Sometimes the plots of science fiction adventure movies aren’t as far fetched as they seem. In the 1998 thriller "Armageddon," a Texas-sized asteroid is on a doomsday collision course with Earth, threatening to wipe out all life on the planet. Humanity’s fate in that film depended on heroes Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis, whose characters must drill into the asteroid and plant a nuclear warhead. In real life, a network of makers and amateur astronomers may help scientists figure out how to avoid potential disaster.
NASA’s Asteroid Challenge Lab is an ongoing effort to partner with amateurs, organizations and citizen scientists to support the work of professional scientists. NASA is currently tracking more than 1500 Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs) projected to come within 4.65 million miles of Earth. Although that sounds far away, asteroid orbits are not constant and can change at any time.
NASA uses its space-based, infrared NEOWISE telescope and the giant ground-based Catalina Sky Survey to detect PHAs. However, that’s only half the job. There is a continuous need to conduct follow-up observations, which determine the characteristics of these asteroids.
Enter the Ultrascope, a 3D-printed, asteroid-tracking telescope that space enthusiasts can build at home for a fraction of the cost of commercially available models. Created by the London-based Open Space Agency (OSA), the Ultrascope is a robot telescope or Automated Robotic Observatory (ARO) that is powered by any smartphone that has good low-light performance, such as Microsoft’s 41-megapixel Lumia phone. Working together in a network, multiple Ultrascopes can produce images that can be layered together for scientific analysis.
"We’re on the horizon of having ordinary people being involved in exploring space rather than sit on the sidelines," explains Open Space Agency engineer Jon Rushton. "You don’t have to be that technical to build one of these things and get out there to support the work of professionals. We want to build confidence in our community and encourage them to come up with ideas on how to improve this."
Think of it as crowdsourced astronomy – with much higher stakes than typical backyard stargazing.
Making Telescopes (and Design Tools) Available to the Masses
Asteroid hunting isn’t the only team activity happening around the Ultrascope. The design itself is open source, inviting any interested party to suggest improvements or modifications to the model-in-progress.
To enable contributors to use any computer, the Open Space Agency chose Onshape, the first full-cloud professional 3D CAD system that allows multiple people to simultaneously work on the same design. Because it runs in a browser and on mobile devices, Onshape does not require purchasing an expensive desktop workstation.
"There are a lot of barriers for people to get involved with building hardware," says Rushton. "One of those barriers is not having a CAD license. Another barrier for hobbyists and builders is having a powerful enough machine capable of running CAD. It was perfect timing that Onshape came around when it did. It gives the general public access to a powerful CAD solution where they could look at our design and branch it and edit it."
"The beauty of running CAD in the cloud is that it allows many more people to access designs that otherwise wouldn’t be available," he adds.
Currently, there are a half-dozen design teams building Ultrascopes in the United States, Europe and Africa. Onshape’s Branching feature allows contributors to make experimental changes in a separate version without impacting the original model.
The initial beta scope, called the Explorer, has been able to capture images of the main asteroid belt and Jupiter’s moons and automatically share them to the cloud, but is not powerful enough to hunt for Near Earth Objects (NEOs) that are very small and very dark. The larger Odyssey, the next iteration in development, will be able to conduct work to support the Asteroid Challenge Lab.
Onshape is a Collaboration "Game Changer"
The Ultrascope’s core design team is comprised of five engineers spread between England, France and Germany. Fully running in the cloud, Onshape enables all of them to work together on their CAD model in real time without the delays and confusion of sharing copied files through email or Dropbox.
"Onshape is a game changer for us," says Open Space Agency founder James Parr. "We’ve had a number of projects where people start working on the wrong file. In terms of efficiency and workflow, Onshape is a massive improvement over traditional CAD."
"Onshape’s branching is particularly helpful," adds CTO Jordan McRae. "Some of our guys have more of a software background so it’s very intuitive for us – it’s like the GitHub of CAD."
"I like having the ability to log into any laptop or tablet and have a 3D interactive image that we can use right there for assembly of the Ultrascope. There are a few of us who are using Onshape to design parts and those of us who are assembling the Ultrascope," he says. "When you open up Onshape and look at the assembly, it will be very obvious how to put it together. It will be like having IKEA instructions for the Ultrascope!"
The Ultimate Test: Can a CAD Novice Build an Ultrascope?
One of the earliest participants in the Open Space Agency is citizen astronomer Matthew Nelson, a sales rep for a radio controls company in Salt Lake City, Utah. He has no previous CAD experience, but is teaching himself Onshape with online video tutorials.
"The technical barriers aren’t high," he says. "All you really need is a desire to do it."
Nelson said he’s spent a few hundred dollars on the telescope – not including the $300 smartphone – but that the experience has been priceless. "This is a great project for me to do with my kids. We can all learn stuff together. Right now, the Explorer telescope is designed for a 4.5-inch lens. I already have an 8-inch lens and hope to use Onshape to make my own custom version."
"The design really lends itself to be understood by a complete novice with no technical background," says Nelson. "It might look complicated, but once you have printed the pieces, it goes together like Legos or a puzzle."
As the Open Space Agency moves closer toward hunting asteroids, founder James Parr hopes to soon expand his team to hundreds if not thousands of people.
"As we scale it up, we’re going to depend on the community to help us evolve to the next level," he says. "We have proof of concept. We’ve done the heavy lifting. Now, we can ask the community to help us evolve and mature."