: a processor board, a board for the camera, and an accessory board for a microphone and IR LEDs. In the optical part of the spectrum they look pretty decent, with just some extra flux and a few solder blobs left behind. But under X-ray, the same board showed more serious problems, like vias and through-holes with insufficient solder. Such defects would be difficult to pick up in optical inspection, and it’s fascinating to see the internal structure of both the board and the components, especially the BGA chips.