NASA’s Flying Telescope Is Winding Down Operations

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is arguably the best known and most successful observatory in history, delivering unprecedented images that have tantalized the public and astronomers alike for more than 30 years. But even so, there’s nothing particularly special about Hubble. Ultimately it’s just a large optical telescope which has the benefit of being in space rather than on Earth’s surface. In fact, it’s long been believed that Hubble is not dissimilar from contemporary spy satellites operated by the National Reconnaissance Office — it’s just pointed in a different direction.

There are however some truly unique instruments in NASA’s observational arsenal, and though they might not have the name recognition of the Hubble or James Webb Space Telescopes, they still represent incredible feats of engineering. This is perhaps best exemplified by the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), an airborne infrared telescope built into a retired airliner that is truly one-of-a-kind.

Unfortunately this unique aerial telescope also happens to be exceptionally expensive to operate; with an annual operating cost of approximately $85 million, it’s one of the agency’s most expensive ongoing astrophysics missions. After twelve years of observations, NASA and their partners at the German Aerospace Center have decided to end the SOFIA program after its current mission concludes in September.

With the telescope so close to making its final observations, it seems a good time to look back at this incredible program and why the US and German space centers decided it was time to put SOFIA back in the hangar.

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StarPointer Keeps Scope On Target With Stellarium

On astronomical telescopes of even middling power, a small “finderscope” is often mounted in parallel to the main optics to assist in getting the larger instrument on target. The low magnification of the finderscope offers a far wider field of view than the primary telescope, which makes it much easier to find small objects in the sky. Even if your target is too small or faint to see in the finderscope, just being able to get your primary telescope pointed at the right celestial neighborhood is a huge help.

But [Dilshan Jayakody] still thought he could improve on things a bit. Instead of a small optical scope, his StarPointer is an electronic device that can determine the orientation of the telescope it’s mounted to. As the ADXL345 accelerometer and HMC5883L magnetometer inside the STM32F103C8 powered gadget detect motion, the angle data is sent to Stellarium — an open source planetarium program. Combined with a known latitude and longitude, this allows the software to show where the telescope is currently pointed in the night sky.

As demonstrated in the video after the break, this provides real-time feedback which is easy to understand even for the absolute beginner: all you need to do is slew the scope around until the object you want to look at it under the crosshairs. While we wouldn’t recommend looking at a bright computer screen right before trying to pick out dim objects in your telescope’s eyepiece, we can certainly see the appeal of this “virtual” finderscope.

Then again…who said this technique had to be limited to optical observations? As the StarPointer is an open hardware project, you could always integrate the tech into that DIY radio telescope you’ve always dreamed of building in the backyard.

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Truly Giant Telescope Could Image Exoplanets

Have you ever wished we could peek at all these exoplanets that have been recently discovered? We aren’t likely to visit anytime soon, but it would be possible to build a truly giant telescope that could take a look at something like that. At least according to [SciShow Space] in a recent video you can see below.

The idea put forth in a recent scientific paper is to deliberately create the conditions that naturally form gravitational lenses. If you recall, scientists have used these naturally-occurring lenses to image the oldest star ever observed. These natural super-telescopes have paid off many times, but you can’t pick what you want to look at. It is all a function of the distance to the star creating the lens and the direction a line between us points.

But what if you could create your own gravity lens? Granted, we probably aren’t going to do that in our garages. However, a recent paper talks about launching an optical detector that you could maneuver so that it was on a line that would pass through the object you want to see and our own sun. We clearly have the technology to do this. After all, we have several nice space telescopes, and several probes operating far away from the sun.

That is one of the biggest catches, though. This new telescope will need to be some 550 AU from the sun to get good results. For the record, the Earth is 1 AU (about 8 light minutes) out. Pluto — maybe not a planet anymore, but still a signpost on the way out of the solar system — is a scant 39 AU out. Voyager I, which has been racing away from the sun since 1977 is only about 156 AU out.

Because the craft would be so far out, it would be practically a one-shot mission. You also have to have something reliable enough to go the 17 years it would take with today’s technology to get in place. You also need a way to get the data back over that distance. All doable, but non-trivial.

The paper simulates what the Earth would look like using this technique from a nearby star. The images are shockingly good, especially after a bit of post-processing. Meanwhile, we may have to settle for more modest images. You might not see detail, but it is possible to find exoplanets with reasonably modest equipment.

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Hackaday Links: May 15, 2022

It may be blurry and blotchy, but it’s ours. The first images of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy were revealed this week, and they caused quite a stir. You may recall the first images of the supermassive black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy from a couple of years ago: spectacular images that captured exactly what all the theories said a black hole should look like, or more precisely, what the accretion disk and event horizon should look like, since black holes themselves aren’t much to look at. That black hole, dubbed M87*, is over 55 million light-years away, but is so huge and so active that it was relatively easy to image. The black hole at the center of our own galaxy, Sagittarius A*, is comparatively tiny — its event horizon would fit inside the orbit of Mercury — a much closer at only 26,000 light-years or so. But, our black hole is much less active and obscured by dust, so imaging it was far more difficult. It’s a stunning technical achievement, and the images are certainly worth checking out.

Another one from the “Why didn’t I think of that?” files — contactless haptic feedback using the mouth is now a thing. This comes from the Future Interfaces Group at Carnegie-Mellon and is intended to provide an alternative to what ends up being about the only practical haptic device for VR and AR applications — vibrations from off-balance motors. Instead, this uses an array of ultrasonic transducers positioned on a VR visor and directed at the user’s mouth. By properly driving the array, pressure waves can be directed at the lips, teeth, and tongue of the wearer, providing feedback for in-world events. The mock game demonstrated in the video below is a little creepy — not sure how many people enjoyed the feeling of cobwebs brushing against the face or the splatter of spider guts in the mouth. Still, it’s a pretty cool idea, and we’d like to see how far it can go.

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About As Cold As It Gets: The Webb Telescope’s Cryocooler

If you were asked to name the coldest spot in the solar system, chances are pretty good you’d think it would be somewhere as far as possible from the ultimate source of all the system’s energy — the Sun. It stands to reason that the further away you get from something hot, the more the heat spreads out. And so Pluto, planet or not, might be a good guess for the record low temperature.

But, for as cold as Pluto gets — down to 40 Kelvin — there’s a place that much, much colder than that, and paradoxically, much closer to home. In fact, it’s only about a million miles away, and right now, sitting at a mere 6 Kelvin, the chunk of silicon at the focal plane of one of the main instruments aboard the James Webb Space telescope makes the surface of Pluto look downright balmy.

The depth of cold on Webb is all the more amazing given that mere meters away, the temperature is a sizzling 324 K (123 F, 51 C). The hows and whys of Webb’s cooling systems are chock full of interesting engineering tidbits and worth an in-depth look as the world’s newest space telescope gears up for observations.

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Keep Tabs On Asteroids With Asteroid Atlas

Keeping tabs on the night sky is an enjoyable way to stay connected to the stars, and astronomy can be accessible to most people with a low entry point for DIY telescopes. For those who live in areas with too much light pollution, though, cost is not the only issue facing amateur astronomers. Luckily there are more ways to observe the night sky, like with this open source software package from [elanorlutz] which keeps tabs on all known asteroids.

The software is largely based on Python and uses a number of databases from NASA to allow anyone with a computer to explore various maps of the solar system and the planetary and non-planetary bodies within it. Various trajectories can be calculated, and paths of other solar system bodies can be shown with respect to an observer in various locations. Once the calculations are made in Python it is able to export the images for use in whichever image manipulation software you prefer.

The code that [elanorlutz] has created is quite extensive and ready to use for anyone interested in tracking comets, trans-Neptunian objects, or even planets and moons from their own computer. We would imagine a tool like this would be handy for anyone with a telescope as well as it could predict locations of objects in the night sky with accuracy and then track them with the right hardware.

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Hackaday Links: January 23, 2022

When Tonga’s Hunga-Tonga Hunga-Ha’apai volcano erupted on January 15, one hacker in the UK knew just what to do. Sandy Macdonald from York quickly cobbled together a Raspberry Pi and a pressure/humidity sensor board and added a little code to create a recording barometer. The idea was to see if the shock wave from the eruption would be detectable over 16,000 km away — and surprise, surprise, it was! It took more than 14 hours to reach Sandy’s impromptu recording station, but the data clearly show a rapid pulse of increasing pressure as the shockwave approached, and a decreased pressure as it passed. What’s more, the shock wave that traveled the “other way” around the planet was detectable too, about seven hours after the first event. In fact, data gathered through the 19th clearly show three full passes of the shockwaves. We just find this fascinating, and applaud Sandy for the presence of mind to throw this together when news of the eruption came out.

Good news for professional astronomers and others with eyes turned skyward — it seems like the ever-expanding Starlink satellite constellation isn’t going to kill ground-based observation. At least that’s the conclusion of a team using the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) at the Palomar Observatory outside San Diego. ZTF is designed to catalog anything that blinks, flashes, or explodes in the night sky, making it perfect to detect the streaks from the 1,800-odd Starlink satellites currently in orbit. They analyzed the number of satellite transients captured in ZTF images, and found that fully 20 percent of images show streaks now, as opposed to 0.5 percent back in 2019 when the constellation was much smaller. They conclude that at the 10,000 satellite full build-out, essentially every ZTF image will have a streak in it, but since the artifacts are tiny and well-characterized, they really won’t hinder the science to any appreciable degree.

Speaking of space, we finally have a bit of insight into the causes of space anemia. The 10% to 12% decrease in red blood cells in astronauts during their first ten days in space has been well known since the dawn of the Space Age, but the causes had never really been clear. It was assumed that the anemia was a result of the shifting of fluids in microgravity, but nobody really knew for sure until doing a six-month study on fourteen ISS astronauts. They used exhaled carbon monoxide as a proxy for the destruction of red blood cells (RBCs) — one molecule of CO is liberated for each hemoglobin molecule that’s destroyed — and found that the destruction of RBCs is a primary effect of being in space. Luckily, there appears to be a limit to how many RBCs are lost in space, so the astronauts didn’t suffer from complications of severe anemia while in space. Once they came back to gravity, the anemia reversed, albeit slowly and with up to a year of measurable changes to their blood.

From the “Better Late Than Never” department, we see that this week that Wired finally featured Hackaday Superfriend Sam Zeloof and his homemade integrated circuits. We’re glad to see Sam get coverage — the story was also picked up by Ars Technica — but it’s clear that nobody at either outfit reads Hackaday, since we’ve been featuring Sam since we first heard about his garage fab in 2017. That was back when Sam was still “just” making transistors; since then, we’ve featured some of his lab upgrades, watched him delve into electron beam lithography, and broke the story on his first legit integrated circuit. Along the way, we managed to coax him out to Supercon in 2019 where he gave both a talk and an interview.

And finally, if you’re in the mood for a contest, why not check out WIZNet’s Ethernet HAT contest? The idea is to explore what a Raspberry Pi Pico with Ethernet attached is good for. WIZNet has two flavors of board: one is an Ethernet HAT for the Pico, while the other is as RP2040 with built-in Ethernet. The good news is, if you submit an idea, they’ll send you a board for free. We love it when someone from the Hackaday community wins a contest, so if you enter, be sure to let us know. And hurry — submissions close January 31.