An Arduino-powered telescope computer, offering two star alignment, Push-To navigation and Meade Autostar compatible serial output for displaying telescope orientation on a PC in Stellarium. Check out the code on GitHub.
What is Stellarduino?
Put simply, Stellarduino is a device that when attached to a telescope, determines its orientation in the sky. It achieves this using high-resolution rotary encoders attached to the telescopes axes, some moderately complex matrix transformation math, and a sprinkling of magic. Stellarduino solves an age old issue for telescopes: “What am I looking at?”
That said, it certainly isn’t the first such device. In my research I discovered many other products that solve this issue – the Wildcard Argo Navis is a perfect example, though it costs over $800 AUD. Stellarduino is fully open source, and leverages cheap, readily available components. In this way, it is a first.
Why is this so complex?
From the description above, Stellarduino doesn’t sound like much – it just converts rotary encoder readings into coordinates, right? Unfortunately, no. Why? Well, I’ll tell you…
Much like earth’s geographic coordinates, the night sky is similarly partitioned by it’s own celestial coordinate system. It has a north and south pole that align with earth’s, and a meridian at the Vernal Equinox, in the same way Greenwich is the earth’s arbitrary meridian. Now, if you go outside and look straight up, directly above you, you’re looking at a point astronomers call your local zenith, which is sort of “north pole” of another set of coordinates – the direction you’re looking in relevant to your current viewing location.
We measure all three of these in different ways – geographic in degrees from the equator (latitude) and Greenwich (longitude); celestial in degrees from the celestial equator (declination) and hours from the vernal equinox (right ascension); and your viewing coordinates in degrees above the horizon (altitude) and from north (azimuth). In order to convert from viewing coordinates to celestial, you need to record the altitude and azimuth of the observation, the time it was made, and the geographic position on the earth of the observer, then parse these values through a complex mathematical equation.
On paper, it works perfectly, but falls over in practice because it requires the telescope to be “perfectly aligned” – that is, the base is perfectly level, and the initial horizontal orientation of the telescope is perfectly north. When you’re dealing with fractions of a degree accuracy, this is basically impossible. The solution then, is to perform an alignment procedure – take a couple of known points in the celestial coordinate system (typically bright stars), and move the telescope to those locations. Then, using some handwavy matrix magic, you can convert back and forth between the two.
If you’re interested in the math, be sure to check out Toshimi Taki’s website, and his Matrix Method for Coordinates Transformation document. Taki dropped this method of telescope alignment on amateur astronomers back in 1993, and backyard tinkerers have been implementing it ever since.
One of my big goals with Stellarduino was to use cheap components to keep the build price down. That way fellow tinkerers could build their own without breaking the bank.
High resolution rotary encoders to read the rotation of the telescope as it’s moved around. Expensive high resolution encoders are best, but lower resolution ones would work, like the kind in old ball-mice, you’d just have to gear them down. Fortunately, I already have a pair of 1000 steps-per-revolution US Digital optical encoders that I’ll be using – but CUI’s new capacitive encoders offer similar resolution for a fraction of the price ($30 each instead of $100).
16 x 2 character display to show the current orientation of the telescope, status messages, etc. I bought a cheap black-on-green one from RS for $7, but I plan on getting a snazzy red-on-black one for the final product.
Push buttons for user input – Stellarduino needs up, down and a select button for entering time, location, cycling through modes, etc.
Real time clock to avoid having to enter the time each time you power Stellarduino up.
Arduino Uno / Nano to do all the math. The Uno/Nano v3 scrapes in as barely powerful enough to do the job – the ATmega 328 chip provides only two hardware interrupt pins, which are split between the encoders, the 8-bit microcontroller barely manages single-precision floating point operations, and with the real time clock, display and buttons installed, there’s not many pins left over. That said, the Uno is probably the most ubiquitous microcontroller ever made, and using it as the backbone for this project means it’s accessible to just about anyone.
5V battery pack because any time you’ll be using this thing, you’ll be out in the middle of nowhere, beyond the harsh lights of the city.