Monthly Archives: July 2018

Enginursday: Space Mining for Profit (and Fun!)

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

If you’re looking to buy (and have the cash to afford it), the most valuable real estate in the solar system may be at the south pole of our moon. A peculiarity of orbital mechanics has left the floors of several large craters in permanent shadow. These “cold traps,” which are hundreds of degrees below zero, may be filled with the frozen remains of a billion years' worth of comet impacts. Here in the darkness could lie millions of tons of one of the most valuable materials in the solar system: water. And a motivated group of engineers, geologists, miners and businesspeople are making plans to go get it.

A view of the Moon's South Pole from NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter


Space mines are a staple of science fiction, with famous names like Kessel, Rura Penthe and Arrakis. Looking at our current space program, it’s hard to imagine how we’ll get from where we are to the point where such massive infrastructure (as unsavory as the above examples are) is even possible. But we’re rapidly entering a new phase of space exploration: government leadership, which has provided the federal-sized investment needed to develop the technologies that first got us to space, is giving way to commercial enterprise. The first fortunes made in space were from data, such as telecommunications and remote sensing. Now companies are working on the next wave: searching for actual physical resources (and the means to extract them) that they can ship back to Earth at a profit, or better yet, leave in space to develop entirely new off-world economies.

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For the last nine years, a group of space-mining enthusiasts has been meeting at the Colorado School of Mines each year to share their research, ideas and prototype hardware at the Space Resources Roundtable (SRR) and Planetary & Terrestrial Mining Sciences Symposium (PTMSS). The attendees are experts in a wide variety of disciplines, and given the wildly speculative subject matter they’re surprisingly pragmatic… For example, many of the conference talks revolve around business plans, and when speaker Mike Jude asked whether anyone would invest in a plan with a 55% chance of return on investment, nobody raised their hand. Even so, there’s a palpable excitement that with decreasing costs from a new generation of launch providers, and signs of increasing government support, the vision they’ve been collectively working on for years may be closer to reality than ever before.

The business case for space mining hinges on the fact that launching anything from the ground to space is phenomenally expensive, and for the moment, at least, anything you need in space has to be brought up the hard way. For example, one of the most valuable things you can have in space is rocket fuel, since it allows you to move things around - the basis of commerce. On the Earth’s surface, rocket fuel costs about $1 per kilogram, but by the time you’ve expended the enormous amount of energy it takes to lift it from the ground to low earth orbit (LEO), it costs the equivalent of $4,000/kg. And if you continue moving it all the way to the moon’s surface, the price jumps to $35,000/kg. You can see why thus far, access to space has only been available to those with very deep pockets.

But if you could find a source of rocket fuel that’s already in space, you would eliminate the enormous costs of lifting it out of Earth’s gravity well, and this is where all that water at the lunar pole comes into play. If you separate water into hydrogen and oxygen - BAM! - you’ve got rocket fuel. Propellant will probably be the major initial product of lunar mining, but water is valuable in many other ways. Oxygen is obviously essential for eventual human habitation, but it is also a vital part of chemical reactions that can be used to extract resources from lunar soil, including aluminum and silicon. Conference attendee Robert Zubrin has famously spent years working on these chemical reactions for In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). His company builds complex machines that ingest lunar or Martian resources and transform them into highly useful materials, almost like magic.

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Thus far space mining has suffered from a chicken-and-egg problem: Nobody wants to develop infrastructure beyond low Earth orbit because the fuel is too expensive, and nobody wants to invest in a refinery because there are no customers yet. But in 2016, George Sowers, then chief scientist for the United Launch Alliance (ULA) and now a professor at the Colorado School of Mines, made a remarkable offer: ULA would commit to purchasing rocket propellant mined from the moon at various prices depending on where it can be delivered, from $500/kg on the lunar surface, to $3,000/kg in low Earth orbit.

What ULA gets out of this deal is a supply of fuel for a new spacecraft they’re developing called the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage, or ACES. Once launched, ACES vehicles would remain in space and serve as shuttles, hauling cargo between various orbits around the Earth and the moon. Unlike conventional spacecraft that typically rely on batteries or solar panels, ACES will be able to generate electrical power indefinitely from its own fuel using an internal-combustion engine. And of course, ACES will be able to be refueled in space as needed.

With a first-time-ever commodity buyer and a price, space mining professionals immediately went back to their business models to see if they would close. But before we get to that, what would a space mine actually look like?

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CSM Dreyer/Williams/Sowers

Doing anything in space is risky and expensive, so the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle definitely applies. Rather than a full sci-fi approach involving heavy equipment, tunnels and alien prisoners, many of the current proposals are surprisingly low-tech. One such proposal formulated by professor Sowers and his students at the Colorado School of Mines involves placing clear plastic tents over small areas of water-rich lunar soil in the south polar craters, then using mirrors on the crater rim (which are in “eternal sunlight” in the same way the crater floors are in “eternal darkness”) to reflect sunlight through the tent to heat the soil. The water trapped in the soil will sublimate to vapor in the low pressure, be trapped by the tent, and can then be pumped off, split into hydrogen and oxygen and liquefied for storage and transport. With a small amount of AI to account for the communications delay, these machines could easily be tele-operated (“grad students are cheap labor” notes Sowers), eliminating the need to send humans to the moon, at least at first.

So what would such a mine cost to put into operation? The thermal mine study above would require 29 metric tons of equipment to be delivered to the lunar surface at a cost of $2.5 billion dollars (assuming a completely commercial enterprise with no NASA assistance). The infrastructure would take five years to come on-line, and would then make $500 million per year in revenue. In 10 years the $2.5B investment will have been paid back, and the facility would begin operating in the black. Interestingly these numbers are comparable to terrestrial mines, but financing a terrestrial mine is much easier - businesspeople and investors are familiar with terrestrial risks, but space is a whole new ballgame.

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George Sowers

Everyone at this year’s conference agreed that the next step toward lunar mining operations should be the same thing you’d do for a terrestrial mine: good old-fashioned prospecting. Scientists believe that there’s water in the polar craters because lunar orbiting spacecraft have seen tantalizing hints of it, and in a very clever experiment, Tony Colaprete of the NASA Ames Research Center steered a spent rocket body into one of the polar craters, finding at least 5 percent water in the resulting cloud of debris. But nobody has directly touched lunar soil since the Apollo days, and we now believe those landings were in particularly dry areas.

Before someone writes a $2.5B check to a space mining concern, they’re going to want to see some proof that they’re digging in the right place, so it’s going to take wheels-on-the-ground measurements of potential mining locations before the heavy equipment is called in. With this in mind, NASA was working on a rover called Lunar Resource Prospector specifically to measure lunar soil for water and other volatiles; unfortunately that mission was canceled due to budget cuts earlier this year. Conference members will not be dissuaded, however, and have their own back-up prospecting plans including rovers, low-altitude cubesats and instruments that could be flown on other missions. All it will take, as usual, is funding. In fact, one conference member astutely pointed out that we should stop saying things like, “We’ll be on the surface of Mars in 10 years,” and instead say, “We’ll be on the surface of Mars in 10 billion dollars,” as that is a much more accurate description of the barrier to doing these things.

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I could go on and on about the many other topics that are covered at these conferences in the areas of policy, technology, business and science, but I’ll mention that much of this work is being done by small groups within NASA and at universities and companies around the world, so there’s plenty of opportunity to get involved, especially if you’re good at coming up with creative solutions to difficult problems. If you’re a student, I’d encourage you to get involved in NASA’s many programs and challenges, particularly their Robotics Mining Challenge, which we’ll be covering in a future blog post.

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Hackspace magazine 9: tools, tools, tools

via Raspberry Pi

Rejoice! It’s time for a new issue of Hackspace magazine, packed with things for you to make, build, hack, and create!

raspberry pi press hackspace magazine


HackSpace magazine issue 9

Tools: they’re what separates humans from the apes! Whereas apes use whatever they find around them to get honey, pick pawpaws, and avoid prickly pears, we humans take the step of making things with which to make other things. That’s why in this issue of HackSpace magazine, we look at 50 essential tools to make you better at making (and by extension better at being a human). Take a look, decide which ones you need, and imagine the projects that will be possible with your shiny new stuff.


In issue 9, we feature Konichiwakitty, known as Rachel Wong to her friends, who is taking the maker world by storm with her range of electronic wearables.

Alongside making wearables and researching stem cells, she also advocates for getting young people into crafting, including making their own wearables!


Remap is a fantastic organisation. It’s comprised of volunteer makers and builders who use their skills to adapt the world and build tech to help people with disabilities. Everyone in the maker community can do amazing stuff, and it’s wonderful that so many of you offer your time and skills for free to benefit people in need.


The band Echo and the Bunnymen famously credited a drum machine as a band member, and with our tutorial, you too can build your own rhythm section using a Teensy microcontroller, a breadboard, and a few buttons.

And if that’s not enough electro beats for you, we’ve also got a guide to generating MIDI inputs with a joystick — because keyboards and frets are so passé.

Pi Wars

Having shiny new stuff on its own isn’t enough to spur most people to action. No, they need a reason to make, for example total mechanical dominance over their competitors. Offering an arena for such contests is the continuing mission of Tim Richardson, who along with Mike Horne created Pi Wars.

In its five-ish years, Pi Wars has become one of the biggest events on the UK maker calendar, with an inspired mix of robots, making, programming, and healthy competition. We caught up with Tim to find out how to make a maker event, what’s next for Pi Wars, and how to build a robot to beat the best.


Do you ever lie awake at night wondering how many strangers on the internet like you? If so (or if you have a business with a social media presence, which seems more likely), you might be interested in our tutorial for a social media follower counter.

raspberry pi press hackspace magazine

This build takes raw numbers from the internet’s shouting forums and turns them into physical validation, so you can watch your follower count increase in real time as you shout into the void about whether Football’s Coming Home. 

And there’s more…

In this issue, you can also:

  • See how to use the Google AIY Projects Vision kit to turn a humble water pistol into a single-minded dousing machine that doesn’t feel pity, fear, or remorse
  • Find out how to make chocolate in whatever shape you want
  • Learn from a maker who put 20 hours work into a project only to melt her PCBs and have to start all over again (spoiler alert: it all worked out in the end)

All this, plus a bunch of reviews and many, many more projects to dig into, in Hackspace magazine issue 9.

Get your copy of HackSpace magazine

If you like the sound of this month’s content, you can find HackSpace magazine in WHSmith, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and independent newsagents in the UK. If you live in the US, check out your local Barnes & Noble, Fry’s, or Micro Center next week. We’re also shipping to stores in Australia, Hong Kong, Canada, Singapore, Belgium, and Brazil, so be sure to ask your local newsagent whether they’ll be getting HackSpace magazine. And if you’d rather try before you buy, you can always download the free PDF.

Subscribe now

Subscribe now” may not be subtle as a marketing message, but we really think you should. You’ll get the magazine early, plus a lovely physical paper copy, which has really good battery life.

raspberry pi press hackspace magazine

Oh, and 12-month print subscribers get an Adafruit Circuit Playground Express loaded with inputs and sensors and ready for your next project.

The post Hackspace magazine 9: tools, tools, tools appeared first on Raspberry Pi.

SparkFun AVC 2018: party, prizes, and your chance to be famous

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

Today we want to share with our competitors this year’s prizes, and some exciting news about the competition weekend. We want to extend a big thanks to our returning sponsor Digi-Key Electronics for continuing to support SparkFun AVC and helping make this year’s event our best party yet.

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First things first: We have our first round of prize announcements!! This year we’ve created more focused student team competitions, added a 60-lb combat bot division and brought back Logistics Class. First-place winners in each of these categories will receive a cash prize or, like many competitors did last year, SparkFun will make an equivalent donation to a non-profit of the winner’s choice.

K12 Prizes

$250 cash prize to the winning team for the following divisions:

  • Plastic Ants
  • Featherweight
  • Logistics Class
  • Autonomous Car Wars
  • Speed Demons

Higher Ed

$250 cash prize to the winning team for the following divisions:

  • Antweight
  • Beetleweight
  • Hobbyweight
  • Featherweight
  • Lightweight
  • Logistics Class
  • Autonomous Car Wars
  • Speed Demons


$500 cash prize to the winning team for the following divisions:

  • Antweight
  • Beetleweight
  • Hobbyweight
  • Featherweight
  • Lightweight
  • Logistics Class
  • Autonomous Car Wars
  • Speed Demons

We will have more announcements over the next few weeks regarding special awards or additional prizes from our sponsors!

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Digi-Key Electronics is hosting a Competitor Reception on Friday, September 7, at the Boulder County Fairgrounds from 6-8 p.m. We’ll be bringing in some delicious food and some entertainment to welcome our teams to Boulder for our 10th AVC. For all our teams that arrive a day early to check in, set up your pits, and test your bots, be sure to stick around for a fun evening!

We will be sending invitations to our registered competitors to RSVP. Non-team members are welcome to join; expect more info on the party in the coming weeks.

Your 15 Minutes of Fame

We have a dream to broadcast this year’s event to the far corners of the universe, and have thus brought in a production team to capture the whole event for a livestream on September 8. We’ll be interviewing some of you for the big screen (or little screen, if you’re watching on your phone) to capture some of the most creative and compelling competitor stories to share with our audience.

If you want to explain your robot or vehicle on camera, feel free to email us at and stay tuned for more info on how to share the livestream with your friends and family!

If you still haven’t registered for AVC this year, head over to to get your bot signed up!

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Learn how to document your code

via Raspberry Pi

In our latest resource, we show you how to create a website and use it to document your coding projects.

documenting your code Raspberry Pi resources

Why document your code?

Search the web with the right key words for your programming conundrum, and you’re bound to find someone who has written software to address a question that’s at least similar to yours. And not only that, they’re also making their software freely available under an open source license, and writing documentation to help you use their code. How awesome it that?!

Many people who write code are eager to share their programs and allow others to use and remix them according to their own needs. This is why the open source community is so inviting for makers, especially those who want to make projects that are yet beyond their ability to build from scratch.

So unless you plan on turning your code into a money-making commodity, you’re writing scripts that you can share with others. By adding clear, supporting online documentation to your code, you’ll help people all over the world to not only use your software but to also understand what everything does and become better programmers themselves.

Our resource

In our latest resource, we show you how to use docstrings to automatically create documentation for your Python code. Then, we walk you through using Sphinx to build a website showcasing this documentation and any example scripts you want to share with the world.

You’ll learn how to create supporting documentation to guide users through elements of your code, add multiple pages to your website, and use themes to costumise the site’s layout and make it stand out.

You can find the resource here, and our full list of free resources here on our projects site.

More free resources

We’ve also recently released a new Sense HAT music player project, along with a resource teaching basic Raspberry Pi terminal navigation skills with a fun game to find all the Pac-Man ghosts.

The post Learn how to document your code appeared first on Raspberry Pi.

New Product: Dual TB9051FTG Motor Driver for Raspberry Pi

via Pololu Blog

I am excited to share the second Pololu product for which I routed the PCB, the Dual TB9051FTG Motor Driver for Raspberry Pi. This board complements the TB9051FTG Single Brushed DC Motor Driver Carrier and the recently announced Dual TB9051FTG Motor Driver Shield for Arduino by making it easy to control two motors with a Raspberry Pi (Model B+ or newer).

The TB9051FTG can deliver a few amps across a wide operating voltage (4.5 to 28 V), which makes this expansion board ideal for controlling two small or medium size motors in your Raspberry Pi project. You can optionally connect a voltage regulator, like a D24V10F5 or D24V22F5 step down regulator, to power the Raspberry Pi with your motor power supply. The board also provides a prototyping area to help you construct clean custom circuits without the need for additional prototyping PCBs beyond the footprint of your Raspberry Pi.

The Dual TB9051FTG Motor Driver for Raspberry Pi is available in two versions:

  • a partial kit, with connectors included but not soldered in
  • fully assembled, with the female header and terminal blocks soldered to the board

The board adheres to the Raspberry Pi HAT (Hardware Attached on Top) mechanical specification, although it does not conform to the full HAT specifications due to the lack of an ID EEPROM. (A footprint for adding your own EEPROM is available for applications where one would be useful.)

With the addition of this product, we now have eight Raspberry Pi motor driver expansion boards for you to choose from. To control more powerful motors, we offer various high-power motor drivers for Raspberry Pi. If you don’t need all the power provided by the TB9051FTG, consider our small and inexpensive DRV8835 Dual Motor Driver for Raspberry Pi or the dual MAX14870 motor driver expansion board (the first board I routed).

We have an introductory discount to go with this new product announcement. The first 100 customers to use coupon code RPITB9051INTRO can get up to two units for just $10.95 each. Note that this introductory offer applies only to the units without connectors soldered in. The introductory coupons for the single TB9051FTG carrier, the dual TB9051FTG Arduino shield, and some other products introduced this year are still available; you can see all the coupons available on our specials page.

Project Showcase: DIY Ray Gun

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

I had an engraving laser just laying on my desk and a coworker says to me, “You should make it go ‘pew pew’ when it lights up.” I felt some obligation to make that a reality. The world needs this to exist. With parts gathered, it was time to CAD, cut, solder and PEW!

Overall the project went really well, but there were some problems.

The original battery (for which the handle was designed) went bad and I replaced it with a lame-o 9V. It was a two-cell lipo, which produces 7.4 volts. This was on the fringe of what the laser required, so when the battery got low, the laser stopped firing even though there was still sound. Also, during the build, I intended to replace the lame-o 9V with a fresh one, but forgot. Now the battery is dead and difficult to get to.

One disappointment is the reset time of the audio chip. From the time it completes playing one sound file, it takes over a second before it is willing to start playing the next, and it cannot stop midway through playback. For the ray gun, I like to think the laser needs a moment to cool down before the next shot. That makes me feel better. The Little Soundie is still a great sound board. It is well suited for applications that do not require rapid playback from one track to the next.

Perhaps the biggest oops of the project is the mode selector switch. While filming the time lapse of assembly, I broke two wires off. It selected the three modes of fire, which played different sounds and increased power to the laser. Default is “stun” and I called the others “kill” and “vaporize.” They sounded like “pew,” “wah-wah-wah-wah-wah,” and “wee-wee-wee-wee-wee” respectively.

Big wins

The parts fit as expected. I know you’re supposed to account for the kerf of your cutting tool, but I didn’t. I just laser cut the layers from 3 mm plywood. The spray paint covered my laziness and everything fit tightly. It feels solid when held.

I learned a lot about CAD. I’ve had formal training on AutoCAD, but Fusion360 is a whole other animal. It’s a real pleasure to work with, and there are a bunch of tutorial video on the web to help. The best part is it has a free license for hobbyists like me. The platform enabled me to share the CAD source if you’d like to adapt it to your own ray gun. The Arduino sketch is here.

It was a blast to build and I recommend you build one too… except for the dangerous bit of a laser that could cause bodily damage. Pick a safer laser.

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