Sunday, January 23, 2011

NearSpace UltraLight

The UltraLight kit is just about ready for sale (I'm waiting for some PICAXE-28X's and to complete the directions). I've added a bunch of new stuff to the kit, including a control panel, commit tag, audio beacon, and antenna, as you can see in the picture above.

The NearSpace UltraLight is the easiest way to begin a near space program. The kit can be assembled over a weekend. All you need to complete the kit is decide on your battery and its termination (I use Anderson Powerpoles). If you have cameras, then you'll also need to select a termination method for them (I recommend Dean's micro plugs).

NearSys sells a GPS receiver kit. It is designed for flight computers like the UltraLight. The UltraLight and GPS coupled together is a complete flight computer. Build an airframe and purchase a parachute and you can begin exploring near space.

About the Flight Computer

The UltraLight digitizes four analog sensor voltages, operates three digital experiments (like geiger counters), controls two cameras, and positions two servos (the servos have their own battery). The UltraLight's audio beacon makes enough noise that you can locate the near spacecraft in tall grass or corn fields. The control panel lets you program the flight computer and download data without having to open the airframe. You can also communicate with the flight computer while launch crews are filling the balloon (perhaps to verify sensor operation prior to launch). The flight computer's Tiny Trak is also assessible through the control panel (but not while the GPS is plugged in) The control panel indicates the near spacecraft's power status and the status of the Tiny Trak (that is, when it is transmitting and when its GPS has a lock). The bright red commit tag screams a reminder to begin the mission before releasing the balloon. That way you can power up the near spacecraft and wait for a GPS lock before recording mission data (who wants a bunch of data on the ground when you're headed to 100,000 feet?).

The Onboard Tiny Trak

The APRS tracker is built right into the flight computer. The 500 mW transmitter and dipole antenna will let you track the entire mission. Since the transmitter is set for 144.390 MHz, I-Gates can put your tracking data online, allowing everyone in the world to track your flight (very useful when your chase vehicle is located in the null of the antenna).

Mission Data

Mission data is stored in 32kB of memory. After recovery, reprogram the flight computer to download its data right into your PICAXE Editor (with its built-in terminal program). This can be done right in the field if your want (bring your netbook along). The data is then saved as a text file and opened in Excel. You can be generating results from the mission at the post recovery lunch!

It may take another week to get the kits packed and the directions in their first draft. Meanwhikle, feel free to contact me if you have questions.

I guess it's time to start a forum!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Complete Near Space Flight Computer

I finally received the ten 144.390 MHz transmitters I ordered for near space flight computer kits. In the interim, I developed GPS and antenna kits. The picture above shows what a complete flight computer kits looks like.

Shortly, beginners will be able to purchase a complete near space flight computer. After assemblying the kit, all you will need is a parachute, battery, and airframe. The kit will include a control panel to communicate and control the flight computer from outside the airframe, a 2m dipole antenna, GPS receiver tested to 103,000 feet, audio locator beacon, and programmable flight computer.

The first kit is based on the PICAXE-28 and the second based on the BASIC Stamp. Check the NearSys website ( for information as I get my updates in order. Until then, feel free to contact me through email.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Near Space in a Can

The Near Space in a Can thermal vacuum chamber is about ready for retail. The image above is missing its vacuum gauge, which is at school. Otherwise, you now get a good idea of what it will look like. The kit should be no more than $150.

Just pack the Near Space in a Can with dry ice and let it chill before loading the test subject inside. Then pump it down with your vacuum pump. The environment inside will match near space conditions.

The stainless steel canister is 7.5 inches in diameter and 7.5 inches deep. The clear plexiglass cover lets you observe the experiment inside and even video tape the test.

A future upgrade will bring wiring inside so you can communicate with experiments inside.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Single Axis Arm with Snare End-Effector

I completed my design of a single axis robotic arm. The servo lifts and lowers the arm like a traditional arm. What is different is the end effector that allows the arm to pick up objects. It's a wire snare, similar to the end effector on the Space Shutter robotic arm. A mini servo extends and retracts the wire snare, letting it wrap around and tighten around th object to be picked up.

Look for a magazine article (in Servo) and a kit to made available shorty.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Near Space in a Can

I ran the first tests of a new thermal vacuum chamber. It's a stainless steel can with vacuum and cable ports. The can fits inside a plastic ice chest that can be packed with dry ice (see my Nuts and volts article on this subject).

The front of the chamber is sealed with thick acrylic plastic to permit observations of the interior of the chamber during testing. The cable port permits power to enter the chamber for its ultraviolet source and temperature sensor. Pressure inside the chamber is monitored with an analog pressure gauge.

I call the thermal vacuum chamber, Near Space in a Can. It's the second simulator NearSys will sell (the GPS simulator is the first). Near Space in a Can is large enough to test BalloonSats and CubSats.

Near Space in a Can will be available from NearSys in 2011 as an affordable kit.

Robot Terminal

I finally had time to figure out how to send AT commands to the Digi Xbee radios. I've worked with them previously, but wasn't comfortable enough with how I was setting the radios. Now I've got them working the way I want.

Therefore, I will shortly be offering a robot terminal kit. It will permit you to communicate with a robot using your PC. I've got an example robot set up right now. It drives and turns as instructed while confirming the communications. The robot carries a simple arm and video transmitters that is also controlled over the radio. The robot is smart, it attempts to carry out your commands as best it can. Since the robot is using a ChapBot-14, it is a little limited - so eventually, I'll interface the radio with a CheapBot-18 on an articulated robot body and more complex arm. Moon rover anyone?

I'll also create a kit to allow BalloonSats to communicate with each other in order to create near space constellations.