The NerdKit Temperature Sensor

Temperature sensorOne of the first NerdKits projects involves programming a temperature sensor, not unlike the one that comes built in to the Sprite. The temperature sensor in the NerdKit looks very much like a transistor, but in this case the left pin connects to the voltage and the right pin connects to ground. The middle pin outputs analogue measurements corresponding to the amount of heat in its environment. In order to use this data, the microcontroller unit must first convert it into digital information.

The analogue-to-digital conversion executes according to the C program that I write, with help from the NerdKits libraries. At the highest level, the MCU executes the following main function: Continue reading

MCU Programming with the NerdKit

The USB NerdKit is an introduction to microcontrollers package offered by NerdKits.com. Rather than being an integrated development platform like the TI Launchpad or the Arduino, the NerdKit is composed of modular components and is designed to teach newcomers the fundamentals of embedded systems. In other words, it’s a perfect place to start learning about MCU programming.

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Our Past, Present, and Future in Space

This last Wednesday, December 7 was a big day for the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville physics department. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson visited the campus through a joint effort between the university’s Arts & Issues program, an annual lecture series that has been part of campus life for over 25 years, and the Shaw lecture series, a biennial presentation focusing on special topics in physics.

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The Four-Three-Oh

MSP430While the final hardware specifications of the Sprite are still in flux, the microcontroller unit that will serve as the spacecraft’s brain has been more or less set. Meet the TI MSP430.

The MSP430 is branded as an “Ultra-Low Power” processor capable of interacting with analog signals, sensors, and digital components. It’s a 16-bit chip, like the CPU in the SNES (or, if you Nintendidn’t, the Sega Genesis). Of course, if all goes as planned the Sprite won’t be playing Earthbound; it will be sending radio signals from orbit.

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Captain’s Log, Stardate 11923.7

The Kickstarter project‘s funding period has closed successfully, which means that I (and over 100 others) have a little Sputnik destined for the sky. Twenty-six of those backers will be programming their Sprites before liftoff, myself included.

Some of the backers are individuals like myself, but others – such as the British Interplanetary Society and Kidz in Space – have designated their Sprites to be part of a fleet. Being part of a Sprite fleet adds an extra dimension to the endeavor because it opens the possibility of networked communication between the spacecraft. I’m looking forward to seeing how these groups decide to use their fleets.

Prototype solar cellsPrototype solar cells

The Cornell team spent the last couple of months improving the prototype design. The Sprites now carry more efficient solar cells. Additionally, a shortlist of on-board sensor candidates is being assembled. A basic Sprite contains only one sensor, a temperature sensor built in to its microcontroller unit (MCU). Adding a three-axis magnetometer or a gyroscope to the spacecraft would significantly extend its capabilities, making the information it sends back to Earth via radio transmissions more dynamic. The challenge lies in finding sensors that can be powered by the solar cells and are small enough to fit on the board.

So it’s official – this project is now in motion. Ladies and gentlemen, we have left stardock!