Arduino Drives Astronomy Dome

The South Florida Science Center recently added a new ten-inch telescope and turned to [Andres Paris] and his brother to replace the hand-cranked dome door system. They turned to an Arduino along with some beefy motor drivers. You can see some videos of the beast in operation, below.

According to a Reddit post, the brothers picked up a 5A 12V motor but decided to overdesign and selected an H-bridge that would handle 20A peak current. An IR remote allows the operator to open and shut the door and reed switches sense the extremes of the door’s motion.

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OpenAstroTracker Turns Your DSLR Into An Astronomy Instrument

If you want to take beautiful night sky pictures with your DSLR and you live between 15 degrees and 55 degrees north latitude you might want to check out OpenAstroTracker. If you have a 3D printer it will probably take about 60 hours of printing, but you’ll wind up with a pretty impressive setup for your camera. There’s an Arduino managing the tracking and also providing a “go to” capability.

The design is over on Thingiverse and you can find code on GitHub. There’s also a Reddit dedicated to the project. The tracker touts its ability to handle long or heavy lenses and to target 180 degrees in every direction.

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The Spitzer Space Telescope Ends Its Incredible Journey

Today, after 16 years of exemplary service, NASA will officially deactivate the Spitzer Space Telescope. Operating for over a decade beyond its designed service lifetime, the infrared observatory worked in tandem with the Hubble Space Telescope to reveal previously hidden details of known cosmic objects and helped expand our understanding of the universe. In later years, despite never being designed for the task, it became an invaluable tool in the study of planets outside our own solar system.

While there’s been no cataclysmic failure aboard the spacecraft, currently more than 260 million kilometers away from Earth, the years have certainly taken their toll on Spitzer. The craft’s various technical issues, combined with its ever-increasing distance, has made its continued operation cumbersome. Rather than running it to the point of outright failure, ground controllers have decided to quit while they still have the option to command the vehicle to go into hibernation mode. At its distance from the Earth there’s no danger of it becoming “space junk” in the traditional sense, but a rogue spacecraft transmitting randomly in deep space could become a nuisance for future observations.

From mapping weather patterns on a planet 190 light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major to providing the first images of Saturn’s largest ring, it’s difficult to overstate the breadth of Spitzer’s discoveries. But these accomplishments are all the more impressive when you consider the mission’s storied history, from its tumultuous conception to the unique technical challenges of long-duration spaceflight.

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Habitable Exoplanets Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, January 15 at noon Pacific for the Habitable Exoplanets Hack Chat with Alberto Caballero!

Many of the major scientific achievements of the last 100 years or so have boiled down to problems of picking out a signal from the noise. Think about analyzing the human genome, for instance: we each have something like two meters of DNA coiled up inside each cell in our body, and yet teasing out the information in a single gene had to wait until we developed sufficiently sophisticated methods like PCR and CRISPR.

Similarly, albeit on the other end of the scale, the search for planets beyond our solar system wasn’t practical until methods and instruments that could measure the infinitesimal affect a planet’s orbit on its star were developed. Once that door was unlocked, reports of exoplanets came flooding in, and Earth went from being a unique place in the galaxy to just one of many, many places life could possibly have gotten a foothold. And now, the barrier for entry to the club of planet hunters has dropped low enough that amateur astronomers are getting in on the action.

Alberto Caballero is one such stargazer, and he has turned his passion for astronomy into an organized project that is taking a good, hard look at some of our nearest stellar neighbors in the hope of finding exoplanets in the habitable zone. The Habitable Exoplanet Hunting Project is training the instruments in 33 observatories around the globe on ten stars within 100 light-years, hoping to detect the faint signal that indicates an orbiting planet. They hope to add to the list of places worthy of exploration, both from Earth via optical and radio telescopes, and perhaps, someday, in person.
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Chandrayaan-2 Found By Citizen Scientist; Reminds Us Of Pluto Discovery

What does Pluto — not the dog, but the non-Planet — have in common with the Vikram lunar lander launched by India? Both were found by making very tiny comparisons to photographs. You’d think landing something on the moon would be old hat by now, but it turns out only three countries have managed to do it. The Chandrayaan-2 mission would have made India the fourth country. But two miles above the surface, the craft left its planned trajectory and went radio silent.

India claimed it knew where the lander crashed but never revealed any pictures or actual coordinates. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter took pictures several times of the landing area but didn’t see the expected scar like the one left by the doomed Israeli lander when it crashed in April. A lot of people started looking at the NASA pictures and one Indian computer programmer and mechanical engineer, Shanmuga Subramanian, seems to have been successful.

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Starlink Satellites Posing Issues For Astronomers

Spotting satellites from the ground is a popular pastime among amateur astronomers. Typically, the ISS and Iridium satellites have been common sightings, with their orbits and design causing them to appear sufficiently bright in the sky. More recently, SpaceX’s mass launches of Starlink satellites have been drawing attention for the wrong reasons.

A capture from the Cerro Telolo observatory, showing the many Starlink satellite tracks spoiling the exposure.

Starlink is a project run by SpaceX to provide internet via satellite, using a variety of techniques to keep latency down and bandwidth high. There’s talk of inter-satellite laser communications, autonomous obstacle avoidance, and special designs to limit the amount of space junk created. We’ve covered the technology in a comprehensive post earlier this year.

The Starlink craft have long worried astronomers, who rely on a dark and unobstructed view of the sky to carry out their work. There are now large numbers of the satellites in relatively low orbits, and the craft have a high albedo, meaning they reflect a significant amount of the sunlight that hits them. With the craft also launching in a closely-packed train formation, there have already been impacts on research operations.

There is some hope that as the craft move to higher orbits when they enter service, this problem will be reduced. SpaceX are also reportedly considering modifications to the design to reduce albedo, helping to keep the astronomy community onside. Regardless, with plans on the table to launch anywhere from 12,000 to 42,000 satellites, it’s likely this isn’t the last we’ll hear about the issue.

Hackaday Links: November 3, 2019

Depending on how you look at it, the Internet turned 50 years old last week. On October 29, 1969, the first message was transmitted between two of the four nodes that made up ARPANET, the Internet’s predecessor network. ARPANET was created after a million dollars earmarked for ballistic missile defense was diverted from the Advanced Research Projects Agency budget to research packet-switched networks. It’s said that ARPANET was designed to survive a nuclear war; there’s plenty of debate about whether that was a specific design goal, but if it was, it certainly didn’t look promising out of the gate, since the system crashed after only two characters of the first message were sent. So happy birthday, Internet, and congratulations: you’re now old enough to start getting junk mail from the AARP.

Good news for space nerds: NASA has persuaded Boeing to livestream an upcoming Starliner test. This won’t be a launch per se, but a test of the pad abort system intended to get astronauts out of harm’s way in the event of a launch emergency. The whole test will only last about 90 seconds and never reach more than 1.5 kilometers above the White Sands Missile Range test site, but it’s probably a wise move for Boeing to be as transparent as possible at this point in their history. The test is scheduled for 9:00 AM Eastern time — don’t forget Daylight Savings Time ends this weekend in most of the US — and will air on NASA Television.

Speaking of space, here’s yet another crowd-sourced effort you might want to consider getting in on if you’re of an astronomical bent. The Habitable Exoplanet Hunting Project is looking for a new home for humanity, and they need more eyes on the skies to do it. An introductory video explains all about it; we have to admit being surprised to learn that the sensitive measurements needed to see exoplanets transiting their stars are possible for amateur astronomers, but it seems doable with relatively modest equipment. Such are the advances in optics, CCD cameras, and image processing software, it seems. The project is looking for exoplanets within 100 light-years of Earth, perhaps on the hope that a generation ship will have somewhere to go to someday.

Space may be hard, but it’s nothing compared to running a hackerspace right here on Earth. Or at least it seems that way at times, especially when those times include your building collapsing, a police raid, and being forced to operate out of a van for months while searching for a new home, all tragedies that have befallen the Cairo Hackerspace over the last few years. They’re finally back on their feet, though, to the point where they’re ready to host Egypt’s first robotics meetup this month. If you’re in the area, stop by and perhaps consider showing off a build or even giving a talk. This group knows a thing or two about persistence, and they’ve undoubtedly got the coolest hackerspace logo in the world.

And finally, no matter how bad your job may be, it’s probably not as bad as restoring truck batteries by hand. Alert reader [rasz_pl] tipped us off to this video, which shows an open-air shop in Pakistan doing the dirty but profitable work of gutting batteries and refurbishing them. The entire process is an environmental and safety nightmare, with used electrolyte tossed into the gutter, molten lead being slung around by the bucketful, and not a pair of safety glasses or steel-toed shoes (or any-toed, for that matter) to be seen. But the hacks are pretty cool, like pouring new lead tabs onto the plates, or using a bank of batteries to heat an electrode for welding the plates together. We’ve talked about the recyclability of lead-acid batteries before and how automated plants can achieve nearly 100% reuse; there’s nothing automated here, though, and the process is so labor-intensive that only three batteries can be refurbished a day. It’s still fascinating to watch.

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