I spent much of the day working with Edward Gomez (LCOGT) on the littleBits Space Kit. littleBits is a modular system of circuits that let anyone try their hand at something that ordinarily requires a soldering iron. littleBits components may be switches, sensors, servos, or anything really, and they connect magnetically to create deceptively simple circuits that can be quite powerful.
For example you could connect an infrared sensor and an LED to make a device that flashes when you press buttons on your remote. Or you could use a microphone and a digital LCD display to create a sound meter. The littleBits components are sturdy enough to withstand being bashed about a bit, and simple, and large enough, to let you stick on cardboard, homemade figures, or anything else you find around the house. I found out about littleBits when I met their creator, Aya Bdier at TED in March. She is a fellow TED Fellow.
We decided fairly quickly to try and built an exoplanet simulator of some sort and ended up crating the littleBits Exoplanet Detector (and cup orrery). There were two parts to this: a cup-based orrery, and a transit detector.
The cup orrery consisted of a rotating ‘planetary system’ fashioned from a coffee cup mounted on a simple motor component – we only had hack day supplies to play with – and a central LED ‘star’. Some more cups and stirrers were required to scaffold the system into a stable state but it was soon working.
The transit detector used a light-sensor component that read out to both a speaker and a LCD numerical display – Ed refers to this as the laser display board. With a bit of shielding from the buffet’s handy, black, plastic plates the light sensor can easily pick up the LED and you can see the light intensity readout varying as the the paper planet passes in front of the star. It was awesome. We got very excited when it actually worked!
You might think that was geeky enough, but it gets better. I realised I could use my iPhone 5s – which has a high-frame-rate video mode – to record the model working in slow motion and allow us to better see the digital readout. We also realised that the littleBits speaker component can accept an audio jack and so could use the phone to feed in a pure tone, which made it much easier to hear the pulsing dips of the transits.
Finally, we had the idea to record this nice, tonal sound output from the detector and create waveforms to see if we could recover any properties about the exoplanets. And sure enough: we can! We built several different coffee-cup planetary systems (including a big planet, small planet, and twin planets) and their different properties are visible in their waveforms. Ed is planning a more rigorous exploration of this at a later date, but you can see and hear the large cup planet’s waveform below.
So if you want to try something like this, you only need the littleBits Space Kit. You can buy them online and I’d love to see more of these kits, and to see them in schools. I’m now totally addicted to the idea myself too!
Thanks to Arfon for suggesting that we do this Hack Day together; to the NAM 2014 Portsmouth team for being so supportive; and to GitHub for sponsoring it – where else would we have gotten all the cups?!