A Technophilic Winter Interlude

My life recently has seemed to take even more of a slant towards computers than usual, invoking a sort of single-mindedness that I rarely exhibit. The realisation that I have finally found the subject that I appear to be most talented at has given me a new focus on life and on my studies, reigniting my competitive spark, but cutting into my ability to focus my attention on other details of my life, not only the banal elements, like my employment, but also some of my other interests, like cinema, literature and even computer gaming. My Christmas, given that my exams are approaching, hasn’t really given me much of a respite from that, and my Christmas presents largely reflect that.

Several new items have been appended to my book collection, some relating to my non-computing interests, like motor vehicles and aircraft, but most relating to programming. The official Oracle reference for the Java language, Java: The Complete Reference, now sits on my shelves, along with seven new volumes of the O’Reilly Pocket Reference series. Given that I will probably have quite a bit more to do with Java before my education is finished, and possibly afterwards, it seems like a good time to redouble my efforts with the language. With that aim in mind, the Oracle reference makes a welcome addition to my definitive programming references, along with Brian Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie’s seminal treatise on the C programming language and a printed copy of the R5RS Scheme reference manual.

All of those books are for (at least ostensibly) serious work, though. My other computer-related present had a rather more substantial bent towards entertainment. Since I got my Raspberry Pi earlier during the year, I have been curious as to both the software elements, which I have explored quite deeply, as well as the hardware opportunities presented by the GPIO pins. Until now, I have been unable to afford the parts to really explore the electronic aspect of the Raspberry Pi, which made me happy when I got to open one of my packages on Christmas Day.

What I received was the Starter Kit C from SK Pang Electronics in the UK, a kit including a laser-cut acrylic base for the Raspberry Pi, a large 840-contact breadboard, various resistors, LEDs and tactile switches, jumper wires for connecting the GPIO ports to the contact points on the breadboard, as well as a series of other components such as an analogue-digital converter, an 8-bit I2C extender, a Trimpot 10K potentiometer and an analogue temperature sensor. The package arrived with all of the components professionally arranged, with the base requiring only a few minutes for assembly. As soon as the base was ready and the breadboard was placed, I could begin with the GPIO work, taking some tips from the tutorials on the SK Pang website, along with others in the MagPi magazine.

So far, I haven’t done much independent electronic experimentation; my time with the Raspberry Pi has largely consisted of testing whether the various electronic components worked as expected, taking other people’s source code and running it with the component layout I retrieved from other sources. My own tests have been limited to programming LEDs to flash in sequence, but I believe that I can come up with some personal projects without too much delay. I’d like to see whether I can conjoin the GPIO programming with my own game programming development, which could lead to some hardware interfaces tying into my game designs!

While the resistors, LEDs and switches found in the SK Pang starter kit can easily be found in other electronic experimenting kits of comparable quality, what interests me about the kit that I have is the range of additional components to experiment with. These components can also be bought separately from many electronic suppliers, which means that there are good ideas floating out there, and having them all to experiment with early on allows me to plan ahead more quickly for other ideas. I’m sure that when I have the time, I can have some real fun with my new parts.

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The Unexpected Satellite – Part 3

After several hours of discomfort for all of the crew members, the Chronos had finally reached a velocity more suitable for making contact with the stranded asteroid miner. Alan had switched the centrifuge in the main crew compartment back on, but it would take several minutes for the motors to defeat the inertia of the heavy disc that comprised that part of the spacecraft. In the meantime, the Commander and Vice-Commander traded reports about various navigational and scanning issues. The evidence was becoming clearer: There certainly was a metallic object of substantial proportions proceeding on the trajectory that the ECSA had predicted for the asteroid miner, large enough to be a spacecraft and, to the relief of all, appearing to be in one piece.

As Alan rolled up his reading screen and placed it into his pocket, Gerhard, the mathematician on board the Chronos, pulled himself out of his seat and floated over to Alan.

Is the crew compartment almost prepared?” Gerhard asked, in a German accent which Alan perceived with his paltry knowledge of German to have been tempered somewhat by years of speaking English.

Yeah, Gerhard,” Alan replied. “Just waiting for the centrifuge to spin up fully. Do you have those read-outs handy?”

Yes, yes,” Gerhard said with an air of reassurance. “They’re on my tablet.”

Right, then, Gerhard. I’ll see you in the recreational room, then?”

Gerhard raised his hand in a salute, turning towards the hatch in the centre of the room and pushing himself towards the ceiling to grip a handhold. Alan checked his wrist computer to check the rotational speed of the centrifuge, seeing that it was close to full speed, and unstrapped himself from his chair. He shouted over to Gerhard, telling him that he could pass through the hatch, then pushed himself up to the ceiling, pulling himself over to Andrew’s chair.

Andrew, by this point, was slumped over his chair in a deep slumber. Alan knew all too well the exhaustion that was inflicted on inexperienced spacecraft crew members, but there was work to be done. Gingerly, Alan pushed himself down and gently prodded Andrew in the shoulder with the toe of his boot. After a few attempts, Alan finally elicited a response as Andrew groggily shook his head and murmured some barely understandable words, “Whadda you want?”

Time to wake up,” Alan replied, “We’ve got work to do.”

After a few seconds’ pause as Andrew awkwardly fumbled with the straps of his chair, he managed to free himself and push himself out of his chair. Alan, not content to wait for Andrew to wake up properly, pulled himself towards the central hatch and plunged into the tunnel beneath him.

A couple of minutes later, he made his way back into the crew compartment and proceeded towards the recreational room. Once he arrived there, he saw Gerhard sitting at one of the tables, looking inquisitively at his tablet. As Alan opened the door, Gerhard raised his head, waved his hand and took another brief glance at his tablet while Alan found a seat on the opposite side of the table.

Where’s the computer expert?” Gerhard asked as Alan adjusted his chair.

Andrew? He’ll be down in a few moments. I just woke him up a few minutes back.”

While Alan and Gerhard waited for Andrew to arrive, they briefly discussed some of the technical details that they had arranged the meeting about. “I’d like to get as close to the asteroid miner as possible on autopilot,” Alan said. “That entry hatch looks awkward to get into, even if you’re a confident shuttle pilot.”

Well,” Gerhard replied, “we can go for a preliminary approximation here and try refining our guess when we have more information on the situation, right?”

Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. We’ll have to agree on the loadout on the shuttle here and now, though. I’ll take on some extra fuel just in case, but adding extra inertia doesn’t sound like my idea of a good time.”

Suddenly, the door slid open. Andrew stepped into the room, with a rather dishevelled look and bags around his eyes. “Sorry for keeping you,” he apologised as he sat down beside Alan.

Don’t worry about it,” replied Alan and Gerhard in unison. “Now that we’re all here, we can begin,” Alan continued once Andrew had made himself comfortable.

After some preliminary discussion of the mission profile, with some of the details reiterated for the benefit of Gerhard, Gerhard began to speak.

So, we’re basing this on a one-hundred kilometre round journey with some additional fuel for manoeuvring around the asteroid miner, correct?”

That’s correct,” Alan replied. “We’ll also have to take into consideration the mass of our payload, including myself and Andrew, my toolkit, the computer nodes and whatever other equipment and ephemera we need. Andrew, do you know off-hand how heavy each of those computer nodes are?”

I think about 10 to 12 kilograms,” Andrew replied. “The specification sheet says 11.2 kilograms, as far as I remember, but that’s for a certain standard which the ones we have on board don’t conform to.”

Well,” Alan asked, “that’ll do well enough for an approximation, won’t it, Gerhard?”

Replying in the affirmative, Gerhard proceeded to enter some preliminary data into his tablet, drawing up the framework of an equation in the process. Stopping occasionally to ask questions, Gerhard continued his work in relative silence while Alan and Andrew discussed and occasionally argued about the equipment that they would need.

Are you sure that we need to bring all thirty-six nodes at once?” Alan asked as Gerhard continued on with his calculations. “I mean, we don’t even know if the power is on in the asteroid miner, and we don’t have anywhere to put them on the other spacecraft if we need to come back to get the equipment to work on the generator over there.”

We don’t need to bring all thirty-six,” Andrew conceded, “but I will say that I’d prefer if we brought the lot in one go. It’ll save us time later in terms of going back and forth.”

Right, well, you’re bringing that equipment down to the shuttle bay then. I’m going to need to get the plasma cutter out of storage anyway.” Alan paused for a second, then continued with a sardonic undertone, “I’m pretty convinced that the power in the asteroid miner’s gone, and that we’ll have to cut our way through the doors.”

Andrew ignored him, and the room remained in silence for the next few minutes while Gerhard continued to calculate. Suddenly, Gerhard raised his head and said, “Alright, gentlemen, I have all the information I need so far. Alan, I’ll discuss this with you later. Andrew, thank you for the assistance. Good day!”

The Unexpected Satellite – Part 2

Two days later, Alan had just finished his shift, handing the reins over to one of his subordinates. He was about halfway through the repairs on the damaged maintenance drones by this stage. It had taken him several hours of poring through inscrutable sensor readings to find out what had gone wrong, and eventually, he had tracked it down to a faulty optical sensor assembly. Now, at least, he was making progress and could leave some of the work to the rest of the maintenance crew.

After a few moments, he had reached his destination: the on-board gymnasium. After eight hours spent carefully fitting together the innards of a drone, Alan felt like stretching his muscles a bit. In any case, in the slightly lower gravity inside the spacecraft’s gyroscopic section, Alan knew that he had to make sure that he didn’t let his muscles deteriorate. Stepping into the gymnasium room, which was stocked only with those pieces of apparatus that could easily be secured to the ground, or at least attached to something else, Alan headed straight over to his locker, taking out a pair of scuffed black trainers and proceeded to sit down and take off his heavy black boots.

Once he was ready, Alan stepped onto one of the treadmills and started jogging along with metronomic footsteps that sounded out through the empty room. He kept going for twenty minutes, by which time he felt slightly more sweaty than before. He was about to seat himself on a hand cycling machine when he saw the door open. Turning his head, he saw the spacecraft’s Vice-Commander, Paul Matthews, entering the room.

Hey, Paul,” Alan shouted over to the entrance of the room.

Oh, hey, Alan,” Paul replied as he retrieved his kit from his locker. “How are things?”

Pretty good, thanks. I’m getting there with those drones – they should be up and going in a couple of days at most. How about you? Have you had any success tracking the space miner?”

I think so,” Paul replied hesitantly. “We’re tracking a large metallic object on the approximate trajectory that we expected, but without the thermal signature, we’re a bit lost.”

By this point, Alan had begun to get up to speed on the hand cycle, while Paul was still struggling with his trainers. “So,” Alan said, “how much ore do you reckon is on that spacecraft? Andrew said something in the region of one hundred million euro.”

I don’t know,” Paul replied. “I’m not an economist… or a geologist, for that matter. Andrew’s probably had a lot more briefing than us anyway. I know I’m just here to pass the saw to Andrew and whoever’s working with him.”

Alan stopped pedalling for a moment, grunting and replying, “That would be me, then. It wouldn’t be so bad, if it wasn’t for the fact that I have to pilot the bloody shuttle as well.”

Paul laughed, replying, “Ouch, unlucky!” After a pause, he continued, “Actually, it makes sense now why they’d bring in somebody else from the outside for this mission. I just reckoned that they’d get somebody who could pilot a shuttle themselves to do the job.”

Somehow, I don’t think that the two fields align all that much,” Alan replied. “In fact, they probably had a hard time even finding a maintenance-path Technical Specialist who could pilot a shuttle.”

That’s a fair point,” Paul replied as he stepped onto a treadmill. “Anyway, you don’t have to worry about it now. I’ve heard you’re quite good at Territorial Conquest. I’ve been looking for a bit of competition for a while now.”

Alan raised his eyebrows and asked, “Where did you hear that?”

Some of your crew mates told me when we were both holed up in Station Lisbon. Peter, I think, and Claude.”

Alan chuckled. “I think it’s more of a case of them being utterly predictable. But I’ll accept your challenge. Meet you in the rec room around 1800?”

You’re on!”, Paul replied with a smile.

* * * * * * * * * *

The end of the journey was approaching, and Alan was making sure that everything was in order for the reverse burn from the engines. Everything that was loose had to be secured to stop it from being chucked against the walls at high speed, while all of the maintenance drones had to be in order and working before Alan and the rest of the crew made their retreat to the rather smaller piloting station closer to the nose of the spacecraft. Alan was checking off lists, making sure that everything that he needed to take out was soon replaced, while most of the others on the spacecraft were rushing about with their own jobs in mind.

Paul and the Commander had managed to confirm to within acceptable accuracy that the object that they were pursuing was the stranded asteroid miner, which had given Andrew some relief. Andrew had confided to Alan that he was worried about getting the asteroid miner back in commission again, because a failure to do so would look like a waste of time. Unlike Alan and the crew members of the Chronos, Andrew spent most of his time either on a space station or planetside. The crew members of the ECSA’s armed spacecraft were expected to spend long periods with very little going on around them, and apart from the neophytes that hadn’t yet learned when it was necessary to work hard and when they could sit back and relax, nobody was overly concerned if there wasn’t a huge amount of activity. For Andrew, things seemed different – or at least, that was Andrew’s perception.

In fact, Andrew’s eagerness and enthusiasm to help had occasionally annoyed Alan. No amount of “I’ll sort that out later” seemed to be adequate to satisfy Andrew, who went through myriad details which weren’t yet of significance, ranging from the initial load on the shuttle to the layout of the systems in the spacecraft. Alan, for his part, had already studied the spacecraft schematics extensively, while things like the load on the shuttle would not be important until they had verified that the spacecraft hadn’t been damaged beyond repair, for instance.

Alan looked down at his open toolbox and turned his mind back towards making sure everything was secure. He was looking for a set of Allen keys which he had used recently, and had left somewhere in the maintenance room. All of the maintenance drones had been programmed and checked, and were ready to go as soon as Alan sent out the command. He was almost ready for the end of the first leg of the mission. This was the easiest part, especially now that they were reasonably sure they weren’t chasing after the spacecraft to no avail. Getting the asteroid miner working again, Alan considered, might be a considerably more difficult job.

* * * * * * * * * *

Once all of the preparations had been finished and everything set in its place, Alan climbed the long shaft leading to the piloting station. Without the centripetal force experienced in the main crew compartment, Alan felt the floating sensation of zero gravity making his movement more awkward than before. Once he reached the top of the shaft, he pressed the switch to open the hatch into the piloting station, pulling himself into the room and floating to the ceiling. A brief set of acrobatic manoeuvres helped bring him to his seat, where he promptly pulled on the five-point harness and sat back into his seat.

The rest of the crew members were seated in their usual positions, Commander Jackson and Vice-Commander Matthews seated in the centre along with Alan and the mathematician, Gerhard Schneider, while Alan’s subordinates in the maintenance department, the doctor and medical specialist were all seated closer to the periphery. Andrew was here as well, taking the seat that would ordinarily be occupied by the on-board horticulturist and hydroponicist.

After the Commander and Vice-Commander had performed their routine tasks, the Commander asked loudly, “Is everybody seated comfortably?”

There came no answer, but the Commander didn’t need one. Alan could see that he knew, along with the rest of the crew members, that the next few hours weren’t going to be comfortable at all.

Engines prepared, ready for initial burn,” the Vice-Commander said to Commander Jackson.

Initiating engines. Setting for 3G initial acceleration,” the Commander replied while tapping a number of items on his screen.

Alan felt a deep rumble that seemed to come from the bowels of the ship. Slowly but surely, he was pushed harder and harder into his seat as the spacecraft’s engines started to accelerate the spacecraft in the opposite of their direction of movement. Soon, Alan and the rest of the crew were being subjected to three times the force of gravity, with very little to do except grimace and bear it.

Over the course of the next two hours, the piloting station remained mostly quiet, aside from the occasional status report given by either the Commander or Vice-Commander and the usual sounds of movement from the rest of the crew members. Alan had taken out a scroll-like object, unrolling it into a visual display on which he was reading a technical journal on the field of spacecraft design. Occasionally, Alan looked up to observe what the rest of the crew members were doing. Some were fidgeting or reading, others were just sitting back and trying to relax, while Vincent, one of Alan’s subordinates had found the time to take a quick nap.

Eventually, Commander Jackson started to become a bit more animated. A series of status reports were shared between the Commander and Vice-Commander Matthews. “Engines prepared for disengagement,” Paul replied after a brief pause.

Disengaging engines,” the Commander confirmed. “Have them ready to fire up in half-an-hour, Paul.”

After looking around the piloting station, the Commander spoke with a resounding voice, “We’re disengaging the engines for half-an-hour, if you want to stretch yourselves out. Be prepared to go as soon as I call, though!”

Alan rolled up his visual display, putting it into a pocket on his uniform, then proceeding to unstrap himself. Pushing down on the seat, he allowed himself to drift towards the ceiling, trying to shrug the fatigue out of his muscles. There were quite a few more of the engine burns to go, but each one would slow the spacecraft down that little bit more. The Chronos was approaching its destination. It would simply take a bit more time.