Author Archives: Chris Sigman

2016 Holiday Gift Ideas

Sometimes, it can be hard to think of the right gift for people. Even if you can think of a good one, sometimes you still want some more ideas. And sometimes, you’re shopping for yourself. Whatever your reason, we’ve got some holiday gift ideas for you!

Retro Space Travel Posters

Earlier this year, NASA JPL released a series of travel posters for the planets of the solar system, and beyond. These are great gift ideas for the space lover in your life, and there’s plenty of shops on Etsy that carry the posters and derived merchandise. We liked these so much, we did a poster giveaway contest for them!

If you think one of these posters make for good gift ideas, it might not be a bad idea to take a look around for other space inspired travel posters. SpaceX’s travel posters were debuted in April last year. Another option is these by Aaron Wood, A.K.A Justonescarf Designs:

3D Printed Models and Accessories

3D printed things are really cool, if for no other reason than we encounter so few things that are. For some extra special rocketry related gift ideas, check out Shapeways. They’ve got everything from model rockets to miniatures, keychains to necklaces. There’s even a scale model of the solar system!


Clothing gifts can be some of the lamest gift ideas. Who likes getting underwear for Christmas? But there’s plenty of good gift ideas to be had in the space themed clothing department. Star Wars inspired t-shirts are a fan favorite, such as those found on We Love Fine. For the colder weather of winter, or a capsule landing in the frozen tundra of Siberia, there’s jackets like the Space Jacket from Betabrand. And for one last suggestion, you could go retro with Space Invader themed socks and other clothing.


Those are some of our favorite gift ideas, and we hope they help you out! Regardless of whether you’re shopping for your friends and family or for yourself. 😁 Got any ideas of your own? Feel free to let us know!

NOTE: These ideas are solely based on the opinions of its author. Neither its author nor Mach 30 make any gain from the sale of these products. Mach 30 makes no guarantees on these gifts.

About Ground Sphere: Past, Present, and Future

Mach 30 is currently building Ground Sphere. This is a ground station that will allow us (and you!) the ability to listen to satellites cheaply and easily. We’ve been working on Ground Sphere for some years, starting in 2013. Below is an abbreviated history of the project, although more details are available at Ground Sphere’s History Page on Open Design Engine.

Ground Sphere Satellite Ground Station Mission Patch

What is a ground station?

Ground stations are basically radio stations, except that they let people communicate with satellites by sending and receiving radio signals to and from Space. Sending signals requires a license, so Ground Sphere is designed to only receive signals from Space. Mach 30 is in the process of creating Ground Sphere MK3. It is an open-source ground station project, documented on our Open Design Engine. Ground Sphere’s ultimate goal is to allow those that use it to listen to the International Space Station as it travels above the Earth.

What kind of signals can you receive with Ground Sphere?

The various incarnations of Ground Sphere have had several capabilities, from listening to a specific satellite, to receiving Ham radio signals. There’s a wide range of frequencies that the Ground Sphere design can be tuned to, and we’re asking anyone interested to help us determine the best frequency to tune it to. You can tell us your thoughts in our minute long survey.

The history of Ground Sphere:

  • MK1 was our proof of concept. Its mission was to receive signals from Ham Radio Satellites, and when it made its on-screen appearance at Yuri’s Night in 2013 in Colorado, it was able to receive signals from as far away as California and Tennessee.
  • MK2 was the companion to SkyCube , and its mission was to receive “Tweets” from SkyCube, a Kickstarter CubeSat project from Southern Stars. Unfortunately, SkyCube had gotten essentially lost in space.

Current Ground Sphere MK3 development

  1. First, we wanted to review other maker ground stations, such as the SDR software evaluation based on “listening to satellites for $30”.  This software’s goal was to listen to signals, and allow them to be recorded. Unfortunately, we found that this article did not entirely allow for the reader to listen to the ISS for $30.
  2. Next, we want to make sure that the math of satellite communications from the ground is well documented, which we’ve started in a video by Mach 30 volunteer Aaron Harper. You can see that video below. Needless to say, there is a LOT of math here. It is important that our math be checked, and documented, so that others are able to recreate our findings and research.
  3. Beyond the basics of construction and documentation, we want to see what people might be most interested in using Ground Sphere for, and that means researching other possible uses. Examples include downloading images from weather satellites, but there might be more; tell us if you’ve got one in mind!
  4. Step four is to build the new prototype for a to-be-determined frequency. It could be weather satellites, Ham radio satellites, or something else entirely.

As Ground Sphere progresses, we will update our readers about how we’re able to grow and use the project.

Remember, you can be a part of projects like Ground Sphere by joining our weekly IPT Standup meetings, held on Google hangouts. You can join us on Tuesday evenings at 8:30pm Eastern Time by clicking here. We are always interested in meeting people who are interested in being a part of our mission to help all of Humanity reach Outer Space. To find out more about how you can become a Mach 30 Catalyst, please click here.

You can also follow GroundSphere on Twitter at

What would you be interested in using Ground Sphere for? Let us know in the comments!


Shepard Rocket Motor Test Stand | Apogee III | Mach 30

Hosting Open Source Hardware Projects on GitHub

In response to us posting some information about our 2016 annual plan, we got a comment with some great feedback from Benjamin Brink that touched on a lot of different things. One of those that we wanted to respond to in more detail was hosting Open Source Hardware projects on GitHub.

hosting open source hardware projects

GitHub is great for hosting software projects, and is a good tool even for hosting and collaborating on other text-based goods like books (you can see some on GitHub’s Writing Showcase). These could be quick, small pieces of software from a ‘hello world’ application that only prints a predefined message, to large, incredibly complex feats of engineering like the Linux kernel.

The difference between software or books and hardware is very important, though, and is why we feel GitHub isn’t a great tool for hosting open source hardware projects, or documenting and collaborating on them. This difference is that there’s a lot more items that make up what is really needed for a piece of hardware to be Open Source than text.

These items of the project that I’m talking about, for any project that is more complicated than a simple breadboard or a few components that are easy to see how they go together, are things like build instructions. Regardless of your expertise, telling someone how to build a physical thing from parts requires pictures. A good example of what I’m talking about can be found in our own Shepard Test Stand project.

hosting open source hardware projects

Shepard Demo Sneak Peak

There’s no way to describe in text how to assemble Shepard and expect people to be able to easily reproduce it. All the Open Source Hardware projects we’ve seen on GitHub either fall into the simple category, and even those that don’t, like KickSat, don’t have build instructions. KickSat sort of gets around this by using SOLIDWORKS to show the assembly, but this requires you to pay for SOLIDWORKS.

Now, you could put together build instructions into a PDF or another file format that isn’t just text and images, but this doesn’t make it easy to collaborate. What people working on Open Source Hardware, as well as those just using the designs to build their own need, is tools like a full-fledged Wiki, so that beyond just text and images like I mentioned, other media such as videos can be included all in the same documentation.

The needs don’t stop there either. As these projects get more complicated, and involve people with backgrounds that don’t include software development, there becomes a need to accommodate people that aren’t comfortable with version control software. These contributors might be mechanical engineers, or photographers, or any other discipline. Unless all of these people can contribute with gentle learning curves, the Open Source Hardware community won’t be able to grow as large or as quickly.

hosting open source hardware projects

Open Design Engine, where we host Shepard Test Stand and other projects, is our way of providing some of these capabilities in one place, instead of across a handful of different websites, making it easier and more likely for projects to be truly Open Source. In all openness and honesty though, Open Design Engine has its shortcomings. We haven’t had the resources to invest in making it great. It’s a minimally viable product, and gives us just enough to be able to make our projects able to be collaborated on and truly Open Source.

Ultimately though, different projects have different needs. Many projects, for a variety of reasons, are relatively simple, and GitHub might be enough. If the project is simple, I’d consider recommending GitHub, if only because of its polish. But hosting open source hardware projects need a better, more advanced environment than that offered for the software world, and that’s the whole point of ODE.

paper sundial | Mach 30

Making a Paper Sundial in 15 Minutes

A few months ago, I came across an Instructables project for a paper sundial. Papercraft projects are some of my favorites, because all I usually need is basic elementary school supplies that are lying around the house. Some of them are probably even from when I was in elementary school! Even better: because we’re working with paper, it doesn’t hurt much when you mess something up. With how easy this is, it’s a great project for all ages, especially for kids or your inner Maker!

paper sundial | Mach 30

Completed paper sundial

You can find all the instructions and resources you need for this 15-minute project at Instructables. As a brief overview though, the writer created an online tool you can use to generate a PDF that customizes the sundial for your location, and whether you want it set up for summer or winter. From there, you print, cut, glue a little, and you’ve got your very own paper sundial.

There’s one thing that I found a little tricky though, that I thought I’d share so you can benefit from my experience. In step 4 where the paper sundial instructions talk about how to fold the gnomon (the piece that casts a shadow to show you what time it is), I found it a little unclear how the folds should look, and even glued the wrong things together.

No worries though, because like I said before: it’s paper, and you can just print out a second gnomon! Below is a picture of the northern-facing side of it, to give some extra perspective. Hopefully that makes things clearer for you if you ran into the same problem I did.

paper sundial | Mach 30

North side of paper sundial gnomon

Once I was all done, I noticed that my gnomon of my paper sundial wasn’t quite straight. The instructions point out some ways to avoid or fix this, but I went with a different route. When I cut out the dial, I glued it on some card stock (aka thick paper if you’re not familiar with it). So, to straighten out the gnomon, I just cut some of the excess from what I used for the dial, folded it in half, and glued it on. Perfectly straight now! In the picture below, the darker area of the gnomon you see is where I glued on the cardstock.

paper sundial | Mach 30

Sundial gnomon reinforcement

With daylight savings time mixed with winter weather consisting of a lot of clouds and snow, I haven’t been able to take it for a test drive. It’s a bit hard to catch days that are sunny and will therefore let the sundial cast more of a shadow, but I’m confident from some of my pictures that it’ll work perfectly.

I think I might even upgrade it to something out of stainless steel next time! This obviously would require more than some scissors and some glue (think Dremel angle grinder with a cutting wheel). If you’re a Maker, you might even try reproducing an antique sundial, such as those in the Liverpool Museum’s Collection

Finally, for some extra education: why are the hours in the dial not evenly spaced? After all, the Earth doesn’t rotate at different speeds throughout the day (although when you’re at work or in school, it can feel like it’s slowing down). The reason why is because this is a horizontal sundial, one that sits flat on the ground. Equatorial sundials, like picture below of a sundial in Beijing, have their dial aligned with the angle of the sun on the sprint and fall equinoxes. This makes it so that the shadow cast by the gnomon directly follows the motion of the sun, and thus the motion is constant. One more thing to know: on days residing on the winter side of the equinoxes, the top side of the dial is used to show the time, and the rest on the bottom side.

paper sundial | Mach 30

Equatorial sundial in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Picture from Wikipedia.

I hope you enjoyed making a paper sundial, and maybe even learned some things. If you’ve gone the extra mile and customized your sundial, we’d love to hear about it (or even see it!). Post a comment here, or even better, show us on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or another social media site of your choice.

How could Open Source Hardware have helped Mark Watney?

As many of you probably are aware, the plot of the new movie The Martian is centered around Matt Damon’s character, Mark Watney trying to survive on Mars long enough to be rescued after the other members of his expeditionary crew were forced to leave or be stranded. Mark, and later NASA, struggled to use the things that were left behind to keep him alive. All of the hardware, things like the rovers and life support systems, were portrayed as things that NASA designed and built themselves, and no one else had all the nitty gritty details about their design and function.

The Martian OverlookBut what if even some of these things were Open Source, so that anyone in the world could look at the plans to build them? Or even better, build their own? In the movie, NASA and Mark did a heroic job of finding solutions to the problems, but if the hardware was all Open Source, engineers outside of NASA would have been able to aid them. Perhaps the nearly fatal explosion of the resupply mission wouldn’t have happened? Other engineers might have identified the flaws and brought them to NASA’s attention. Or perhaps the men and women at JPL would have been able to get more things done quicker, without so much stress and overtime, because of the larger community lending them their support.

Open Source Hardware isn’t a panacea to all problems, but it opens up a lot of opportunities that don’t exist when the designs live behind closed doors. Most things have been developed in this closed source way in the past. With incredibly complexly engineered things like rockets and habitats for Mars, the level of effort to make those things a reality creates a tremendous barrier for others to build on what’s already been done. If even some of these things that organizations like NASA build had their designs and build procedures open to the wider community, or even the public, to view, use, and build upon, the community can not only help each other out when there’s a problem, but build better solutions and accelerate the pace of progress.