Like many other hobbies, astronomy can be pursued on many levels, with equipment costs ranging from the affordable to the – well, astronomical. Thankfully, there are lots of entry-level telescopes on the market, some that even come with mounts that automatically find and track heavenly bodies. Finding a feature is as easy as aligning to a few known stars and looking up the object in the database embedded in the remote.
Few of the affordable mounts are WiFi-accessible, though, which is a gap [Dane Gardner]’s Raspberry Pi interface for Celestron telescopes aims to fill. For the price of a $10 Pi Zero W and a little know-how, [Dane] was able to gain full control over his ‘scope. His instrument is a Celestron NexStar, a Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector with a 150-mm aperture, has a motorized altitude-azimuth mount. The handheld remote had enough room for him to add the Zero, powering it from the mount’s battery pack. The handset has an RS-232 serial port built-in, but with the level differences [Dane] just connected the Pi directly to the handset before the UART. Running INDI, a cross-platform astronomical instrument control library, he now has total control of the scope, and he can use open source astronomy software rather than the limited database within the handset. As a neat side trick, the telescope can now be controlled with a Bluetooth gamepad.
Astronomy and electronics go hand in hand, whether in the optical or radio part of the spectrum. We like the way [Dane] was able to gain control of his telescope, and we’d like to hear about what he sees with his new tool. Assuming the Seattle weather ever cooperates.
Radio waves are received on antennas, for which when the signal in question comes over a long distance a big reflector is needed. When the reception distance is literally astronomical, the reflector has to be pretty darn big. [The Thought Emporium] wants to pick up signals from distant satellites, the moon, and hopefully a pulsar. On the scale of home-built amateur radio, this will be a monstrous antenna. The video also follows the break.
In hacker fashion, the project is built on a budget, so all the parts are direct from a hardware store, and the tools are already in your toolbox or hackerspace. Electrical conduit, chicken wire, PVC pipes, wood blocks, and screws make up most of the structure so put away your crazy links to Chinese distributors unless you need an SDR. The form of the antenna is the crucial thing, and the shape is three perpendicular panels as seen in the image and video. The construction in the video is just a suggestion, but it doesn’t involve welding, so that opens it to even more amateurs.
Even if you are not trying to receive a pulsar’s signature, we have hacks galore for radios and antennas.
Space is big. Really big. Yet on TV and movies, enemy spacecraft routinely wind up meeting at roughly the same spot and, miraculously, in the same orientation. If you’ve ever tried to find something smaller than the moon in a telescope, you’ll appreciate that it isn’t that easy. There are plenty of tricks for locating objects ranging from expensive computerized scopes with motors to mounting a phone with Google Sky or a similar program to your telescope. [DentDentArthurDent] didn’t use a phone. He used an Arduino with an outboard GPS module.
You still have to move the scope yourself, but the GPS means you know your location and the time to a high degree of accuracy. Before you start an observing session, you simply point the telescope at Polaris to calibrate the algorithm, a process which in the northern hemisphere is pretty easy.
When she was four years old, Nancy Grace Roman loved drawing pictures of the Moon. By the time she was forty, she was in charge of convincing the U.S. government to fund a space telescope that would give us the clearest, sharpest pictures of the Moon that anyone had ever seen. Her interest in astronomy was always academic, and she herself never owned a telescope. But without Nancy, there would be no Hubble.
Nancy was born May 16, 1925 in Nashville, Tennessee. Her father was a geophysicist, and the family moved around often. Nancy’s parents influenced her scientific curiosities, but they also satisfied them. Her father handled the hard science questions, and Nancy’s mother, who was quite interested in the natural world, would point out birds, plants, and constellations to her.
For two years, the family lived on the outskirts of Reno, Nevada. The wide expanse of desert and low levels of light pollution made stargazing easy, and Nancy was hooked. She formed an astronomy club with some neighborhood girls, and they met once a week in the Romans’ backyard to study constellations. Nancy would later reminisce that her experience in Reno was the single greatest influence on her future career.
By the time Nancy was ready for high school, she was dead-set on becoming an astronomer despite a near-complete lack of support from her teachers. When she asked her guidance counselor for permission to take a second semester of Algebra instead of a fifth semester of Latin, the counselor was appalled. She looked down her nose at Nancy and sneered, “What lady would take mathematics instead of Latin?”
[Rogelio] isn’t new to the astrophotography game, possessing a capable twin-telescope rig with star tracking capabilities and chilled CCDs for reducing noise in low-light conditions. Identifying the location of the Tesla Roadster was made easier thanks to NASA JPL tracking the object and providing ephemeris data.
Imaging the Roadster took some commitment – from [Rogelio]’s chosen shooting location, it would only be visible between 3AM and 5:30AM. Initial attempts were unsuccessful, but after staying up all night, giving up wasn’t an option. A return visit days later was similarly hopeless, and scuppered by cloud cover.
It was only after significant analysis that the problem became clear – when calculating the ephemeris of the object on NASA’s website, [Rogelio] had used the standard coordinates instead of the actual imaging location. This created enough error and meant they were looking at the wrong spot. Thanks to the wide field of view of the telescopes, however, after further analysis – Starman was captured, not just in still, but in video!
It seems like [Jason Bowling] never gets tired of finding new ways to combine the Raspberry Pi with his love of the cosmos. This time he’s come up with a very straightforward way of focusing his Celestron 127SLT with everyone’s favorite Linux SBC. He found the focus mechanism on the scope to be a bit fiddly, and operating it by hand was becoming a chore. With the Pi Zero and a stepper motor, he’s now able to focus the telescope with more accuracy and repeatability than clumsy human fingers will be able to replicate.
On this particular type of telescope, the focus knob is a small knob on the back of the scope (rather than on the eyepiece), which just so happens to be the perfect size to slide a 15mm bore pulley over. With a pulley on the focus knob, he just needed to mount a stepper motor with matching toothed pulley next to it and find a small enough belt to link them together. Through the magic of Amazon and McMaster-Carr he was able to find all the parts without having to make anything himself, beyond the bent piece of aluminum he’s using as a stepper mount.
To control the stepper, [Jason] is using an EasyDriver connected up to the Pi’s GPIO, which along with a 5V regulator (which appears to be a UBEC from the RC world) is held in a tidy weather proof box mounted to the telescope’s tripod. The regulator is necessary because the whole setup is powered by a 12V portable “jump start” battery pack for portability. Handy when you’re stargazing in the middle of a field somewhere.
[Jason] promises a future blog post where he details how he used Flask to create a web-based control for the hardware, which we’ll be keeping an eye out for. In the meantime, he reports that his automated focus system is working perfectly and keeps the image stable in the eyepiece even while moving (something he was never able to do by hand).
What must it be like to devote your life to answering a single simple but monumental question: Are we alone? Astronomer Jill Tarter would know better than most what it’s like, and knows that the answer will remain firmly stuck on “Yes” until she and others in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project (SETI) prove it otherwise. But the path she chose to get there was an unconventional as it was difficult, and holds lessons in the power of keeping you head down and plowing ahead, no matter what.
To get to the point where she could begin to answer the fundamental question of the uniqueness of life, Jill had to pass a gauntlet of obstacles that by now are familiar features of the biography of many women in science and engineering. Born in 1944, Jill Cornell grew up in that postwar period of hope and optimism in the USA where anything seemed possible as long as one stayed within established boundaries. Girls were expected to do girl things, and boys did boy things. Thus, Jill, an only child whose father did traditional boy things like hunting and fixing things with her, found it completely natural to sign up for shop class when she reached high school age. She was surprised and disappointed to be turned down and told to enroll in “Home Economics” class like the other girls.
She eventually made it to shop class, but faced similar obstacles when she wanted to take physics and calculus classes. Her guidance counselor couldn’t figure why a girl would need to take such classes, but Jill persisted and excelled enough to get accepted to Cornell, the university founded by her distant relation, Ezra Cornell. Jill applied for a scholarship available to Cornell family members; she was turned down because it was intended for male relatives only.
Undeterred, Jill applied for and won a scholarship from Procter & Gamble for engineering, and entered the engineering program as the only woman in a class of 300. Jill used her unique position to her advantage; knowing that she couldn’t blend into the crowd like her male colleagues, she made sure her professors always knew who she was. Even still, Jill faced problems. Cornell was very protective of their students in those days, or at least the women; they were locked in their dorms at 10:00 each night. This stifled her ability to work on projects with the male students and caused teamwork problems later in her career.
No Skill is Obsolete
Despite these obstacles, Jill, by then married to physics student Bruce Tarter, finished her degree. But engineering had begun to bore her, so she changed fields to astrophysics for her post-graduate work and moved across the country to Berkeley. The early 70s were hugely inspirational times for anyone with an eye to the heavens, with the successes of the US space program and leaps in the technology available for studies the universe. In this environment, Jill figured she’d be a natural for the astronaut corps, but was denied due to her recent divorce.
Disappointed, Jill was about to start a research job at NASA when X-ray astronomer Stu Boyer asked her to join a ragtag team assembled to search for signs of intelligent life in the universe. Lacking a budget, Boyer had scrounged an obsolete PDP-8 from Berkeley and knew that Jill was the only person who still knew how to program the machine. Jill’s natural tendency to fix and build things began to pay dividends, and she would work on nothing but SETI for the rest of her career.
From the Bureaucratic Ashes
SETI efforts have been generally poorly funded over the years. Early projects were looked at derisively by some scientists as science fiction nonsense, and bureaucrats holding the purse strings rarely passed up an opportunity to score points with constituents by ridiculing efforts to talk to “little green men.” Jill was in the thick of the battles for funding, and SETI managed to survive. In 1984, Jill was one of the founding members of the SETI Institute, a private corporation created to continue SETI research for NASA as economically as possible.
The SETI Institute kept searching the skies for the next decade, developing bigger and better technology to analyze data from thousands of frequencies at a time from radio telescopes around the world. But in 1993, the bureaucrats finally landed the fatal blow and removed SETI funding from NASA’s budget, saving taxpayers a paltry $10 million. Jill and the other scientists kept going, and within a year, the SETI Institute had raised millions in private funds, mostly from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, to continue their work.
The Institute’s Project Phoenix, of which Jill was Director until 1999, kept searching for signs of life out there until 2004, with no results. They proposed an ambitious project to improve the odds — an array of 350 radio telescopes dedicated to SETI work. Dubbed the Allen Telescope Array after its primary patron, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the array has sadly never been completed. But the first 42 of the 6-meter dishes have been built, and the ATA continues to run SETI experiments every day.
Jill Tarter retired as Director of SETI Research for the Institute in 2012, but remains active in the SETI field. Her primary focus now is fundraising, leveraging not only her years of contacts in the SETI community but also some of the star power she earned when it became known that she was the inspiration for the Ellie Arroway character in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, played by Jodie Foster in the subsequent Hollywood film.
Without a reasonable SETI program, the answer to “Are we alone?” will probably never be known. But if it is answered, it’ll be thanks in no small part to Jill Tarter and her stubborn refusal to stay within the bounds that were set for her.
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