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.

THP Entry: Making Amateur Astronomy Easy

explrad With the advent of electronics in everything, amateur astronomy has never been easier. Telescope mounts that point in the direction of any astronomical object automatically have been around for decades, and the Telrad – a device that paints 0.5, 2, and 4 degree diameter circles in your finder scope’s field of view are available if you’re just too cool for letting a robot do your job. [Christoph]’s explorad takes the concept of a Telrad and adds a somewhat more electronic twist: it still displays the field of view circles, but adds highlighting of interesting astronomical objects from a custom telescope mount, a huge database, and a few sensors.

By far the biggest challenge to any homebrew finder of astronomical objects is figuring out where the observer is. Not only does [Cristoph] need to take into account the location on Earth (GPS helps with that), but also where North is (electronic compass), where the telescope is pointing (optical encoders on a two axis mount), but also the universal time and current sidereal time. Living on a rotating planet that orbits a sun makes for a lot of code.

The current progress on the star finder to beat all star finders is a bit of code that draws the ‘telrad circles’ and displays placeholders for each patch of sky with a small triangle. Tilting the device or turning the azimuth pot moves these triangles and loads new ones on the fly. Now the name of the game is a sky object database for all the astronomical objects [Cristoph] wants to view.

AVR Barn Door Tracker for Astrophotography

zzjBarnDoorTracker

[ZigZagJoe’s] first foray into astrophotography is this impressive AVR barn door tracker, which steps up his night sky photo game without emptying his bank account. If you’ve never heard of astrophotography, you should skim over its Wikipedia page and/or the subreddit. The idea is to capture images otherwise undetectable by the human eye through longer exposures. Unfortunately, the big ball of rock we all inhabit has a tendency to rotate, which means you need to move the camera to keep the night sky framed up.

Most trackers require precision parts and fabrication, which was out of [ZigZagJoe’s] grasp. Instead, he found a solution with the Cloudbait Observatory model, which as best as we can tell looks vaguely similar to the tracker we featured last year. Unlike last year’s build—which uses an ATmega32u4 breakout board— [ZigZagJoe’s] tracker uses an ATTiny85 for the brains, running a pre-configured table that determines step rate against time.

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Open Source Telescope Control

board

Telescope mounts connected to computers and stepper motors have been available to the amateur astronomer for a long time, and for good reason, too. With just the press of a button, any telescope can pan over to the outer planets, nebula, or comets. Even if a goto command isn’t your thing, a simple clock drive is a wonderful thing to have. As with any piece of professional equipment, hackers will want to make their own version, and thus the openDrive project was born. It’s a project to make an open source telescope controller.

Right now, the project is modular, with power supply boards, a display board, motor driver, an IO board (for dew heaters and the like), and a hand-held controller. There’s an openDrive forum that’s fairly active covering both hardware and software. If you’re looking for a project to help you peer into the heavens, this is the one for you. If telescope upgrades aren’t enough to quench your astronomical thirst you could go full out with a backyard observatory build.

Danke [Håken] for the tip.