Reverse Engineering Keeps Keck Telescopes on Track

Perched atop a dormant volcano far above the roiling tropical air of the Big Island of Hawai’i sit two of the largest optical telescopes in the world. Each 10-meter main mirror is but a single part of a magnificent machine weighing in at some 400 tons that needs to be positioned with incredible precision. Keeping Keck 1 and Keck 2 in peak operating condition is the job of a team of engineers and scientists, so when the servo amplifiers running the twelve motors that move each scope started to show their age, [Andrew] bit the bullet and rebuilt the obsolete boards from scratch.

The Keck telescopes were built over three decades ago, and many of the parts, including the problematic servo amps, are no longer made. Accumulated wear and tear from constant use and repeated repairs had taken their toll on the boards, from overheated components to lifted solder pads. With only some barely legible schematics of the original amplifiers to go by, [Andrew] reverse engineered new amps. Some substitutions for obsolete components were needed, the PCB design was updated to support SMD parts, and higher-quality components were specified, but the end result is essentially new amplifiers that are plug-in replacements for the original units. This should keep the telescopes on track for decades to come.

Not to sound jealous, but it seems like [Andrew] has a great gig. He’s shared a couple of his Keck adventures before, like the time a failed LED blinded the telescope. He’s also had a few more down-to-earth hacks, like fixing a dodgy LCD monitor and making spooky blinkeneyes for Halloween.

Kepler Closes Eyes After a Decade of Discovery

Since its launch in March 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope has provided us with an incredible amount of data about exoplanets within our galaxy, proving these worlds are more varied and numerous than we could ever have imagined. Before its launch we simply didn’t know how common planets such as ours were, but today we know the Milky Way contains billions of them. Some of these worlds are so hot they have seas of molten rock, others experience two sunsets a day as they orbit a pair of stars. Perhaps most importantly, thousands of the planets found by Kepler are much like our own: potentially playing host to life as we know it.

Kepler lived a fruitful life by any metric, but it hasn’t been an easy one. Too far into deep space for us to repair it as we did Hubble, hardware failures aboard the observatory nearly brought the program to a halt in 2013. When NASA announced the spacecraft was beyond hope of repair, most assumed the mission would end. Even by that point, Kepler was an unqualified success and had provided us with enough data to keep astronomers busy for years. But an ingenious fix was devised, allowing it to continue collecting data even in its reduced capacity.

Leaning into the solar wind, Kepler was able to use the pressure of sunlight striking its solar panels to steady itself. Kepler’s “eyesight” was never quite the same after the failure of its reaction wheels, and it consumed more propellant than originally intended to maintain this careful balancing act, but the science continued. The mission that had already answered many of our questions about our place in the galaxy would push ahead in spite of a failure which should have left it dead in space.

As Kepler rapidly burned through its supply of propellant, it became clear the mission was on borrowed time. It was a necessary evil, as the alternative was leaving the craft tumbling through space, but mission planners understood that the fix they implemented had put an expiration date on Kepler. Revised calculations could provide an estimate as to when the vehicle would finally run its tanks dry and lose attitude control, but not a definitive date.

For the last several months NASA has known the day was approaching, but they decided to keep collecting data until the vehicle’s thrusters sputtered and failed. So today’s announcement that Kepler has at long last lost the ability to orient itself came as no surprise. Kepler has observed its last alien sunset, but the search for planets, and indeed life, in our corner of the galaxy doesn’t end today.

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An Astronomical Observatory For Your Front Yard

[Barry Armstead] is an astronomy enthusiast who built his own observatory in his front yard, in Canberra, Australia. It was a fine observatory as home-made observatories go, but he describes it as being small and cramped. His replacement was on an entirely different scale though, a building created by hand and which no doubt many readers would be pleased to own.

asign2modelanimationHis design started with a cardboard model, and has a downstairs room upon which sits a rotatable dome with two sliding sections to form the observation window. The original observatory’s concrete pillar on which the telescope mount stood remained post-demolition, and a larger concrete pad was laid. There followed the assembly of a steel frame with a skeletal dome able to rotate on rollers, followed by cladding with steel sheet. The dome cladding was done in segments marked against the dome steelwork and cut to shape.

The final building has a fully finished interior downstairs, plus a rustic staircase to the upper deck. The concrete post has been extended, and now carry’s [Barry]’s telescope which he controls not with his eye clued to an eyepiece like the astronomers of old, but from a computer at the adjacent desk. The full construction details are on the observatory’s web site, though since it seems in danger of disappearing due to an expired hosting account we’ll also give you a Wayback Machine link direct to the relevant page. Meanwhile he offers a tour in a video we’ve placed below the break. Even a non-astronomer would find this an asset in their garden!

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Another great backyard observatory build

With a little help from their friends [Jeff Fisher] and his dad built this observatory in their back yard. Their use of simple building materials and techniques show that you can create a respectable home observatory without breaking the bank.

It starts with a footing for the telescope mount. This is completely separated from the building that surrounds it so there will be no issue with vibrations affecting the images it is capturing. From there a foundation made of cinder blocks was laid before placing joists and installing a sub floor. It was during this process that they trenched and placed conduit to run power to the building. With the floor in place the walls were stick built and a carefully crafted dome was assembled and hefted in place by this septet of gentlemen.

Four months was all it took to get to this point, but [Jeff] and his dad are still working on a deck to go around the observatory. They’re using a very nice telescope that they purchased, but it is also possible to build one of those yourself.

[via Reddit]

Father/son team goes big with backyard observatory

Oh that? It’s just the backyard observatory we built last summer. You know, for fun. This is a conversation we image [Kakon24] and his dad are having quite often these days. They’re astronomy interests just got a big equipment upgrade when they built a huge observatory on their homestead. Now we don’t proclaim to know a lot about observatory quality, but this is head and shoulders above what most people manage to acquire.

It isn’t a simple build either. It’s a full-fledged building of its own, starting with a poured foundation, then stick framing which was covered in stone work. The images tell the story of the build, but for information on the hardware you’ll want to read through the comments over on the Reddit Astronomy thread. Sounds like the scope itself cost over 100 grand so having a proper building to protect it is a must.

Russian homemade telescope


In the Russian city of Barnaul, some enthusiasts are gathering their resources to revive a home made telescope and observatory. Built by [Mikhail Levchenko], in the mid 70’s, the telescope is quite impressive. [Levchenko] kept his hobby somewhat of a secret so as not to arouse the suspicions of his neighbors, but its pretty hard to hide a tower as tall as a house with a domed observatory on top. The telescope itself has a 16 inch glass lens that provides 500x magnification. His hobby would turn out to have a pretty big impact on the town. People would come to him hoping that his telescope could tell their fortunes. Not a believer in horoscopes, he tried to educate people with lessons in astronomy and physics. One man was said to have given up drinking after seeing Saturn.

[Levchenko] passed away in 2002 and his observatory fell into disrepair. Local thieves tried to steal pieces for scrap and the whole structure has sunken somewhat. Some of those who were inspired when young by [Levchenko] have decided to renovate it for the eclipse. Barnaul will be a prime location for viewing. The total renovation and possible relocation will cost around 2 million dollars.

In the past, we covered a high powered telescope made by some girl scouts, and this $40 USB telescope looks fun too.