CT students build awesome open source laser guided star finder robot from elastic bands and wood

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You might, with a bit of luck, just about work out where Polaris is in the night sky if we asked to point it out (hint: look to the north), but wouldn’t you love to know where Alpha Centauri is right now, or the Horsehead Nebula, or any one of the other named stars, constellations and objects in the universe?

A team of students from the University of Cape Town Maker Society have put together this wooden star finding robot that will do just that. Called Galileo’s Finger, after the infamously missing digit stolen from the Italian astronomer’s corpse, their machine will identify and locate the position of astronomical phenomena using a green laser pointer.

The beauty of it is that it’s made almost entirely with parts salvaged from ewaste: the stepper motors that align the pointer with a star come from an old printer; the bearing for the pointer platform is from a hard drive; the drive belts are elastic bands and so on.

The only original parts, in fact, are an Intel Galileo controller board, driver chips for the stepper motors and the laser itself. Keegan Crankshaw, one of the designers, reckons that with a bit more work they could get the cost down to between R800-900.

The pointer itself is driven by the open source Stellarium planetarium, via a desktop interface through which you can search the night sky for an astronomical location you’re interested in and move the laser – which has a range of about 2km, so is very visible at night – to point it out. Stars, nebula, galaxies and more are all in the database.

Crankshaw says that it can also be used to position motor driven telescopes, if you happen to have one lying around.

The desktop interface for Galileo's Finger.
The desktop interface for Galileo’s Finger.

The question is, since there are many Augmented Reality apps for your phone (including Stellarium) which can tell you what’s above your head just by pointing your mobile upwards, why did the team build their machine at all?

“It’s a basically an Arduino Sketch and an entirely open source design,” says Brendan Ardagh, who runs the UCT Maker Society, “Which we built mainly for use in schools. Astronomy and cosmology isn’t taught at all in most South African schools, so this is a low-cost learning project that can teach engineering and astronomy at the same time and get kids enthused about the subject.”

Want to make your own? The full open source design for Galileo’s Finger will be published soon – we’ll link to it when we can.

Galileo's Finger, points out objects in teh night sky.
Galileo’s Finger, points out objects in the night sky.


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