Building a DIY telescope is one thing, but building a professional-grade telescope that can robotically track celestial objects is entirely another. Most of us have neither the time nor technical capabilities to build and program a robotic observatory ourselves, so the only option we’ve got is to dish out thousands of dollars to buy one. Until now, that is.
For the past couple years, London’s Open Space Agency has been developing a contraption it calls the Ultrascope — a downloadable, open-source telescope that can be (mostly) generated by a 3D printer, controlled by simple robotic parts, and that can capture images with a smartphone camera.
To be fair, you can’t make all of the Ultrascope’s components with a 3D printer alone, but the device’s creators have gone to great lengths to make the it extremely cheap and easy to construct. If you don’t count the cost of the smartphone, the entire kit only costs $312, and can be assembled with a single tool. “The idea is that you use one screw and an Allen key and then you can literally just get the parts and then construct it,” designer James Parr told Science Magazine.
Once it’s set up, the telescope can communicate with satellites to determine its exact location on Earth — at which point the machine can use its motors to automatically focus itself onto celestial bodies like stars, planets, and asteroids. But there’s a lot more to it than just basic observation. Using your camera’s smartphone and Internet connection, Ultrascope will be able to snap pictures of all the objects you spot and immediately upload them to the cloud for post-processing and analysis.
The idea is that with a large, distributed network of these telescopes in backyards all over the world, OSA could pick up scientifically valuable observations from a bunch of different angles. This system would also allow you to check out what people in the other parts of the globe are looking at, in real time. Too many clouds over your city? Just use the accompanying mobile app to tap into a video feed from somewhere with clearer skies.
The OSA first announced the project just over a year ago, and now that all the beta testing is done, they’re almost ready to unleash the design to the public. The organization plans to launch a scaled-down model with a 9-centimeter mirror at the San Diego Maker Faire this October, and the full-size 30-centimeter model is due to be released shortly thereafter.