A Fragment of Muonionalusta

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This little chunk of crystalline metal is a tiny slice of a meteorite — a rock that fell from the sky. When one says that, the next natural question is, “how do you know it’s a meteorite?” (We will get to that.) But what is really staggering is not just that we know, but how much we know about it and its history. And what a long history it is.

This specimen is a 68 gram sample cut from a fragment of the Muonionalusta meteorite.  According to our best current understanding, the parent body that Muonionalusta came from was one of the earliest bodies to take shape during the formation of our solar system. It began as a protoplanet (or planetisimal) that accreted within the protoplanetary disk that would eventually become our solar system. It accreted over the course of roughly the first million years after the beginning or our solar system. (That is to say, during the first million years after the very first solids condensed from the protoplanetary disk.) The parent body had an iron-nickel “planetary” core, 50–110 km in radius, that was eventually exposed by collisions that stripped away most of its insulating mantle. It cooled very slowly over the next 1-2 million years. It is estimated (with startling precision) by Pb-Pb dating that the body crossed below a temperature of ~300 °C at 4565.3 ± 0.1 million years ago, just 2-3 million years after the solar system began to form. For the next four billion years, it led a largely unremarkable existence as an asteroid (minor planet) until it broke apart (possibly due to a major collision) about 400 million years ago. Then, one fine day roughly one million years ago, a large fragment entered the earth’s atmosphere, breaking into hundreds (perhaps, thousands) of smaller fragments that rained down in a shower of fire upon what is now northern Sweden and Finland. Four ice ages transported the surviving meteorite fragments across the Swedish tundra, until their first discovery (and naming after the nearby Muonio river) in 1906.

But, how do we know all of that?
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From the mailbag: Fun soldering

Eric wrote in to say:

It was fun. It was fun to build the Larson Scanner. It was fun because I successfully put it together and it worked as designed. It was so fun I’ll do this again!

In the mid 70′s I attempted to construct a Radio Shack short wave radio kit with a soldering gun. That’s right, I used a soldering gun. Believe it or not, it worked … as a battery heater upper.

Thank you for the helpful instructions and well designed kit. It’s nice to know that 40 years after my last kit, I can drop the battery killer nickname.

The Power of the Digi-Comp II

Last fall, we built an oversized Digi-Comp II for MIT, which we’ll be posting about in the near future. Today, MIT computer science professor Scott Aaronson published a short “paperlet” about the computational capabilities of the Digi-Comp II on his blog, Shtetl-Optimized:

…it’s amazing that such a simple contraption of balls and toggles could already take us over the threshold of universality.  Universality would immediately explain why the Digi-Comp is capable of multiplication, division, sorting, and so on.  If, on the other hand, we don’t have universality, that too is extremely interesting—for we’d then face the challenge of explaining how the Digi-Comp can do so many things without being universal.

Pen tests for drawing machines

Jenslabs has published a thoughtful and thorough evaluation of a number of currently available rollerball and gel pens. He tested them using his Circlon machine.

One thing that anyone who as ever built a drawing machine realizes, is that to get quality results you need a quality pen. There are millions of pens out there, but after a little trial and error I realized that rollerball pens or pens with gel ink are the best pen types for my machine. Both rollerball and gel ink pens use a water based ink that is less viscous then the oil based ink used in ballpoint pens. The Circlon machine sometimes move very fast, so the pen has to be able to release enough ink to make solid lines even at high speed.

This is an excellent resource for folks with other drawing machines, such as Egg-Bots and WaterColorBots. We’ve linked to it from our page about choosing pens for the Egg-Bot as well.

Electro-Kistka: Alternate In-Place Egg Dyeing Technique

After seeing our recent post on dyeing in eggs in place with the Eggbot, Ragnar posted instructions in the forums for an alternative egg dyeing technique.

It involves pre-installing a plastic dyeing bag at the time of positioning the egg in the Eggbot. Full instructions (with more photos) are in the forum post. Thank you for demonstrating this technique, Ragnar!

Electro-Kistka: Dyeing an Egg in Place?

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In our annoucement article about the EggBot Electro-Kistka — the hot wax dispenser for the EggBot — we noted that it can be challenging to reposition an egg after taking it out to dye the egg between wax layers.

As an alternative suggestion, reader Dan commented:

Could you leave the egg in the EggBot and paint on the first layer(s) of dye with a brush? Then dip the egg for the last layer to get the ends covered.

Well, let’s try and see how it turns out!

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Ingenious 1970′s Technology: The Flip Flash

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Once upon a time, cameras did not come with LED illumination or even xenon strobes, but rather with a socket that could fire a one-time-use flashbulb.

An advance from this was the “flip flash” cartridge which held 8 or 10 flash bulbs, ganged up so that you could take one photo after another, without pausing to swap bulbs. Each time that you took a picture (exposing actual film!), the next flashbulb in the cartridge would fire.

But you might ask a tricky question here: How does it know which bulb to fire next?

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A Giant Breadboard for the Giant 555

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One of the common reactions that people have when they first see our Three Fives kit is to joke “Now all I need is a giant breadboard!”  Well, Michael Pechner actually designed and made one, and put the files up on Thingiverse.  He built the design in Fusion 360 with a little help from Michael Gregg and printed it out in PLA ABS on his 3D printer.

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Thus far, the design is “plastic only,” without the metal inserts that one would find in a real electronic breadboard — but that’s okay, since the aluminum legs on the Three Fives kit are also decorative rather than functional. But, there are holes in the tops and slots in the bottom in case someone would like to add them.


Kids Hack Day

Inspired by the global hackerspace movement and (software) hack days, Kids Hack Day is a 1-day event held in various locations around the world, where children and adults come together to “hack” and make new uses of every day items.

This incredibly charming video from the Kids Hack Day kickoff event in Moscow on May 25 shows you what it’s all about. (And, we are tickled to see our own WaterColorBot and EggBot making little appearances as well.)

The Incredible Computer-Controlled … Computer!

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A guest post by Daniel Gentleman 

About a year ago, I started working on a project that used robotics to control a Surface Pro tablet. Not long after I started, I got my first glimpse at the the WaterColorBot on display at Maker Faire Bay Area 2013. The WaterColorBot is designed to carry a paintbrush over a piece of paper, raising and lowering it as needed to paint a picture. The movement and software control is similar to CNC router with special design modifications to make it lighter, cheaper and easier to control. A CNC router has to move heavyweight cutting bit with friction so needs expensive motors, rails, and belts. The WaterColorBot, on the other hand, needs only to move a paintbrush in a low friction environment.

I was instantly sold on the idea of using a WaterColorBot to control the Surface. I backed the Kickstarter, waited for my bot to arrive, and started working on software. When the WaterColorBot arrived, I was not disappointed. The assembly was quick and I was robotically painting in no time.

With the big mechanical and electronic solutions solved, my attention turned to the tablet. The Surface Pro is rare among tablets in that it uses a digitizer that allows extremely precise tracking with a stylus along with “hover” and “right-click” functionality. It does not need to be electrically grounded like a stylus for a screen that only supports capacitive touch. I was certain that the Surface Pro was the way to go, but not quite how it was going to be held together. The project was about to take a another serendipitous turn.


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The custom-cut spoilboard

At this point, I shared my enthusiasm with Windell and Lenore of Evil Mad Scientist and they gave me a unique offer: Stop by the Evil Mad Scientist shop and together we would make a custom cut spoilboard (lower deck) fitted to mount the Surface Pro 2. Wielding digital calipers and other measurement and software tools, Windell came up with a design that held the tablet firmly and had extra space cut out for the charger, power button, and USB cable.

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The area beneath the tablet has a lip and a lower recessed area. This design reduces wobble and makes it look even better. On the topic of machining – I got a few lessons in how larger CNC machines work. Windell showed me some design considerations in software and gave me a safety briefing about the CNC router itself. This thing can cut fast.

After a little sanding, we fitted the tablet, spoilboard, and WaterColorBot together. Having the co-creators of the WaterColorBot with me on this journey was priceless, as we can see from the final assembly. The first spoilboard we cut matched perfectly and the tablet is held firmly in place.

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With enthusiasm fueled by seeing it all fit together, we decided to tell the WaterColorBot to do some painting. Windell loaded up an example sketch in Inkscape and, with only a minute to calibrate the stylus height, we were drawing!

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The software running on the Surface Pro is called FreshPaint and we chose a simple marker tool. In the video, you’ll hear a laughter break where the Surface picked up the floating toolbar in the app and dragged it around the screen.

Given a little time, we could have taught the WaterColorBot to change brushes and colors in FreshPaint, but our goals for the day were met. The light weight and low friction of the Surface stylus is perfectly matched for use on the WaterColorBot. A custom fitted spoilboard means the Surface will always be at the exact same place on the X/Y plane, greatly simplifying future software development. Next project: Teaching the robot how to see!

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(Full disclosure: My day job is Systems Operations with Yammer, a Microsoft company. This project and use of the Surface Pro 2 is not affiliated with Microsoft in any way nor did they influence the project with sponsorship or exercise any editorial control. If they had, I’d try to talk them into contributing a Surface Pro 3! “Surface” is a trademark of Microsoft Corporation.)