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.

Watching The Watchers: The State Of Space Surveillance

By now you’ve almost certainly heard about the recent release of a high-resolution satellite image showing the aftermath of Iran’s failed attempt to launch their Safir liquid fuel rocket. The geopolitical ramifications of Iran developing this type of ballistic missile technology is certainly a newsworthy story in its own right, but in this case, there’s been far more interest in how the picture was taken. Given known variables such as the time and date of the incident and the location of the launch pad, analysts have determined it was likely taken by a classified American KH-11 satellite.

The image is certainly striking, showing a level of detail that far exceeds what’s available through any of the space observation services we as civilians have access to. Estimated to have been taken from a distance of approximately 382 km, the image appears to have a resolution of at least ten centimeters per pixel. Given that the orbit of the satellite in question dips as low as 270 km on its closest approach to the Earth’s surface, it’s likely that the maximum resolution is even higher.

Of course, there are many aspects of the KH-11 satellites that remain highly classified, especially in regards to the latest hardware revisions. But their existence and general design has been common knowledge for decades. Images taken from earlier generation KH-11 satellites were leaked or otherwise released in the 1980s and 1990s, and while the Iranian image is certainly of a higher fidelity, this is not wholly surprising given the intervening decades.

What we know far less about are the orbital surveillance assets that supersede the KH-11. The satellite that took this image, known by its designation USA 224, has been in orbit since 2011. The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has launched a number of newer spacecraft since then, with several more slated to be lifted into orbit between now and 2021.

So let’s take a closer look at the KH-11 series of reconnaissance satellites, and compare that to what we can piece together about the next generation or orbital espionage technology that’s already circling overhead might be capable of.

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The Great Moon Hoax — No Not That One!

Humans first walked on the moon 50 years ago, yet there are some people who don’t think it happened. This story is not about them. It turns out there was another great conspiracy theory involving a well-known astronomer, unicorns, and humanoids with bat wings. This one came 134 years before the words “We chose to go to the moon” were uttered.

The 1835 affair — known as the Great Moon Hoax — took the form of six articles published in The Sun, a newspaper in New York City. Think of it like “War of the Worlds” but in newspaper form — reported as if true but completely made up. Although well-known astronomer John Herschel was named in the story, he wasn’t actually involved in the hoax. Richard Adams Locke was the reporter who invented the story. His main goal seemed to be to sell newspapers, but he also may have been poking fun at some of the more outlandish scientific claims of the day.

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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.

DIY Guided Telescope Mount Tracks Like A Barn Door

Astrophotography is an expensive hobby. When assembling even a basic setup consisting of a telescope, camera, guiding equipment and mount, you can easily end up with several thousand dollars worth of gear. To reduce the monetary sting a little, [td0g] has come up with an innovative homebrew mount and guiding solution that could be assembled by almost any dedicated amateur, with the parts cost estimated around $100. The accuracy required to obtain high-quality astrophotographs is quite demanding, so we’re impressed with what he’s been able to achieve on a limited budget.

The inspiration for this design comes from an incredibly simple star tracking device known as a barn-door tracker, or Haig mount. Invented by George Haig in the 1970’s, this mount is essentially nothing more than a hinge aligned with the Earth’s axis of rotation. A threaded rod or screw, turned at a constant rate, is used to slowly open the hinge so that a mounted camera tracks the apparent motion of the heavens. As a result, long exposures can show pinpoint images of stars and sharp details of deep-sky objects, instead of curved star trails. [td0g] adapted this technique to drive a more traditional telescope mount, using barn-door-like drive screws on both the right ascension and declination axes. A pair of NEMA 17 stepper motors drive 4-mm pitch Acme threaded rods through toothed pulleys 3D printed from PETG.

Speaking of 3D-printed parts, this build is a good example of judicious use of the technology: where metal parts are warranted, metal parts are used, and printed plastic is relegated to those places where it can adequately do the job. [td0g] has placed the STL files for the printed parts on Thingiverse in case you want to replicate the drive.

The non-linear relationship between the threaded rod rotation and right ascension drive rate usually limits the length of exposure you can reasonably achieve with a barn-door tracker. To adjust for this, [td0g] created a lookup table in firmware to compensate the drive and allow longer exposures. He mentions that the drive will operate for three hours before it hits the end of the screw’s travel and needs to be reset, but if he can manage three hour exposures, his skies must be much darker than ours!

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Pi Zero Gives Amateur Astronomer Affordable Control Of Telescope

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.

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Flagging Down Aliens With World’s Biggest Laser Pointer

As you’re no doubt aware, humans are a rather noisy species. Not just audibly, like in the case of somebody talking loudly when you’re in a movie theater, but also electromagnetically. All of our wireless transmissions since Marconi made his first spark gap broadcast in 1895 have radiated out into space, and anyone who’s got a sensitive enough ear pointed into our little corner of the Milky Way should have no trouble hearing us. Even if these extraterrestrial eavesdroppers wouldn’t be able to understand the content of our transmissions, the sheer volume of them would be enough to indicate that whatever is making all that noise on the third rock orbiting Sol can’t be a natural phenomena. In other words, one of the best ways to find intelligent life in the galaxy may just be to sit around and wait for them to hear us.

Of course, there’s some pesky physics involved that makes it a bit more complicated. Signals radiate from the Earth at the speed of light, which is like a brisk walk in interstellar terms. Depending on where these hypothetical listeners are located, the delay between when we broadcast something and when they receive it can be immense. For example, any intelligent beings that might be listening in on us from the closest known star, Proxima Centauri, are only just now being utterly disappointed by the finale for “How I Met Your Mother“. Comparatively, “Dallas” fans from Zeta Reticuli are still on the edge of their seats waiting to find out who shot J.R.

But rather than relying on our normal broadcasts to do the talking for us, a recent paper in The Astrophysical Journal makes the case that we should go one better. Written by James R. Clark and Kerri Cahoy,  “Optical Detection of Lasers with Near-term Technology at Interstellar Distances” makes the case that we could use current or near-term laser technology to broadcast a highly directional beacon to potentially life-harboring star systems. What’s more, it even theorizes it would be possible to establish direct communications with an alien intelligence simply by modulating the beam.

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