If there’s one field you wouldn’t expect to utilize crowdsourcing, it would be space exploration. However, that’s pretty much what the Open Space Agency (OSA) does. Founded by entrepreneur James Parr, OSA has created a network of amateur citizen scientists to supplement the work of the professional space agencies – or even create their own space programs – right from their backyards. At the heart of the collective is the Ultrascope, a robotic telescope, or automated robotic observatory, controlled by a smartphone.
We wrote about the Ultrascope back in 2014, when it was just beginning beta testing. The scope was developed as an open source 3D printable design that has been steadily worked on and improved by the OSA community until it morphed into the Ultrascope Explorer Plus, which has just been released via Wevolver. According to Parr, the scope can be built for about £200 using 3D printing and laser cutting.
The instructions for building the Explorer Plus are actually being released a few at a time over the next few months. According to OSA, this will better allow for the community to offer each other support and feedback over the course of the build process. Step 1, which has just been released, is a guide plus the necessary files for 3D printing and laser cutting the pieces of the scope. Steps 2-5 will involve building the focuser, tube, optical path, split ring and base, and step 6 will add the assembly of the electronics, which includes an Arduino board as the “brain” of the scope. Step 7: Observation of Celestial Bodies.
You can build an Ultrascope for fun, to educate yourself or your kids, or for any reason, but what’s really exciting is that the Ultrascope has been collaboratively developed to be so much more than a backyard hobby. The scope uses a smartphone as both a camera and an input/output device, and enables the citizen astronomer to take photographs and measurements, particularly light curve photometry, that actually provide useful data for scientific applications like the discovery of asteroids and planets.
“We were increasingly interested in how consumer and off-the-shelf technologies were starting to approach the level of pro technologies ten years ago,” says Parr. “The camera on NASA’s Mars Rover is essentially the same quality as a modern smartphone. The fact that consumer technology is now evolving so quickly made me wonder whether it was possible to do and replicate the achievements of the space program using off-the-shelf technology.”
In fact, OSA envisions the Ultrascope and its users playing a large role in NASA’s Asteroid Challenge Lab, which engages citizens to assist in seeking out asteroids that could pose a potential threat to Earth. Think about that for a moment: build yourself an Ultrascope, and you could literally save the world.
So how do citizen astronomers share their photos, measurements and observations with the scientific community? Through the cloud, of course. A smartphone app records the photos and information taken with the scope, and sends it to a cloud database that can be accessed by anyone with the app. The location of each Ultrascope is also recorded by the app, so, as more people build and use the scopes, a global, instantly accessible network will form.
“When we have hundreds, if not thousands, of these scopes around the world, then you’ll be able to say, ‘Oh, I wonder what the sky’s going to be like in South Africa,’ say, and you’ll be able to dial up that scope and see what that scope’s seeing,” Parr adds.
Amazing. I’m in awe of the OSA of what they have developed in such a short amount of time. Besides the tireless work and incredible ingenuity that has been put into the development of the Ultrascope, the organization also found time to develop a zero-gravity whiskey glass that I don’t even have words for. I can’t wait to see what else is going to emerge from this network of brilliant citizens. Is this the Ultrascope a project you might like to take on? Discuss in the OSA Releases Files to 3D Print Ultrascope Explorer Plus forum over at 3DPB.com.