We recently reported on the amateur scientific work of Forrest Mims. Forrest is somewhat unique in being an amateur scientist who has consistently published his work in leading scientific journals. One area of scientific investigation has however attracted amateur scientific contributions of the highest quality almost since its inception, amateur astronomy.
You’ve likely heard of amateur astronomers like David Levy co-discoverer of the Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 comet, and citizen science projects like galaxy zoo. But the history of amateur astronomy goes back far further than this, in fact as far back as 1781 William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus while employed as a Musician. Another entertainer of sorts, 1930s British comic actor, Will Hay, also made significant contributions discovering a “Great White Spot” on Saturn in-between films roles. Will was an avid amateur astronomer who regularly published his observations.
His belief that astronomy allows us to see humanity’s place in the universe in its true proportion led him to claim “If we were all astronomers there’d be no more war”.
While Will recorded his observations, hand drawn, in a log book. Modern astronomers digitally image the night sky. Digital cameras are of course optimized around the human visual system (as we recently discussed) making them less than ideal for astrophotography. Hackers have therefore made a number of innovations, one of the more audacious being the removal of the Bayer filter:
[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.
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.
[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.
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.
If you’re serious about astronomy these days, you want to have a computer controlled telescope. Although you can easily purchase a pre-made cable that connects the two devices, where’s the fun in that? [Charles], being an avid Maker, has created a nice step by step guide so you can build your own.
This is a great weekend project, and one that even a novice electronics hobbyist should be able to tackle. It’s straight forward, rather quick, and very easy. Strip some insulation off both ends of the cable, then cut off the unneeded wires. (You’ll only be working with three of them.) Prep everything with heat shrink tubing. Crimp one end of the wires into an RJ10 plug, then solder the other end of the wires into a DB9 connector. Secure the heat shrink tubing in place, attach the housings, and you can call it finished!
[Charles] said the whole procedure only took him around 15 minutes. Total cost? Less than $17 in parts.
[Justin] is a bit of an astronomy geek, but that doesn’t mean he’s always prepared for celestial phenomena. When he realized the May 20th annular eclipse was only a few days away, [Justin] dropped everything, built a pinhole solar viewer, and drove three hours for the best view of the eclipse. He learned something watching the eclipse; these sort of things sneak up on you, and you really need to plan ahead if you want to truly enjoy the music of the celestial spheres. After the eclipse, [Justin] set to work building a filter to watch a Venusian eclipse with his telescope.
If [Justin] pointed his 8 inch Schmidt–Cassegrain directly at the sun, he would most likely damage the optics in his ‘scope, burn several retinas, and other very, very bad things. The best way to view the Sun with a telescope is with an expensive Hydrogen alpha or a general solar filter, but these are expensive and the clock was rapidly ticking down to the transit of Venus. After reading that blocking most of the light from coming into the ‘scope, [Justin] built an aperature reducer out of a few bits of foam board, foil, and dark fleece.
How did viewing the transit with a telescope turn out? Well, if you don’t compare [Justin]’s pictures to the multi-million dollar toys NASA and astronomers have, pretty good. It’s a very good job considering the entire foam-core aperture reducer was built in the course of an evening.
While it may be a little early to be planning for the next Venusian transit in the year 2117, there will be a transit of Mercury on May 9, 2016. All [Justin] has to do is remember when it will happen.