Let's hunt exoplanets together

Late nights and I don't get along. I get grumpy and want to go to bed. This might not seem like such a problem, but I'm also keen on astronomy. Except for our sun, stars are out at night. Here in New England darkness falls pretty early in the winter but is also accompanied by bone chilling weather. And warm summer nights are swarming with mosquitoes. 

I own binoculars and an 8" Dobsonian telescope, but they are rarely used. The telescope spent at least 10 years in the basement of our current house, and 7 in the previous house. Given that I'm very much a techie, I'm drawn to the fancy mounts and cameras that some amateurs use, and which litter the pages of the astronomy magazines, but it's hard to figure out how I could make use of them: when my wife and I shop for a house we tend to be drawn to houses with views of nature. Our current house is on a small lot with plenty of trees, a nice view across a playground to a meadow beyond, but no room for a backyard observatory. When I do drag the telescope out, it's only out to the driveway.

Basically, I'm not cut out for stargazing, so I've mostly been an armchair astronomer, reading about the field in magazines and books (I highly recommend The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel).

Nonetheless I continued to be interested in being a more engaged amateur astronomer. I took a step in that direction recently by joining ATMoB, the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston, a club with monthly meetings at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, and a clubhouse and observing field in Westford, on MIT property. The highlight of the monthly meeting is a presentation by a guest speaker, with topics all over the astronomy map. I've enjoyed the camaraderie of chatting with other astronomy enthusiasts at dinner before the meetings and up at the clubhouse, where I've helped with a couple of work parties and joined in the stargazing a couple of nights.

ATMoB members are also eager to help others, and offered to help me get my telescope restored to working order. The first attempt to take the telescope to the clubhouse was a bust: it's primarily made of thick plywood and sonotube, and I threw my back out loading it into the car. Sigh. Eventually the scope and I made it there, where a fellow member helped me to get the scope back into collimation (i.e. getting the mirrors lined up so the light hits the eyepiece at the correct angle).

I also discovered NEAF and NEAIC, events in Suffren, NY held by the Rockland Astronomy Club in early April. I attended this year (2017) and was very impressed by the talks. I was particularly intrigued by the call-to-action of Josh Walawender, speaking on behalf of Project PANOPTES. He described a project right up my alley: help with the hunt for exoplanets by building a small, robotic (i.e. automated) telescope that will contribute to a growing effort to find stars whose light dims on a regular basis due to a planet crossing between such a star and our telescopes on Earth. I attended his talk twice, first at NEAIC and then again at NEAF, and dragged him to join me for breakfast so that we could talk more (yes, his pitch really did strike home with me).

I've signed up to build such a telescope, and have started by ordering the mount, one of the two cameras and a few other parts. I'll do some initial fabrication and debugging before moving on to order more parts. Updates to follow.

If you'd like to join in or just learn more, visit the project website, www.projectpanoptes.org. If you're in the Boston area and want to know more, let me know via the comments or show up at an ATMoB monthly meeting... I try to make it to most of them. And I'll be looking for a very specific kind of help from friends: after I get the telescope debugged, it will need a "room with a view"... well, a secluded spot with a good view of the sky. By secluded I mainly mean unlikely to get unwanted attention. I'm sure that as a kid I would have found such a thing quite an attraction -- hey, let's open the box and see what's inside! The additional requirements for such a site are: firm ground on which to place a tripod or pier, power and internet access of some kind. Please let me know if you're interested or even just willing to help out.

Popular Posts