Science Hack Days - Ideas to Things

science hack day

Where do ideas come from? I know I can't be the first person to think about making lights turn on when something happens. Actually there are tons of projects like that. But I was disappointed that none of them (that I could find) focused on space. So much happens in space that we don't notice here on the ground. Eventually this vague frustration became my ISS-Notify lamp — now being funded on kickstarter.

Just the idea isn't enough; follow-through is important. One of the best ways to make an idea a reality is to get a bunch of like minded people together to encourage each other and to help make something. For sci/tech types a science hack day is perfect! The first science hack day was in London last year and was a big success. It spawned another one in San Francisco a few months later. That's where I got the inspiration and the encouragement that eventually turned became this ISS lamp project.

I was at the first science hack day in SF looking for a project that I could help with. That's when Ariel Waldman suggested that someone make a lamp light up when an Asteroid passed by Earth. What a fantastic idea! I had some electronics with me, a few wires, a microcontroller, LED's. I had lots of help from the other people at the hack day. Because there was a community and a time limit lots of wonderful things got made in a very short amount of time.

Hacking at science hack day

Hacking at science hack day - By arielwaldman on flickr

I was able to make a sort of working version of the asteroid lamp. But after my experience at NASA this winter I wanted to highlight human space flight. And that's when I made the ISS lamp. I actually used many of the same parts and the same ideas from Science Hack Day SF. I encourage other science geeks to get out and make something — physical or not. And think about starting a science hack day in your area!

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ISS Notify

Update, August 19:The kickstarter project was a huge success!! Now I have to figure out how to make hundreds of them. In the meantime I hosted a site about the project:
Update, June 13:Thanks everyone for their comments and feedback! For everyone who is interested in buying one, check out my kickstater page! If enough people back the project I can start making them!

A while ago I helped make a light that lit up when a near Earth asteroid went past our planet. Because I built it at a 24 hour hack day, I only had a little bit of time and there was a lot of ‘crafting’ involved (read: hot glue and plastic cups). Unfortunately I never really worked it into a finished product. This was partly because I noticed how rarely an asteroid actually buzzes the Earth close enough to be interesting. It got me thinking though, what else might I want to know about, and that happens often enough to be interesting?

The Space Station

The ISS in space

The Space Station and Space Shuttle Endeavor in May 2011. Credit: NASA

The International Space Station (ISS) is a marvel of current technology and humanity. It's a continuously inhabited orbital outpost, floating in space just over our heads. But often we forget it's there. I realized that the light I made for asteroids would work better for the space station.

This time I would make it a more polished project.

ISS Lamp from Nathan Bergey on Vimeo.


I already had the electronics from the old light, all I had to do was put it in a reasonable container. I decided to use a nice black cardboard box I had lying around. Then to have something to light up I went to the fantastic Scrap! in Portland to look for old bits of plexiglass. Armed with a nice piece of frosted plexiglass (a grand total of 10¢) and a box I got to work.

I took apart the old lamp and instead of having a ring of LEDs on a drinking cup, I glued them to the bottom edge of the plexiglass.

Soldering LED's

In the process of soldering LEDs that have been glued to the edge of a piece of plexiglass

Then I soldered them together in parallel. The microcontroller stayed the same as last time, a Teensy 2.0. I already had a breakout board built with headers for the teensy and with transistors to act as switches. So all I had to do was wire it up and put the box together.

boxing it up

Boxing the finished project up


The hard part was figuring out when the Space station was going to be overhead. No matter what I would need the internet because the orbit of the station changes unpredictably from time to time. Luckily, rather than having to do orbital calculations myself, there is a great website out there called heavens above that has all the predictions of satellite passes already worked out. There was one problem: they don't have an API! That means a human could go read the website, but a computer doesn't really know what to make of it — it's not what we can ‘machine readable’. I wanted this to run automatically so I found some examples on the web that showed how easy it is to scrape data from the heavens above webpage. With that coded I had a python scrip that would grab the next ISS pass for Portland.

But again, wanting this to be automatic I needed something better than a script I would have to run every so often. I settled on a gnome applet that can run in the background on my panel on my desktop. For those of you who don't run linux, this is like the dock in OSX or the application bar in windows. I found plenty of examples online on how to write an app for the gnome panel, and thankfully it was pretty easy! After a couple of days of working out the details I had an app that sat on my computer and could let me know when the space station was overhead!

gnome applet

The applet running on my computer showing the next pass information

Open Source

There is only one of me, so the usefulness of this lamp as an outreach tool for everyone is limited. So I posted all the code and hardware descriptions you should need to make one yourself! Follow along on github:

I have a circuit diagram, arduino firmware, the python applet and an install script in the repository. Plus, if your running linux and use gnome, you can use the applet even without the lamp! The icon will turn red when the ISS is overhead. Look at the readme and update the code to make it work with your location and your hardware.

And don't forget the space station isn't just for fun but is a working laboratory and scientific outpost that streams down terabytes of data about the world we live in, making it a better place for all of us.

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A Year From Space

NASA has a couple of very awesome satellites called Aqua and Terra. They constantly orbit us building up a photo of the entire surface of the Earth about once per day. The data is used by scientists worldwide to measure climate change, fight forest fires and all sorts of awesome things. Both of the satellites have an instrument on-board called the Moderate-resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, or MODIS. Besides good science, MODIS can take spectacular images of Earth. The photos are often featured on the popular Astronomy Picture of the Day website and other space blogs.

One Year of Data

I was browsing the MODIS database and found that they had nice images of the Pacific-NW every day going back for years. I wondered what a whole year of satellite images of Oregon would look like as an animation. So I got to work!

Each day's image is at a predictable URL so I wrote a script to grab every image from 2010. Then I resized them to a reasonable resolution and dumped them into my favorite video/animation/3D/everything-but-the-kitchen-sink software: blender. After some playing around making some border shading so you can see where Oregon is through all the clouds and adding a music backing I was done! Surprisingly the whole project only took about a day from idea to completion.

One Year of Oregon from Space from Nathan Bergey on Vimeo.

From London, with Love

Emboldened by my success I set out to make another animation of a more populous area. Here is a year of southern England (and a hint of Wales) from space:

London, a Year from Space from Nathan Bergey on Vimeo.

A More Topical, Less Cloudy

The most obvious thing in both England and Oregon animations is how cloudy they are. I wanted to show off a part of the Earth that where it didn't rain all the time and, perhaps, is a bit more meaningful. The protests in North Africa have been gripping the world for the whole of the year. There is a MODIS subset of just the Nile Delta (including Cairo). Here is a short video from just before the beginning of the major public protests through the resignation of Mubarak.

2011 Egyptian Revolution From Space from Nathan Bergey on Vimeo.

You can see evidence of humans on the Earth, there are visible farms and cities. But, It turns out that you can't actually see anything related to the violence on the ground from this far away. Egypt looks still and peaceful from 670 km above the Earth. A reminder that all the war, all the love, all the triumph, all the art, and all that has ever happened to our species is contained on this tiny, remote rock. And yet, when viewed from a distance of just a few thousand kilometers, almost no sign of our existence remains. Just a tiny, blue, cloudy sphere adrift in space.

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Watching a Shuttle Launch

This past week I was part of one of the most amazing events that happens on this planet—a space shuttle launch.

I can't even wrap my head around how lucky I am to not only get a chance to see a space shuttle in person, but to watch the very last launch of Discovery and watch it from as close as anyone could ever hope to get at the historic complex 39 press site inside Kennedy Space Center.

Four Months Waiting

I thought I would be writing this four months ago. Discovery was originally scheduled to launch November 1st last year but months of delays resulted from the uncovering of cracks in the structure of the external fuel tank (ET).

Sometime in September I found out I had been picked randomly for the NASATweetup. Myself and 149 others were going to get a chance to watch the last launch of space shuttle Discovery from the press site. If you have ever watched a launch on TV you've seen the press site. It's a scant 3.1 miles from the pad and has the giant countdown clock. Behind the clock are press tents and towers for cameras and reporters.

This is the exact spot where the likes of Walter Cronkite sat and reported the liftoff of Apollo 11. The same clock that counted down to putting people on the moon counted down to the launch of Discovery. I was standing just a few feet away from that very clock.

The press site is also the closest you can get to the launch. It's restricted access, deep inside KSC. No one is closer. Not the astronaut families (out at the banana creek viewing site), not the launch control (behind us next to the VAB), no one. Well, okay, the astronauts themselves. Standing on the edge of turning basin we were essentially the closest human beings to the shuttle as it launched.

Where I was standing for the launch

Where I was standing for the launch

Each and every one of us had been chosen against great odds for this moment. And we all pretty much instantly became friends. A thread of common interest, common experience, common emotion connected us all. During the first launch attempt in November there was night after night of waiting for nearly a whole week as the shuttle was scrubbed several times for minor fixes. During that time we had parties together, we rented a house together, we ate, drank, and slept together. We loved every second of it. For many of us this was the first time we were around so many other space geeks. It was a safe place to talk about how excited space ships and science made us. No one wanted to leave.

When the crack in the tank was found we knew our luck had ran out. After a week of simply amazing times together we had to all go home and try again later.

Finally a new launch date was picked at the end of February; four months after we had all first met. In the intervening time we had all grown even closer. Keeping in touch by phone, email, and twitter. We would all be together again. And this time we would see Discovery get off the ground.

Being focused on one event and one group of people for four months is an experience in itself. Getting the chance after all that time time to see the launch as a group, not as strangers, but as family was going to be awesome.

Sound and Light


I took this photo.

The launch was indescribable. Just remember that. My feeble attempts to explain what it felt like and sounded like just don't cut it. The best I can do is offer a glimpse into an moment so remarkable I don't even know how compress it into thoughts.

The first thing to understand is it was louder and brighter than you can imagine. The light from the SRB's at liftoff rivals the sun. I was looking through my binoculars just after main engine start watching for the tip of the ET to start moving upward when I was nearly blinded by the exhaust. I blinked and put down my binoculars and watched as what appeared to be the sunset lift off the ground 3 miles away. From an enormous plume of smoke an orange and white spot propelled itself upward on a tower of neon orange heat and light. We could see the shuttle roll around and start to arc out over the Atlantic. Just a few seconds later we started to hear it.

At this point I think I had stopped breathing altogether. We had all been standing there shaking, waiting. Some of us were friends with the astronauts. I had briefly met Al Drew (One of the mission specialists on board) in Houston some months prior. And there they were, sitting on top of this mountain of fuel and flame. It had to go right.

The sound started as a low rumble. Everyone suddenly went quiet in anticipation for the sound of the launch. What started out as a low rumble grew to a castrophany of pounding sound, beating us with waves of compressed air. The rumble was low and strong. You felt it more than heard it. On top of the shaking rumble was a torrent of noise—a bit like standing next to a freight train. On top of that was the crackling. As the engines burn they crackle and pop. This is the part I will remember the most. Amidst all of the shaking and rumbling and noise were little pops, very high pitched and so loud they hurt. Like Chinese firecrackers going off right next to your ears. Only they were so powerful you could feel the shock waves like the air was thick enough to push you over. Growl, rumble, POW, CRACK, BANG, BANG, rumble, POW, BANG. Each pop was so loud and intense I could feel my teeth vibrate. Everything else was drowned out. No one could speak, and even if they did you wouldn't hear them. I was enveloped by the sound, the power of the launch.

As the shuttle made it's way downrange the sound leveled off. Huge cheers erupted from the crowd. Discovery and her brave crew were on their way one last time into space.

Slowly she retreated into the sky. Just a bright dot slowly moving away. I could actually see the SRB's tumble away in my binoculars. The Shuttle kept going as an intense blue dot slowly arcing away faster and faster. Finally she dissapeared behind a large cloud of smoke from the launch.

We all just stood there for a while. Not sure what to do. Tears and hugs. 115 days from when we first met and stood there in dissapointent not sure if we would ever see the launch, or each other, again we were all together in one place triumphant. Everything had worked. We were there. The shuttle program was coming to an end. Just a few minutes earlier our friends were on Earth a couple of miles away, and now there were in space halfway around the planet. Just a few minutes earlier we were together as family waiting, anxious, scared, shaking, hoping for the best, and now, it was the best. It was the best anyone could hope for.

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Aquila Glass School

A couple few weeks ago I found a neat place in North Portland: Aquila Glass School. It's a small studio that lets people work on glass fusing and torchwork. They also teach classes so Kate and I signed up for a glass fusing class where you make a couple of dishes and some pendants and you get to keep what you make.

Making some glass pendants

Making some glass pendants

Glass fusing is a technique where you cut layers of glass (usually colored) and then place them in a kiln and heat them up to the point that the melt together or 'fuse'. Depending on how hot you fire it you can get a final product that is just barely stuck together or that has fused and run together into a solid shape. After the first firing you can go on do something called slump molding where you place a piece over a shallow mould that the glass sinks—or 'slumps'— into once it heats up enough.

I have never worked with glass before so this was a lot of fun. Now that I've taken the class (and singed some paperwork) I can go back at any time with my own glass and make whatever I want!

The Finished Pieces:

Finished pendants.

Finished pendants.

Finished Plate

Finished Plate

Finished Dish

Finished Dish

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