Artist rendition of the Chandra telescope system in deep space. (Credit: NASA / James Vaughn)

The Chandra X-Ray Observatory Faces Shutdown In FY2025 Budget

The Chandra X-ray Observatory started its mission back in 1999 when Space Shuttle Columbia released it from its payload bay. Originally, it was supposed to serve only a five-year mission, but it has managed twenty-four years so far and counting, providing invaluable science along with the other Great Observatory: the Hubble Space Telescope. Unfortunately, NASA’s FY2025 budget now looks to threaten all space telescopes and Chandra in particular. This comes as part of the larger FY2025 US budget, which sees total funding for NASA increase by 2%, but not enough to prevent cuts in NASA’s space telescope operations.

NASA already anticipated this cut in 2023, with funding shifting to the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (infrared spectrum, scheduled for 2027). Since Hubble is a joint operation with ESA, any shortfalls might be caught this way, but Chandra’s budget will go from 68.3M USD in FY2023 to 41.4M USD in FY2025 and from there plummeting to 5.2M USD by FY2029, effectively winding down the project and ending NASA’s flagship X-ray astronomy mission. This doesn’t sit well with everyone, with a website called Save Chandra now launched to petition the US government to save the observatory, noting that it still has a decade of fuel for its thrusters remaining and it also has stable mission costs.

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Reviving A Sensorless X-Ray Cabinet With Analog Film

In the same way that a doctor often needs to take a non-destructive look inside a patient to diagnose a problem, those who seek to reverse engineer electronic systems can greatly benefit from the power of X-ray vision. The trouble is that X-ray cabinets designed for electronics are hideously expensive, even on the secondary market. Unless, of course, their sensors are kaput, in which case they’re not of much use. Or are they?

[Aleksandar Nikolic] and [Travis Goodspeed] strongly disagree, to the point that they dedicated a lot of work documenting how they capture X-ray images on plain old analog film. Of course, this is nothing new — [Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen] showed that photographic emulsions are sensitive to “X-light” all the way back in the 1890s, and film was the de facto image sensor for radiography up until the turn of this century. But CMOS sensors have muscled their way into film’s turf, to the point where traditional silver nitrate emulsions and wet processing of radiographic films, clinical and otherwise, are nearly things of the past. Continue reading “Reviving A Sensorless X-Ray Cabinet With Analog Film”

X-Ray CT Scanners From EBay, Brought Back To Life

If you have ever wondered what goes into repairing and refurbishing an X-ray Computed Tomography (CT) scanner, then don’t miss [Ahron Wayne]’s comprehensive project page on doing exactly that. He has two small GE Explore Locus SP machines, and it’s a fantastic look into just what goes into these machines.

CT scan of papyrus roll in a bamboo sheath.

These devices use a combination of X-rays and computer software to reconstruct an internal view of an object. To bring these machines back into service means not only getting the hardware to work correctly, but the software end (including calibration and error correcting) is just as important.

That means a lot of research, testing, and making do. For example, instead of an expensive calibration grid made from an array of tiny tungsten carbide beads, [Ahron] made do with a PCB laden with a grid of copper pads. The fab house might have scratched their heads a little on that one, but it worked just fine for his purposes and price was certainly right.

Scan of a foil Pokémon card from inside a sealed package.

Tools like these enable all kinds of weird and wonderful projects of their own. So what can one do with such a machine? CT scanning can spot fake AirPods or enable deeper reverse engineering than a regular workshop is normally able to do.

What else? Shown here is an old foil Pokémon card, from an unopened package! [Ahron] coyly denies having a pet project of building a large enough dataset to try to identify cards without opening the packs. (Incidentally, if you just happen to have experience with supervised convolutional neural networks for pix2pix, he asks that you please reach out to him.)

The real power of CT scanning becomes more apparent if you take a look at the videos embedded below the page break. One is a scan of an acorn, [Ahron]’s first successful scan. Another is an interesting scan of a papyrus roll in a bamboo sheath. Both of the videos are embedded below.

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2000-Year Old Charred Manuscripts Reveal Their Secrets

Imagine trying to read a 2000-year old scroll from an ancient civilization. Now imagine that scroll is rolled up, and in a delicate, charred, carbonized form, having been engulfed by the fiery eruption of a volcano. The task would seem virtually impossible, and the information in the scroll lost forever. Right?|

As it turns out, new developments are changing that. Modern scanning techniques and machine learning tools have made it possible to read fragments of the heavily-damaged Herculaneum scrolls. Hopes are now that more of the ancient writings will be salvaged, giving us a new insight into the ancient past.

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DIY Repair Brings An X-Ray Microscope Back Into Focus

Aside from idle curiosity, very few of us need to see inside chips and components to diagnose a circuit. But reverse engineering is another story; being able to see what lies beneath the inscrutable epoxy blobs that protect the silicon within is a vital capability, one that might justify the expense involved in procuring an X-ray imager.  But what’s to be done when such an exotic and expensive — not to mention potentially deadly — machine breaks down? Obviously, you fix it yourself!

To be fair, [Shahriar]’s Faxitron MX-20 digital X-ray microscope was only a little wonky. It still generally worked, but just took a while to snap into the kind of sharp focus that he needs to really delve into the guts of a chip. This one problem was more than enough to justify tearing into the machine, but not without first reviewing the essentials of X-ray production — a subject that we’ve given a detailed look, too — to better understand the potential hazards of a DIY repair.

With that out of the way and with the machine completely powered down, [Shahriar] got down to the repair. The engineering of the instrument is pretty impressive, as it should be for something dealing with high voltage, heavy thermal loads, and ionizing radiation. The power supply board was an obvious place to start, since electrostatically focusing an X-ray beam depends on controlling the high voltage on the cathode cup. After confirming the high-voltage module was still working, [Shahriar] homed in on a potential culprit — a DIP reed relay.

Replacing that did the trick, enough so that he was able to image the bad component with the X-ray imager. The images are amazing; you can clearly see the dual magnetic reed switches, and the focus is so sharp you can make out the wire of the coil. There are a couple of other X-ray treats, so make sure you check them out in the video below.

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Broken Genes And Scrambled Proteins: How Radiation Causes Biological Damage

If decades of cheesy sci-fi and pop culture have taught us anything, it’s that radiation is a universally bad thing that invariably causes the genetic mutations that gifted us with everything from Godzilla to Blinky the Three-Eyed Fish. There’s a kernel of truth there, of course. One only needs to look at pictures of what happened to Hiroshima survivors or the first responders at Chernobyl to see extreme examples of what radiation can do to living tissues.

But as is usually the case, a closer look at examples a little further away from the extremes can be instructive, and tell us a little more about how radiation, both ionizing and non-ionizing, can cause damage to biochemical structures and processes. Doing so reveals that, while DNA is certainly in the crosshairs for damage by radiation, it’s not the only target — proteins, carbohydrates, and even the lipids that form the membranes within cells are subject to radiation damage, both directly and indirectly. And the mechanisms underlying all of this end up revealing a lot about how life evolved, as well as being interesting in their own right.

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This Scratch-Built X-Ray Tube Really Shines

On no planet is making your own X-ray tube a good idea. But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to talk about it, because it’s pretty darn cool.

And when we say making an X-ray tube, we mean it — [atominik] worked from raw materials, like glass test tubes, tungsten welding electrodes, and bits of scrap metal, to make this dangerously delightful tube. His tool setup was minimalistic as well– where we might expect to see a glassblower’s lathe like the ones used by [Dalibor Farny] to make his custom Nixie tubes, [atominik] only had a small oxy-propane hand torch to work with. The only other specialized tools, besides the obvious vacuum pump, was a homebrew spot welder, which was used to bond metal components to the tungsten wires used for the glass-to-metal seals.

Although [atominik] made several versions, the best tube is a hot cathode design, with a thoriated tungsten cathode inside a copper focusing cup. Across from that is the anode, a copper slug target with an angled face to direct the X-rays perpendicular to the long axis of the tube. He also included a titanium electrode to create a getter to scavenge oxygen and nitrogen and improve the vacuum inside the tube. All in all, it looks pretty similar to a commercial dental X-ray tube.

The demonstration in the video below is both convincing and terrifying. He doesn’t mention the voltage he’s using across the anode, but from the cracking sound we’d guess somewhere around 25- to 30 kilovolts. The tube really gets his Geiger counter clicking.

Here’s hoping [atominik] is taking the proper precautions during these experiments, and that you do too if you decide to replicate this. You’ll also probably want to check out our look at the engineering inside commercial medical X-ray tubes.

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