Supermoon? Or Just Another Perigee Syzygy?

The moon’s orbit is not circular. According to Wikipedia, the moon is closest at around 357,000 kilometers and farthest at 406,000: a difference of something like 13%. That’s a freakishly egg-shaped orbit compared to the earth’s orbit around the sun, for instance. And it moves between these extremes every month.

Tonight, the perigee (the close approach) corresponds with a full moon (a syzygy — when the earth, moon, and sun are all in a line). What does that mean? A brighter-than-average full moon! If you were around for the last “supermoon” in 2011, you’ll have heard that it was the closest/brightest since 1992, or something. Well, this one’s brighter.

But don’t freak out if the clouds are hanging in the sky wherever you live; there’s a perigee full moon every 411.8 days, and there’s going to be one next year too. Unless you’re taking repeated photographs with the same lens, you won’t be able to detect the size difference with your current wetware anyway, due to the aptly named moon illusion. You already perceive the moon varying in size by a factor of 1.5 when it’s on the horizon versus hanging overhead, so an extra few percent is going to be lost in the noise floor. And the difference between a hazy and clear night will easily swamp the difference in brightness.

superm_nAs usual, XKCD sums it up nicely. The “supermoon” is a perigee when the moon happens to be full. It’s a fairly frequent event, by celestial standards, and it’s underwhelming. If you want to see something really freaky, keep your eyes peeled for the total eclipse of the sun in August 2017.

Don’t get us wrong, we think that the moon is super! And there’s nothing wrong with going outside to have a peek at it. Just please, during this year’s perigee syzygy, spare us the hyperbole.

“Supermoon” versus “micromoon” comparison image courtesy [Stephan Sciarpetti].

3D Universe Theater

If you are an astronomy buff, there are plenty of star maps you can find in print or online (or even on your Smartphone). But if you are a science fiction fan (or writer), you probably find those maps frustrating because they are flat. Two stars next to each other on the map might be light years apart in the axis coming out of the page. A star 3.2 light years from Sol (our sun) looks the same on the map as a star 100 light years away.

The Gaia satellite (an ESA project) orbits beyond the moon and is carefully mapping the 3D position of every point of light it sees. [Charlie Hoey] took the data for about 2 million stars and used WebGL to give you a 3D view of the data in your web browser.

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Skynet Takes Over…Academia?

A telescope isn’t an unusual thing to own if you are technically inclined. You might have even made one, at some point. However, despite improvements in optical technology and computer aiming devices, your four to twenty-inch instrument is never going to show you images like you see from big giant telescopes. The problem is, going really big requires a lot of investment in time, money, and sometimes even real estate. The big scopes get buildings constructed for them, and in exotic locations; why would you build a 24-inch scope only to try to see through the light pollution in your backyard?

Here’s an idea: take an astronomy class at a college and use their big telescope. Well, who has the time and money for that? Actually, you do. Skynet is a global network of telescopes headquartered at the University of North Carolina. As part of their mandate, they offer several tuition-free astronomy classes over the Internet. The best part? You also get free time on Skynet’s telescopes to complete your class assignments. There is a small fee (between $45 and $65) to a “benefit corporation” to administer assignments. You do get a certificate upon graduation. If you don’t want to do the assignments and you don’t want a certificate, you can still “take” the classes by simply watching them on YouTube. You can see one of the classes in the video below.

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Star Track: A Lesson in Positional Astronomy With Lasers

[gocivici] threatened us with a tutorial on positional astronomy when we started reading his tutorial on a Arduino Powered Star Pointer and he delivered. We’d pick him to help us take the One Ring to Mordor; we’d never get lost and his threat-delivery-rate makes him less likely to pull a Boromir.

As we mentioned he starts off with a really succinct and well written tutorial on celestial coordinates that antiquity would have killed to have. If we were writing a bit of code to do our own positional astronomy system, this is the tab we’d have open. Incidentally, that’s exactly what he encourages those who have followed the tutorial to do.

The star pointer itself is a high powered green laser pointer (battery powered), 3D printed parts, and an amalgam of fourteen dollars of Chinese tech cruft. The project uses two Arduino clones to process serial commands and manage two 28byj-48 stepper motors. The 2nd Arduino clone was purely to supplement the digital pins of the first; we paused a bit at that, but then we realized that import arduinos have gotten so cheap they probably are more affordable than an I2C breakout board or stepper driver these days. The body was designed with a mixture of Tinkercad and something we’d not heard of, OpenJsCAD.

Once it’s all assembled and tested the only thing left to do is go outside with your contraption. After making sure that you’ve followed all the local regulations for not pointing lasers at airplanes, point the laser at the north star. After that you can plug in any star coordinate and the laser will swing towards it and track its location in the sky. Pretty cool.

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A Star Tracking Telescope Mount

[Chris] recently got his hands on an old telescope. While this small refractor with an altitude-azimuth mount is sufficient for taking a gander at big objects in our solar system, high-end telescopes can be so much cooler. Large reflecting telescopes can track the night sky for hours, and usually come with a computer interface and a GOTO button. Combine this with Stellarium, the open source sky map, and you can have an entire observatory in your back yard.

For [Chris]’ entry into the 2016 Hackaday Prize, he’s giving his old telescope an upgrade. With a Raspberry Pi, a few 3D printed adapters, and a new telescope mount to create a homebrew telescope computer.

The alt-az mount really isn’t the right tool for the astronomical job. The earth spins on a tilted axis, and if you want to hold things in the night sky still, it has to turn in two axes. An equatorial mount is much more compatible with the celestial sphere. Right now, [Chris] is looking into a German equatorial mount, a telescope that is able to track an individual star through the night sky using only a clock drive motor.

To give this telescope a brain, he’ll be using a Raspberry Pi, GPS, magnetometer, and ostensibly a real-time clock to make sure the build knows where the stars are. After that, it’s a simple matter of pointing the telescope via computer and using a Raspberry Pi camera to peer into the heavens with a very, very small image sensor.

While anyone with three or four hundred dollars could simply buy a telescope with similar features, that’s really not the point for [Chris], or for amateur astronomy. There is a long, long history of amateur astronomers building their own mirrors, lenses, and mounts. [Chris] is just continuing this very long tradition, and in the process building a great entry for the 2016 Hackaday Prize

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Astrophotography and Data-Analysis Sense Exoplanets

[David Schneider] was reading about recent discoveries of exoplanets. Simply put these are planets orbiting stars other than the sun. The rigs used by the research scientists include massive telescopes, but the fact that they’re using CCD sensors led [David] to wonder if a version of this could be done on the cheap in the backyard. The answer is yes. By capturing and processing data from a barn door tracker he was able to verify a known exoplanet.

Barn Door trackers are devices used to move a camera to compensate for the turning of the earth. This is necessary when taking images throughout the night, as the stars will not remain “stationary” to the camera’s frame without it. The good news is that they’re simple to build, we’ve seen a few over the years.

Other than having to wait until his part of the earth was pointed in the correct direction (on a clear night) at the same time as an exoplanet transit, [David] was ready to harvest all the data he needed. This part gets interesting really quickly. The camera needed to catch the planet passing in between the earth and the star it revolves around (called a transit). The data to prove this happened is really subtle. To uncover it [David] needed to control the data set for atmospheric changes by referencing several other stars. From there he focused on the data for the transit target and compared points across the entire set of captured images. The result is a dip in brightness that matches the specifications of the original discovery.

[David] explains the entire process in the clip after the break.

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Finding Meteors, Satellites, and Star Trails with a Raspberry Pi

meteorite

The Raspberry Pi is an incredibly popular, cheap, and low power computer that also has a nifty camera add-on that is completely programmable. This opens up a log of possibilities for long-exposure photography, and [Jippo] has found the best use so far: long exposure astrophotography for capturing meteors, satellites, and star trails.

[Jippo] is using a stock Raspi and camera module with a little bit of custom software written by his friend [Jani Lappalainen] that grabs image data from the camera and saves it either as a time-lapse, or only when something significantly changes. This would include meteors and Iridium flares, as well as passing planes, reflections of satellites, and of course long-exposure star trails.

So far, [Jippo] has already captured enough images to amount to a great night of skywatching. There’s a great picture of a meteor, a few pictures of satellites reflecting the sun, and some great star trails. The software [Jippo] is using is available on his site along with a gallery of his highlight reel.