I spent this winter break down on the Kenai peninsula with the folks. A few days before the new year, my father, little brother, and I took my little brother's cheap telescope out to look at the full moon.
I had forgotten how difficult it is to actually use a telescope to look at distant objects. For one, it's really difficult to use a telescope while wearing glasses, and without glasses the focus needs to be changed if someone else wants to look into the eyepiece. It's also quite difficult to position a cheap telescope by hand while bending over sideways or kneeling on the ground to use the eyepiece.
These sorts of manual adjustments are best left to machines, I thought, so I decided to use my little brother's Lego NXT brick, webcam, and a USB game controller I had recently bought at a thrift shop for a few bucks to put together a robotic control system for the telescope.
With a bucket of LEGOs, NXT parts, and lots of rubber bands, I set to work building this robotic telescope control system.
To swivel the telescope from side to side, I built a double-spool to wind up string in one direction while unwinding in the other. This string was tied to some legos attached to the telescope body, so the telescope would swivel about the pivot when the spool pulled it in a direction.
To lift the telescope, I first dangled a plastic cup from some rubber bands on the end with the eyepiece to act as a counter-balance. I stuck a motor to a simple gear system that lifted the bigger end of the telescope. By balancing the telescope so that the bigger end didn't take much force to lift, the motor needed to do much less work to adjust the telescope pitch.
With the hardware in place, I wrote some code to drive the NXT directly with my laptop over the NXT's USB interface. Using nxt-python, this task was pretty straight-forward. On the laptop, I used pygame to read events from the USB gamepad. I had used this model of gamepad before to control an underwater ROV for a contest in California, so I knew it would be pretty simple to get it working for this telescope project. I've also put the controller script that ran on the laptop up on github for others to build upon.
Construction and programming took about a day, but I spent altogether too much time getting the first webcam I found lying around the house to work with Linux to no avail. Luckily there was another webcam around that worked without any fuss in cheese.
I took the whole setup outside in the cold and used the gamepad and laptop screen to hunt for the moon. Unfortunately, when I found the moon, none of the moon's features were distinguishable in the video output.
At first I thought this was due to the focus of the webcam. I had read some posts online about people mounting webcams to telescope who took off the webcam's lens in order to focus properly. The webcam had no obvious way to take apart and I didn't want to risk damaging it since it didn't belong to me anyways, so the next day I tinkered with putting other camera lenses in between the webcam and the eyepiece and a number of other things that didn't work.
However, in the process of trying to figure out how to focus the camera during the day, I pointed the robotic telescope out a window facing some trees and captured these images. This was the same camera setup that I'd used previously to look at the moon.
I've uploaded a video of footage from the webcam and of the telescope in action. Download or watch below.
telescope.ogv [Ogg Theora, 13 M]
I showed both of my little brothers how to get the code I wrote and the necessary software onto their eee-pcs so that they could drive the telescope around too. The older of my two little brothers, Ross, who is 11, dismantled the telescope control system and built a robot car with the parts. He figured out how to modify the telescope script to drive the car around pretty well and after that he read through Invent With Python and is having all sorts of fun building games and ciphers.
The telescope may not have been very useful for looking at the moon or other astronomical objects, but it was a fun little project that could at least capture some interesting daytime images. However, as a motivational tool to get my siblings more interested in robotics and computer programming, this project was very successful.
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