ESA ISS Tracker on Nexus 5

When I tried a Nokia Lumia 520 to see if I could use it as ESA ISS Tracker display, I found its screen couldn’t quite manage. Displaying the entire map in a clear and legible way requires more than the 800×480 resolution of a Lumia 520’s screen. Which led to the next experiment: dust off an old Nexus 5.

Nexus 5 Android support was discontinued several releases ago, but when new it was quite a compelling device. One of the signature features was a full HD 1920×1080 resolution screen packed into just five inches of diagonal length. And given Google’s track record of mobile Chrome browser, I was confident it would be capable of rendering ESA’s HTML ISS tracker.

Unfortunately it proved to be even less suitable than the Lumia 520, due to the lack of hardware navigation buttons. This meant the Android navigation bar is always on screen, obscuring part of the map. This was similar to how a Kindle behaves, except the Kindle bar is across the bottom while the phone is over on the right.

Nexus 5 sleep timeouts

Another problem shared with the Kindle was the inability to keep the screen on. Screen inactivity sleep timeout could be set anywhere from 15 seconds to 30 minutes, but there isn’t a “Never” option like there is on Windows tablets or Windows Phone. It seems to be a persistent trend in Android devices, which is reasonable for portable personal electronics but annoying when I want to repurpose one as an around-the-clock status display. Android being Android, there’s probably a way around that limitation, but that’s not a very interesting project right now when I already have more cooperative devices at my disposal.

ESA ISS Tracker on Nokia Lumia 520

While the unfortunate Samsung 500T will be dropped from Windows 10 support in 2023, I don’t need to wait that long for a Microsoft end-of-life product. I have several old Windows Phone 8 devices on hand, and they’ve already ventured beyond the bounds of supported systems which is bad for security if I wanted use these devices for general internet activities. But if I have only a specific web property in mind that I trust to be safe, then all I care about is if it works. ESA’s online HTML ISS Tracker fits this bill.

The version of Internet Explorer built into Windows Phone 8 is far more compatible with web than IE of old, though it still had enough incomplete/missing features to make its web experience a little bumpy. It’s fine for most sites and a quick test on a Nokia Lumia 520 proved that the ESA tracker is one of them.

Since this phone had hardware navigation buttons, there was no need to keep a navigation bar on screen as the Amazon Kindle did. This allowed the ISS tracker to actually have the full screen as intended. The is one cosmetic problem: the map occupied top part of the screen leaving a little black bar at the bottom instead of vertically centered. But that’s a tiny nit to pick.

I could tell this the phone never to turn off the screen even after some period of inactivity, better than I could with my Kindle. The phone should be able to run indefinitely on USB power making it suitable for an around-the-clock display. The only thing I can gripe about is screen resolution. The 800×480 screen of this Windows Phone is just a little too low resolution for all the ISS tracking details to be clearly legible. I think a HTML-based status display will be a promising way to reuse obsolete Windows Phone hardware, but maybe a different project preferably with lower information density. This shortcoming of the Lumia 520 motivated me to repeat the same experiment on a Google Nexus 5, another phone that has fallen out of support.

Inspiration From Droids of Star Wars

Today is the fourth day of the month of May, which has grown into “Star Wars day” due to “May the Fourth” sounding like that film’s popular parting line “may the Force be with you.” A quick search confirmed I’ve never explicitly said anything about Star Wars on this blog and that should be corrected.

By the time I saw Star Wars, I had already been exposed to popular science fiction concepts like space travel, interstellar commerce, and gigantic super-weapons. And the idea of a cult that promises to make their followers more special than regular people… we certainly didn’t need science fiction for that. So none of those aspects of Star Wars were especially notable. What left a lasting impression was R2-D2.

R2-D2 had its own expression of duty and loyalty. Companion to humans, and a Swiss Army knife on wheels. A character that managed to convey personality without words or a face. R2-D2 was the most novel and compelling character for me in the film. I wouldn’t go far as to say R2-D2 changed the path of my life, but there has definitely been an influence. More than once I’ve thought of “does this help me get closer to building my own R2” when deciding what to study or where to focus.

I was happy when I discovered there’s an entire community of people who also loved the astromech droid and banded together to build their own. But that turned to disappointment when I realized the dominant approach in that community was focused on the physical form. Almost all of these were remote-controlled robots under strict control of a nearby human puppeteer, and little effort was put into actually building a capable and autonomous loyal teammate.

I can’t criticize overly much, as my own robots have yet to gain any sort of autonomy, but that is still the ultimate long-term goal. I love the characters of R2-D2 and the follow-on BB-8 introduced in the newest trilogy. Not in their literal shape, but in the positive role they imagined for our lives. This distinction is sometimes confusing to others… but it’s crystal clear to me.

Oh, I thought you loved Star Wars.

Star Wars is fine, but what I actually love are the droids.

I still hope the idea becomes reality in my lifetime.

ESA ISS Tracker on Samsung 500T

Setting aside the HP Stream 7 as unsuitable for my current project, we reach the final piece of x86 Windows hardware in my pile of unused devices: the Samsung 500T. I guess 500T was a shorthand for its full designation XE500T1C, though I don’t think it made the name roll off the tongue much easier.

This device has a 11.6 inch diagonal touchscreen. It was designed for Windows 8 and launched at around the same time. Its primary focus is on tablet workloads, but can become a convertible tablet/laptop like the HP Split X2 with purchase of an optional keyboard base. Since the keyboard is optional, the 500T has more peripherals packed along its edges. Not just the microSD expansion slot like the HP but also a full-size type A USB and micro HDMI connectors. HP delegated the latter tasks to its included base, which has two type A USB ports and a full sized HDMI connector.

As a piece of Windows 8 hardware like HP Split X2 and HP Stream 7, the 500T has a Windows license in embedded hardware. Thus I was also able to install Windows 10 erasing the existing installation of Windows 8 which was protected by a password I no longer remember. Once device drivers were installed, all features functioned as expected including the ability to run on plug-in power and charge its battery.

That capability was inexplicably nonfunctional in my HP Stream 7. Which meant unlike the HP Stream 7, I could run this display continuously on wired power around the clock. And showing the ESA HTML live space station tracker might be the best way to make use of this hardware. It would be a better end than collecting dust, as my past experience of this tablet has failed to live up to its potential and generally soured me on buying any more computers from Samsung.

ESA ISS Tracker on HP Stream 7

After I found that Amazon Fire HD 7 tablet was unsuitable for an always-on screen to display ESA’s HTML live tracker for the International Space Station, I moved on to the next piece of hardware in my inactive pile: a HP Stream 7. This tablet was an effort by Microsoft to prove that they would not cede the entry-level tablet market to Android. In hindsight we now know that effort did not pan out.

But at the time, it was an intriguing product as it ran Windows 10 on an Intel Atom processor. This overcame the lack of x86 application compatibility of the previous entry level Windows tablet, which ran Windows RT on an ARM processor. It was difficult to see how an expensive device with a from-scratch application ecosystem could compete with Android tablets, and indeed Windows RT was eventually withdrawn.

Back to this x86-based tablet: small and compact, with a screen measuring 7″ diagonally that gave it its name, it launched at $120 which was unheard of for Windows machines. Discounts down to $80 (when I bought it) made it cheaper than a standalone license of Windows software. Buying it meant I got a Windows license and basic hardware to run it.

But while nobody expected it to be a speed demon, its performance was nevertheless disappointing. At best, it was merely on par with similarly priced Android tablets. Sure we could run standard x86 Windows applications… but would we want to? Trying to run Windows apps not designed with a tablet in mind was a pretty miserable experience, worse than an entry level PC. Though to be fair, it is impossible to buy an entry level PC for $120 never mind $80.

The best I can say about this tablet was that it performed better than the far more expensive Samsung 500T (more on that later.) And with a Windows license embedded in hardware, I was able to erase its original Windows 8 operating system (locked with a password I no longer recall) and clean install Windows 10. It had no problems updating itself to the current version (1909) of Windows 10. The built-in Edge browser easily rendered ESA ISS tracker, and unlike the Kindle I could set screen timeout to “never”.

That’s great news, but then I ran into some problems with power management components that would interfere with around-the-clock operation.

ESA ISS Tracker on Kindle Fire HD 7 (9th Gen)

I wanted to play with old PCs and that’s why I tried ESA’s ISS Tracker on a HP Mini and Dell Latitude X1. But if I’m being honest, the job of a dedicated display is better suited to devices like tablets. They are designed for information consumption and are not hampered by the overhead of input devices like keyboards. I was not willing to dedicate my iPad to this task: it is too useful for other things. But I do have a pile of older devices that haven’t lived up to their promise.

Top of this pile (meaning most recent) is an Amazon Kindle Fire HD 7 tablet 9th generation (*) purchased during holiday sale for a significant discount. If there isn’t a sale today, wait a few weeks and another will be along shortly. I ended up paying roughly 20% of what I paid for my iPad, and I had been curious how it would perform. The verdict was that it had too many annoyances to be useful and I ended up not leaving it collecting dust. At 20% of the price with 0% of utility, it was not a win.

But maybe I could dedicate its screen for a live ISS tracker? I brought up Silk web browser and launched the ESA site. Switching to full screen mode unveiled a problem: Kindle never removes its device navigation buttons from the bottom of the screen. The triangle/circle/square obscures part of ISS tracker’s display.

I wondered if this behavior applied to native Kindle apps as it did full screen web pages, so I searched through the Amazon Kindle app store for an ISS tracker and found ISSLive (*) for experimentation. The answer: yes, the navigation bar is overlaid on top of native applications just as it did on web pages.

Kindle Fire HD 7 running ISSLive

But that was only visually annoying and not an outright deal breaker. That would be Kindle’s sleep behavior. There is no option to keep the screen display active. The user can choose from one of several time duration for the tablet to wait before it turns off the display and goes to sleep, but there is no “Never go to sleep” option.

Kindle Fire HD 7 Always Sleeps

The Kindle Fire HD 7 will not be suitable as a dedicated ISS tracker screen, so I’m moving on to the next device in the unused pile for investigation: a HP Stream 7.

(*) Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

ESA ISS Tracker on Dell Latitude X1

My failed effort at an ISS Tracker web kiosk reminded me of my previous failure trying to get Ubuntu Core web kiosk up and running on old hardware. That computer, a Dell Latitude X1, was also very sluggish running modern Ubuntu Mate interactively when I had tried it. I was curious how it would compare with the HP Mini.

The HP Mini has the advantage of age: it is roughly ten years old, whereas the X1 is around fifteen years old. When it comes to computers, an age difference of five years is a huge gulf spanning multiple hardware generations. However, the X1 launched as a top of the line premium machine for people who were willing to pay for a thin and light machine. Hence it was designed under very different criteria than the HP Mini despite similarity in form factor.

As one example: the HP Mini housed a commodity 2.5″ laptop hard drive, but the Dell Latitude X1 used a much smaller form factor hard drive that I have not seen before or since. Given its smaller market and lower volume, I think it is fair to assume the smaller hard drive comes at a significant price premium in exchange for reduction of a few cubic centimeters in volume and grams of weight.

Installing Ubuntu Mate 18.04 on the X1, I confirmed it is still quite sluggish by modern standards. However, this is a comparison test and the Dell X1 surprised me by feeling more responsive than the five years younger HP Mini. Given that they both use spinning platter hard drives and had 1GB of RAM, I thought the difference is probably due to their CPU. The Latitude X1 had an ULV (ultra low voltage) Pentium M 744 processor, which was a premium product showcasing the most processing power Intel can deliver while sipping gently on battery power. In comparison the HP Mini had an Atom processor, an entry-level product optimized for cost. Looking at their spec sheet comparison shows how closely an entry level CPU matches up to a premium CPU from five years earlier, but the Atom had only one quarter of the CPU cache and I think that was a decisive difference.

Despite its constrained cache, the Atom had two cores and thermal design power (TDP) of just 2.5W. In contrast the Pentium M 733 ULV had only a single core and TDP of 5W. Twice the cores, half the electrical power, the younger CPU far more power efficient. And it’s not just the CPU, either, it’s the whole machine. Whereas the HP Mini 110 only needed 7.5W to display ESA ISS Tracker, the Latitude X1 reports drawing more than double that. A little over 17W, according to upower. An aged battery, which has degraded to 43% of its original capacity, could only support that for about 40 minutes.

Device: /org/freedesktop/UPower/devices/battery_BAT0
native-path: BAT0
vendor: Sanyo
model: DELL T61376
serial: 161
power supply: yes
updated: Thu 23 Apr 2020 06:19:06 PM PDT (69 seconds ago)
has history: yes
has statistics: yes
present: yes
rechargeable: yes
state: discharging
warning-level: none
energy: 11.4663 Wh
energy-empty: 0 Wh
energy-full: 11.4663 Wh
energy-full-design: 26.64 Wh
energy-rate: 17.2605 W
voltage: 12.474 V
time to empty: 39.9 minutes
percentage: 100%
capacity: 43.0417%
technology: lithium-ion
icon-name: 'battery-full-symbolic'
History (rate):
1587691145 17.261 discharging

Putting a computer to work showing the ESA tracker is only using its display. It doesn’t involve the keyboard. Such information consumption tasks are performed just as well by touchscreen devices, and I have a few to try. Starting with an Amazon Kindle Fire HD 7.

ESA ISS Tracker on HP Mini (110-1134CL)

I thought it might be fun to turn an obsolete computer into an International Space Station tracking monitor running full time somewhere in the house. I didn’t want to write the software myself from scratch, and a search for something that I could put on various hardware found a web-based HTML live ISS tracker published by the European Space Agency.

My first test platform is a HP Mini (110-1134CL) from my NUCC trio of machines looking for projects. As the least capable machine in the bunch, I thought it was the best candidate. I reinstalled Ubuntu Mate 18.04 on this machine for the first round of experimentation. Earlier I established Ubuntu Mate was unusable slow on this machine for interactive usage, but maybe it will be enough for passive ISS tracking display.

With Ubuntu Mate installed, putting the site on screen was straightforward. Firefox (which comes installed as part of standard Ubuntu) can be launched with a full screen --kiosk option. That command line is what I used for a systemd service, similar to how Google prescribed launching AIY Voice apps on startup. I had to modify the AIY executable with the Firefox command line, and that was enough for the ISS tracker to be automatically launched on boot. I still had to manually click the full screen button for now, one of the to-do items I might investigate fixing later.

I was not sure if a modern web application might be too much for this old piece of hardware to handle, but once up and running the ISS tracker is pretty lightweight on processor demands according to htop. To double check, I researched how to retrieve a laptop’s power consumption under Linux and found this page listing several options. I chose upower to tell me how much power the laptop believes it is drawing from its battery pack.


UPower says HP Mini 110 only needs 7.5 watts

Looks like running ISS tracker takes about seven and a half watts. That’s not bad, on par with a digital picture frame. Using this to calculate the cost of energy consumption: (7.5 Watts) * (24 hours) * (30 days) = 5.4 kilowatt-hours per month. I’m being billed roughly $0.25 per kilowatt-hour on my electrical bill, so running this laptop as ISS tracker 24×7 would cost me about $1.35 a month in electric power.

I’m willing to entertain that amount as-is, but I was curious if I could drop that even further. What if I could replace Ubuntu Mate with an even simpler operating system? Would that further drop power consumption? I played with the web kiosk demo for Ubuntu Core before, so I thought I’d revisit the experiment with this HP Mini 110-1134CL.

HTML Live ISS Tracker by ESA

While looking for a web-based space station tracker as alternative to the Raspberry Pi-based ISS-Above, I found NASA’s Spot the Station and embedded on that page is a live ISS Tracker by ESA. I’ve found this ESA component embedded in several other ISS-related web sites. It is the “ISS Tracker” tab of the High Definition Earth Viewing Experiment page on And the ESA has a “Where is the International Space Station?” page that also has this tracker embedded. This tracker is nifty and popular enough for a closer look.

Most of the embeds show two parts to this tracking component. The top part has an ISS track overlaid on top of a global view, and the bottom part is a Google Maps component showing the “For development purposes only” text that is shown when there’s a problem with the API key. I originally thought these were two separate items because I only saw the ISS track embedded on the ESA “Where is the ISS” page and I saw the Google error on a different ISS tracker web site. But bringing the ESA tracker up on its own web site showed they are both part of the same thing. I would like to understand how the “Where is the ISS” page managed to embed the global view component without the Google Maps part.

The default view is also quite tiny, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. We get the best view when we press the full screen icon just to the right of the Metric / Imperial switch. This drops the problematic Google Maps portion and fills the screen with global view. Despite the tiny default low resolution view, the graphics scale quite well and look pretty good even full screen on an 4K display.

I would like to know how to jump straight to this screen without user input, but there are deliberate barriers against public web sites going full screen without user input. Such a mechanism is too easy to be abused by malicious people creating spoofs. If I want to display HTML content fullscreen, I’ll have to find some other way to present it. One possibility is to use ElectronJS turning it into a native app (which doesn’t have the same restrictions as a browser for public sites) and create a window with fullscreen set to true.

These programming details will need to be sorted out if I want to make a project out of it. In the immediate future, I can experiment by manually pushing the full screen button to see how the site behaves on obsolete PC hardware.

Searching For Web-Based ISS Tracker

When NASA and SpaceX announced a target date of May 27th 2020 for Crew Dragon’s second demonstration mission, it was a big deal for space fans especially those in the United States. If successful, this would be the first crewed flight launching from US since retirement of NASA’s space shuttle. I count myself as a space fan, and the announcement got my mind thinking about space again.

The destination for this planned test flight is the International Space Station (ISS) flying over our heads. An object of fascination for space fans, there’s plenty of merchandise available including a LEGO set (#21321) that I had the pleasure to participate putting together at a gathering before we all went into isolation.

There’s no shortage of ISS information available online, either. My personal favorite way to have a screen dedicated to ISS in my home is ISS-Above. I have a license that I run on-and-off depending on whether I have a Raspberry Pi and screen to spare at the moment. Given the flexibility of Raspberry Pi hardware for use in other projects, availability is thin.

What’s more commonly available in my house are obsolete computers. Unfortunately ISS-Above is tied to the Raspberry Pi so I must look elsewhere for a PC-friendly solution. Some of my old machines are running Windows 10 of some variant. The rest have lost their Windows licenses and are running Linux. The easiest common denominator for all of these platforms is a web browser.

Searching online for a web-based ISS tracking counterpart to ISS-Above, I found NASA’s “Spot the Station” website. It has a few interesting resources but not exactly what I’m looking for. One part of the site is a “Live ISS Tracking Map” which replicates my favorite subset of ISS-Above functionality and thus a good place to start. Looking at its HTML, I quickly realized it was an embedding of another page hosted by the European Space Agency (ESA) and available at its own URL. This is an excellent starting point for more exploration.