An Old Laptop Made New

I’m going to walk you through the process I followed to update an old laptop into a useful computer. My thinking is that if I could do this, so could anyone else, especially educators in poorer school districts or even homeschoolers.

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IBM ThinkPad T40

A friend of mine gave me an old IBM ThinkPad T40 (shown at right). It has an ebay value of around $40 (U.S.). It was built for Microsoft Windows XP and worked decently, save for the outdated software and hardware and the fact that the onbooard wifi didn’t work. I decided to make it into something a little more useful for today’s computing.

Here are some specs:

  • Intel Celeron M processor at 1.5 GHz
  • 512 MB SO-DIMM SDRAM
  • 80 GB ATA Hard Drive
  • BIOS Date: 2006-06-02
  • 6x DVD-ROM
  • 2 USB ports
  • 2 Sound Ports (1 in, 1 out)
  • On-board modem, NIC and wifi
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The panel covering the RAM module.

As I saw it, the best and easiest course of action was to upgrade the RAM. This can arguably be said any laptop or desktop PC as it’s a fairly easy procedure and a fairly inexpensive as well. I bought my 200-pin SO-DIM SDRAM replacement module on Amazon, but there are many other places online where this can be procured. For those of you thinking “Chris, I’m not a computer repair technician. It’s too complex. I can’t do this,” I say “Yes, you can.” Internally computers are compartmentalized and therefore easy to work on, so long as you’re careful about electricity. Laptops are no exception. If you turn the laptop over, you will see various panels held in place with Phillips screws. The screenshot at left indicates the panel we need to open.

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T-40 RAM module

Once you have removed the panel (after taking out the screw, I had to use a small knife to lift the plate up), you will see the RAM module. You will notice two clips, one on the right of the module and one on the left (if you look at the screenshot on the right, you can see that the right clip is just to the left of the screw hole). These are simply pulled out away from the RAM module. The module will pop up and can then be slid out. Make a note of its positioning to make sliding the new RAM into place easier. For my RAM update, I chose a module offering 1.2 GB of RAM, which is a tremendous upgrade for this system and the maximum supported RAM. Slide the new RAM module into place, push down on it until it lies flat in its cavity and the clips will lock it down. Put the plate back on and we’re ready for the next step.

I chose to install Xubuntu Linux 12.04 LTS (Long-Term Support) 64-bit as Xubuntu 14.04 LTS presented a warning during installation stating that Celeron M processors do not support PAE (Physical Address Extension). If you have the time and the interest, however I have provided a link below to an article on working around this problem. In either case, I have provided a link to Xubuntu’s download page. Once you have downloaded the ISO file, you’ll need to burn it to a DVD as an image then place the disc in the DVD-ROM drive. You’ll also need to enter the T40’s BIOS and set the DVD-ROM as the primary boot device. To enter the BIOS, you’ll need to press the Access IBM key (located in the upper left corner above the keyboard) when you first turn the laptop on and choose Start setup utility from the menu. When done, save your settings and restart the computer. Installation will begin on reboot.

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IBM ThinkPad T-40 running Xubuntu Linux

The reason I chose to install Xubuntu is that it is lighter than Ubuntu in terms of hardware demands, which makes it an ideal OS for older computers. You will be guided through through the installation process. When it is completed, you will be prompted to remove the disc and restart the computer. When it restarts, you can log in using the account created during installation. If all goes as it should, you should be greeted with a desktop like the one shown in the screenshot.

Regarding the on-board wifi, you will find many discussions online about this topic. Rather than to resolve it, I went on to Amazon and purchased a Panda Mini Wifi 150 Mbs Wireless-N 24 GHz USB Adapter. It plugs right into one of the USB ports and starts working immidiately. It provides a reliable connection and after a year and a half, I still have no complaints. You may want to install additional software, depending on your needs, but other than that, you now have a perfectly good computer for education, Web surfing, productivity, gaming or whatever your needs may be.

Resources

Xubuntu Linux Download Page

Lubuntu Fake PAE -Community Help Wiki

Live Linux Distro using Window Maker

Whether regular readers of this blog are aware of the fact or not, one of my favorite window managers is Window Maker. For those unfamiliar with Window Maker, it is a window manager for the X Window System used on UNIX-based operating systems, like Linux. Window Maker is based on the now defunct NeXTSTEP operating system, which employed an application dock. NeXTSTEP was the model for Apple’s MacOS user interface. So, when I found out about Window Maker Live, a live (runs from CD/DVD or flash drive) Debian Linux distribution that employs Window Maker as its graphical interface, I felt compelled to write a blog about it.

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Window Maker Live in action

Why do I like Window Maker so much? First of all, it employs its own configuration tool, WPrefs, which allows users to graphically modify Window Maker’s appearance and settings. Most window managers require users to manually edit a configuration file in a text editor, which can be tedious to non-programmers, so this is a real treat. Another reason that I like Window Maker is that it’s fairly easy to use. Even the default menu, unmodified by user or operating system, provides easy access to commonly used programs. It also makes it easy to track running programs and to add them to the application dock. Window Maker also offers a great number of dockapps (see below). Finally, and perhaps most superficially, I think Window Maker looks cool. This is mostly due to its rather non-traditional interface (no task bar, no main menu button, no desktop icons, etc.).

First of all, upon boot, your are promtped to provide a user name. This is a great personalization feature that is seldom found in Live distributions of Linux. (Note: I used GIMP for my screenshots and therefore am unable to provide an image of this screen.) One of the options on the logout menu is to lock the session. I assume that this feature would work in such a way that someone seeking to access a locked session other than the user who is signed on, would have to provide the correct name to unlock the window manager.

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Window Maker Live Welcome Message

Looking at the screenshot to the left, we can see the start up screen (note that GIMP does not automatically run on start up. As stated above, I used GIMP for screenshots, so the icons in the lower left corner represent various GIMP windows that are minimized. The tile with the speech bubble represents the welcome message). As can be seen, the Window Maker application dock is on the right-hand side of the screen. Above this is the Clip for switching between multiple workspaces (though only one is provided by default).

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Integrated help is readily available.

A quick guided tour starting on the right shows the Clip in the upper right-hand corner. Just to the left of this is the Window Maker Live Installation button. Below the Clip is the application dock. The first button on the application dock is the Window Maker Info button, which opens a window providing information about Window Maker and the system upon which it’s running. Below this is the first of the dockapps (see below), wmtime, which is running in digital mode. The tile below this is a dockapp entitled wmbutton. Wmbuttom allows users to launch programs and system configuration tools with one click, just as they would with quick launch buttons on a panel in a desktop environment, like KDE or XFCE.

The next dockapp is wmudmount, which provides a quick way to manage mounted file systems. The next two dock tiles are docked applications that provide a quick way to launch Mozilla Thunderbird email client and Mozilla Firefox Web browser respectively. Below these are two tiles to launcn terminal emulators. The first opens a terminal as a regular user. The tile with the little devil (known as “Little Daemon” (a daemon is a program that runs in the background in UNIX or Linux)) opens a terminal emulator with administrative or root privileges. The tiles in the lower left-hand corner represent currently running programs.

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All of these dockapps to choose from!

Regarding dockapps, this leads me to address another neat feature of Window Maker. Desktop environments provide apps for panels to enhance functionality and to provide users with desired information such as the time or CPU activity. The capacity exists through dockapps to add this functionality to your Window Maker session. The screenshot on the right shows a menu list of dockapps available in Window Maker Live. However,there are many others available that are not listed there. In addition to the two dockapps mentioned above, there are dock apps such as wmweather and wmmoonclock that can provide information about the world around us. Other dockapps provide access to system information and configuration, such as wmmixer, a sound mixer, or wmtemp, which displays CPU temperature. Dockapps provide a convenient way to customize your Window Maker experience.

Finally, I want to add that as Window Maker Live uses a window manager in lieu of a desktop environment, it will run just fine on older computers. Give it a try. It won’t harm your computer and you may just find yourself a new operating system.

Resources
Window Maker Live Web Site

References
Kojima, A.D. and Pascu, D. (2006). Window Maker [software]. (n.d.). GNU General Public License.

Window Maker: Dockapps. Retrieved from http://windowmaker.org/dockapps/

Window Maker Live [software].(n.d.). GNU General Public License.

LA Times’ Festival of Books

Energize Education through Open Source will be one of the books presented by Lulu Publishing at the Los Angeles Times’ annual Festival of Books at the USC campus on April 18 and 19, 2015. More information will be provided as it becomes available. For more information about the festival, click here.

Colobot: Learn to Program through a 3-D Strategy Game

While looking for a blog topic, I came across Colobot, a real-time, 3-D first-person strategy game that teaches users how to write computer programs. The pretense is an engaging one. The user is an astronaut who is equipped with robots. The user must use these robots (called “bots”) to make the planet he or she is currently on safe for human colonization (thus the name (“colony”+”robot”=”Colobot”)). In order to get the bots to accomplish tasks, the user must write the commands in CBOT, Colobot’s programming language, which is similar to the C or Java programming languages in its syntax.

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Colobot’s Switchboard

Upon initial launch, the user is prompted to create an user account and character. The next screen presents the user with a switchboard interface that is graphically enhanced to make it appear similar to a control panel for a highly technical piece of equipment. Here users can configure Colobot and choose what kind of scenario they want to play out. The screenshot on the left shows this screen. There is a series of tutorials to help new users get accustomed to Colobot and the CBOT language, so this is what the author chose to do while experimenting with Colobot. The goals of each tutorial vary so the user can get a very clear idea of the missions that lay agead.

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IMy CBOT script.

Once the game has begun, the user finds him or herself in the role of the astronaut. A button in the upper left corner allows for users to toggle between being the astronaut and being one of the bots. To command a bot, the user must open the Program editor (shown in the screenshot at right). Here the user instructs the bot on what to do. Commands include movement, rotation, location scanning and object manipulation, among other things. Looking at the simple script that the author created, you can see that the bot has been instructed to turn ninety degrees left (to turn right, -90 would be used) and to fire its flame cannon at the spider. Clicking the Execute/stop button will verify that the code will work. Click on the OK button and the program is executed (see the screenshot below).

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Take that, spider!

One of the great components of this software is the help feature integrated into the Program editor. The help provided includes both general assistance relating to the CBOT language as well as assistance writing a program for the given training scenario. In the first instructional scenario, users are even provided with the complete program to complete the mission. The author called upon this integrated help repeatedly while learning to use Colobot and found it to be very helpful. The screenshot below shows a typical help session.

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All the help you’ll need…

In closing, I just want to say that this is an engaging and imaginative way to teach young people how write computer programs. This application is greatly enhanced by slick, colorful graphics and fun, realistic sound effects. When users learn to write complete programs (as opposed to doing things one step at a time as the author did) that’s when things really become visually appealing. It’s fun and fascinating to watch a bot complete a task and automatically go on to the next one like a, you guessed it, robot. Colobot is available on Linux and Microsoft Windows platforms.

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Fireworks to celebrate a completed mission.

Resources

The International Colobot Community

References

Colobot [software]. (n.d.). GNU General Public License.

How to Effectively Introduce People to Open Source

This is a topic of great importance to anyone who has tried or wishes to try to introduce people to open source. For many computer users the mention of “open source” brings to mind Linux, what they perceive to be a computer geek’s operating system that is just too complex for regular people to use. Writer and technology coach Scott Nesbitt presents in this short video a viable way for people in the know to introduce open source to new users. He makes some damned good points, so you may want to take notes.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-KdORfVVxQ

GParted -Hard Drive Partitioning Made Easy

For this installment, I’d like to take a look at a piece of open source software (what else?) that allows you to view and modify hard drive partitions. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, please allow me to elucidate.

Modern hard drives offer an enormous amount of storage space. Imagine a massive warehouse in which you can store things. However, what if you need to section off space for certain things, such as office equipment? You might put in a room to house these things so that you can access them more readily. That’s where hard drives are like warehouses. You don’t always need one big space to store your data. You may want to section off, or partition, space on your hard drive for backup or maybe for personal files. If you use a recent version Microsoft Windows, your hard drive is already partitioned (one partition for your use and one partition for system restore files).

So, how do you partition a hard drive? This is usually done using a program called fdisk prior to installing an operating system. The reason for this being that adding or removing hard drive partitions can erase data on the hard drive in question. The only alternative is to use software designed to allow this process to occur while simultaneously protecting your data. This is where GParted comes into play.

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The author’s GParted session

Let’s take a look at the GNOME Partition Editor, or GParted, for short. When you start GParted, the program window will open and immediately start looking for hard drives and hard drive-like devices connected to your computer. Once such devices have been identified, GParted is ready to use. The screenshot on the left shows GParted displaying the partition table for the author’s primary hard drive (/dev/sda).

As you can see, GParted provides information regarding partition type, size and usage. In the case of the author’s hard drive, information regarding unallocated space is also included. Right-clicking on a partition will open a menu providing options such as unmounting the partition in question, resizing/moving the partition and even more information about said partition. Unavailable options are grayed out. Here you can also toggle the partitions from which your computer will try to boot, using boot flags. A toolbar provides moderate functionality, however, the menu bar near the top of the window provides the quickest access to features.

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Partition creation made easy.

To demonstrate how easily partitions can be created, the author chose to create a partition on a 1 TB external hard drive. Simply right-click on unallocated space on your device and choose New from the menu. This will open the Create New Partition dialog box (as shown in the screenshot at right). Here you can enter such information as the size of the new partition, the file system (operating system type) and even a label for the new partition. When ready, click the Add button and GParted will do all the work.

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Viola! A new partition

When the process is completed, you’ll be presented with the main GParted window, which will display your newly created partition (see the screenshot to the left). Looking at the top pane in the screenshot, you can see that my new partition occupies the entire hard drive. Below this, a pane provides specific information. You will notice that the aptly named “New Partition #1″ has a fat32 (usually spelled FAT32) file system. I have given it the label “My Passport,” which is the name assigned to this device by the manufacturer. You’ll also notice that its size is 931.48 GB. Used space and unused space are blank and this partition has not been flagged as bootable.

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Is your file system GParted compatible?

So, what types of partitions does GParted support? The screenshot on the right shows a GParted window displaying compatible file systems. Not all file systems are supported. However there are a few worth noting. The file systems ext2, ext3 and ext4 are the most common Linux/UNIX file systems. You’ll also notice file systems fat16 and fat32, the latter of which I used for my partition on the external hard drive. These file systems were used in DOS and Microsoft Windows 95,98 and ME. Finally, you’ll see ntfs, which was/is used on Microsoft Windows NT, 2000, XP, Vista, 7 and 8.

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Two file systems have been found!

This leads me to one of GParted’s strongest features -the capacity to possibly restore data from a hard drive. If you’re running GParted in Linux, gpart must be installed. If you’re using a live CD/DVD version of GParted, this shouldn’t be a problem. I used an older EIDE hard drive that had been damaged in a system-wide crash a few years ago. Click on the GParted option on the menu bar, hover over the Devices option and select the desired device from the list that unfurls. GParted will analyze the device and display its report as shown in the screen shot on the left. Clicking the View button next to each file systems found will open a file manager in read-only mode. Here you can peruse the recovered data and even relocate it to a safer place.

The best thing of all is that you don’t need to be using Linux to use GParted. The GParted Web site offers a download for an ISO file that can be burned onto CD/DVD, as mentioned above. Your computer can then boot from this disc into GParted. Once booted up, you can readily partition any hard drives you need to or engage in data recovery in the event of a crash. How cool is that?

Resources
GNOME Partition Editor (GParted)

References
Hakvoort, B., Gedak, C. et al. (2014). GNOME Partition Editor [software]. GNU General Public License.

Dressing Up Linux for the Holidays

Season’s Greetings, everyone. The holiday season is upon us, so I thought I’d take a break from my usual blog on open source educational technology and write about a something a little more lighthearted.

If you want to make your Linux desktop look more festive for the holidays, all you need is a little time to do this.

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Xscreensaver Preferences Window

Perhaps one of the easiest ways to do add holiday cheer is to set your screensaver to Fuzzy Flakes. If you go into Settings, you can set the background color to something that might be a little more seasonally festive than the default pink. The screenshot on the left shows the Xscreensaver Settings window.

Next you’ll want to set a holiday-themed background.

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Window Maker Christmas Theme by Jimmy Young

Simply search for “linux christmas (or the holiday of your choice) wallpaper” in your favorite search engine and you’ll get plenty of hits. Choose one or several of your liking and download them. Once downloaded, use your desktop environment preferences utility to setup the desktop background of your choice. On a related note, you can also find Christmas/holiday themes for your desktop environment or window manager. Check out the great Window Maker theme that I installed in the screenshot to the right.

The next item you’ll want to obtain to complete that holiday look (at least if you live in the northern hemisphere) is Xsnow.

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My very festive Window Maker session

Xsnow is an application developed by Rick Jansen that generates snowfall on your computer screen. You may already have it installed. Open a terminal and type “xsnow” and it should start right up, if it’s installed. A gentle cascade of snow is not all that Xsnow gives you. You also notice tiny fir trees appear on your screen as well. To add to the fun, Santa can be seen driving his sleigh and reindeer through the snow with Rudolph leading the way. Xsnow can be customized in a number of ways, so I’d suggest you read the Xsnow manual page (type “man xsnow” in a terminal window) to learn more. The screenshot shows my Window Maker session dressed up for the holidays with Xsnow running to enhance the effect.

That’s all for now. Have a safe and happy holiday season.

Resources
Xsnow

References
Dmytro, B. (2004). Fuzzy Flakes [software]. GNU General Public License.

Jansen, R. (2001). Xsnow [software]. GNU General Public License.

Window Maker [software]. GNU General Public License.

Xscreensaver [software]. GNU General Public License.

Periodic Table Lesson with Technology Integration

A person who reviewed Enertgize Education through Open Source felt that the book should have contained lesson plans with open source technology integrated into them. This has inspired me to do just that. Download the compressed file by clicking on the link below. Uncompress or unzip the file and you’ll have a folder containing a lesson plan and packet for a project designed to teach 8th-grade students how to use the periodic table of the elements. All you need to do is download and install Kalzium (Linux) or QPerdiodicTable (Microsoft Windows), both pf which are open source interactive periodic tables of the elements, onto students’ laptops and you’re ready to go.

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Kalzium -virtual periodic table of the elements

Packet
Instructional Packet

Software
Kalzium Download

QPeriodicTable Download

References

Periodic Table of the Elements Scavenger Hunt Packet retrieved from here.

OpenRocket: Open Source Model Rocket Design and Launch Simulation Software

OpenRocket is an application for virtually building and launching model rockets. This software was developed by Sampo Niskanen, who was a student at the Helsinki University of Technology when he developed OpenRocket as the focus of his graduate studies on open source software. OpenRocket is fun and easy to use. The online guide, Getting Started with OpenRocket. advises basing your rocket designs on existing products, so I chose to virtually create and launch an Estes Hi-Flier (kit number 2178) as shown in the image below.

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Estes Hi-Flier model rocket

OpenRocket launches with a pop-up window asking the user to provide rudimentary information about the rocket he or she plans to design (design name, designer and a field for comments). If desired, this window can be readily closed so that the user can begin working with the application.

The OpenRocket interface is very straightforward. A simple menu bar is at the top of the window, allowing users to perform common tasks (Open, Save, Undo, etc.). Below this are two tabs, Rocket design and Flight simulation. The Rocket design tab employs a kind of switchboard interface that allows users to select which model rocket components they would like to add to their build.

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Our Hi-Flyer taking shape.

The only three options available at start up are Nose cone, Body tube and Transition (a coupler that is tapered at one end). To the left of this switchboard is a window displaying a text-based tree-structure outline of your rocket. The lower half of the screen is the canvas upon which your design appears. The default is Side view, but users can toggle between this are Rear view. This canvas is flanked on top and to the left by rulers measuring centimeters. At the top of the OpenRocket window is a simple menu.

When a new component is added to your rocket, the Component configuration window opens providing information about the component’s shape, composition and mass, as well as offering options to modify the component. Additional tabs are available for configuring such categories as mass override, figure (illustration) style and a field for notes about the model. This feature can also be accessed by clicking on a component and choosing Edit from the switchboard menu just to the right of the outline window.

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I chose the Freeform fin set.

Components in the outline area can be expanded to reveal sub-components or collapsed to hide them. Components can also be moved here by clicking on a component and dragging it to a desired location in the tree-structure. Furthermore, components can be modified using the switchboard immediately to the right of this window. Two really neat features included under the Analyze menu include Component analysis and Rocket optimization. These allow you to tweak your rocket’s performance.

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The Engine selection window

Once you’ve added an engine, the fun begins, as the guide Getting Started with OpenRocket states, as you’re ready to enter into the simulation portion of the application. OpenRocket is well integrated with the model rocket industry in regards to measurements and sizes of various components. For example, when you are ready to select a motor, if you have properly configured your engine mount, only motors that will fit the engine mount will be listed. Once you have selected your engine (or engines), we’re ready to run a simulation. Click on the Flight simulations tab. The Flight simulations window has five buttons at the top of the screen allowing users to create, run and modify simulations. Below this is a pane in which are listed user-created simulations. Below this is the canvas showing the user’s rocket.

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Looks good, but will it fly?

Clicking on New simulation opens the Edit simulation window. Under the Launch conditions tab, you can customize the simulation in terms of engine configuration, wind speed, atmospheric conditions and other launch conditions. When the launch is configured as desired, click the Run simulation button. A window with simulation information will flash on the screen. Click on the Plot/export button and this will open the Edit Simulation window. In this window, users can adjust various criteria relating to the simulation, such as launch conditions, simulation options and what types of data will be plotted. Once this information has been set, simply click the Plot flight button in the lower right corner and a window presenting a graphic representation of the rocket’s flight will open. What’s really fun is to tweak various rocket components and launch conditions to see how they affect a rocket’s trajectory.

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Not bad, but needs tweaking.

So, what are the benefits to using OpenRocket? It provides a wonderful opportunity to build and test model rockets prior to launch. What this means to model rocket enthusiasts is that they will have a better opportunity to determine their rockets’ trajectories and, therefore, have a better chance at recovery. Plus, it’s a fun way to experiment with model rockets. Isn’t that really what it’s all about?

OpenRocket is available for Linux, Apple MacOS, Microsoft Windows and Android.

Resources

Niskanen, S. (2009). Development of an open source model rocket simulation software. Helsinki: Helsinki University of Technology. Retrieved from: http://openrocket.sourceforge.net/thesis.pdf

Pummill, J. et al. (n.d.). Getting started with OpenRocket. TRF Community. Retrieved from: http://comp.uark.edu/~jpummil/OR-Start.pdf

Software

OpenRocket

Update: Open Source Model Rocket Designer and Launch Simulator

I am currently working on a review of an open source software item that model rocketry people will just love. OpenRocket is an application that allows users to create model rockets. More than just a canvas, OpenRocket allows users to simulate flights, analyze rocket performance and to optimize the design according to the results. Watch this space for more info.

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A sneak peak at OpenRocket