Raspberry Pi, oh my: From classrooms to the space station

A new Raspbian release, a sales milestone reached, and the Raspberry Pi is on its way to the International Space Station.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

Well, this is starting to look sort of like "Jamie's Mostly Raspberry Pi Stuff", but that's not intentional. There are just a lot of interesting things going on with the RPi at the moment, so that's where I seem to be spending a lot of my time right now.

The big news, of course, was the announcement and immediate availability of the Raspberry Pi 2 hardware two weeks ago. The new hardware needs updated software to really make the most of its capabilities, so there was also a new Raspbian and NOOBS release (1.3.12) made at the same time.

The Pi Foundation has said that it would be continuing to work on improving the software, and sure enough another new Raspbian release showed up on the Raspberry Pi Downloads page yesterday.

Judging from the release number (1.4.0) I would suspect that this is a significant step forward, particularly in support for the RPi 2 hardware, but I haven't seen any release notes or release announcement yet, so I'm not sure. (Hmm. Does that mean that this post counts as the release announcement?)

I noticed one subtle change on the downloads page; if you click on "More info" it now not only shows you the checksum for the download file, it also tells you which Pi version each of the operating systems is compatible with.

At the moment, Raspbian works for both 1 and 2, the new Snappy Ubuntu Core is only for the Pi 2, and the others are for the Pi 1 only. My own experience shows that is not quite correct, however. On the downloads page there is only one OpenELEC image, indicated as being only for the Pi 1, but if you get the NOOBS package (either full or Lite), when you unpack and install it you will see another OpenELEC version listed for the Pi 2.

Oh, one other thing worth mentioning, the Snappy Ubuntu Core is still not included in the NOOBS package, so if you want to try it, you will have to download it separately. I haven't done that yet, but I hope to get to it soon - maybe another installment in Jamie's Mostly RPi Stuff...

What I have done already is download the NOOBS package (full), extract it to an SD card and installed that on my new RPi 2. That all went along just tickety-boo, no problems and no surprises. I haven't noticed any major changes in either performance or appearance yet, so I will be interested in seeing the release notes to find out what is new and different. I plan to install this update on both of my Pi 1 units (B and B+) over the weekend.

The other thing that has really held my interest this week are the recent posts to the Pi Blog. I have mentioned their blog many times because it is the perfect place to find news, information, fascination and a lot of smiles. One thing that caught my eye this week was the announcement that they have reached five million units sold! Wow. I could ramble on about the humble beginnings and limited expectations at the beginning of the Raspberry Pi development - but, wow. That's just really good stuff.

The thing that really caught my attention in the Pi Blog, though, was the Astro Pi Mission Update. First, it's pretty cool that a Raspberry Pi is going to the International Space Station along with the British astronaut Tim Peake. But what is really cool, and I mean completely off the scale in coolness, is that UK schools can have the exact same hardware that will be used for experiments on the space station! That is without a doubt one of the most wonderful things I have ever heard in my life. Think about the educational potential that has. Think about the interest it will generate in the schools. I'm getting goose-bumps...

RPi 1 B+ HAT
Raspberry Pi 1 model B+ with HAT module
The specific unit they will use is a Raspberry Pi 1 Model B+ with a special HAT (Hardware Attached on Top). This is a new add-on introduced with the B+ hardware design, so the extension board sits perfectly on top of the RPi B+. This module will have a collection of sensors specifically designed for use in this mission, and an 8x8 matrix of LEDs. It will be available to schools and the general public as well. There is also an interesting description in the blog about what they are having to go through to get the Raspberry Pi approved for space flight.

The icing on the case is the Astro Pi competition. UK schools can enter and submit programs, and experiments, and the winning submission will be taken on the mission and performed on the space station. Live. Maybe even with a live, interactive link to the school system, and the specific school which wins the competition.

There's a log more interesting information, and videos, about this in the Pi blog. I think the Astro Pi Mission Update 1 post might have set a record for longest and most content rich post ever on that blog. It is interesting, fascinating and inspiring reading, and I strongly encourage anyone who has an interest in the Raspberry Pi, or space flight and experimentation, or schools and computer science education, or ... well, pretty much everyone... to have a look at it. Then look at the Astro Pi competition page. Then just sit back and think about how wonderful and inspirational all of this is.

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