Hack32.Discover and Name a New Planet


Hack 32. Discover and Name a New Planet

Do real science. Let your computer map the universe while you're asleep.

In 1991, astronomers discovered a planet orbiting a distant neutron star. This was the first known extrasolar planet, which is to say a planet orbiting a star other than our own Sun. In 1995, astronomers at the Geneva Observatory discovered the first extrasolar planet orbiting a "normal" star, in that case 51 Pegasi. Since that time, a total of 160 extrasolar planets have been discoveredonly a few planets per year of perhaps thousands that are within a reasonable distance and waiting to be discovered.

PlanetQuest Collaboratory (http://www.planetquest.org) seeks to organize and popularize the search for extrasolar planets, just as the SETI@Home project has done for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. But while SETI@Home has always been a long shot, the search for extrasolar planets is as close to a sure thing as you can get in science.

As is so often the case in astronomy, observational data are much easier to come by than the computing power needed to process them into usable form. PlanetQuest seeks volunteers to run PQ distributed processing software as a background task on their computers, using idle time to crunch the raw data. With millions of PCs working to process the PQ data, PQ expects to find thousands of new extrasolar planets over the next few years.

Project leaders estimate that the chance of any one person finding an extra-solar planet are one in 3,000 to 5,000, which are pretty good odds. And, get this, if your computer finds a planet, you get to name it.

If Robert finds an extrasolar planetwhich may well happen because he plans to devote a Linux cluster the equivalent of a baby supercomputer to the searchhe intends to name it Laftwet in honor of his late parents, Lenore Agnes Fulkerson Thompson and William Ewing Thompson, whether or not the Laftwetians approve. If he discovers two extrasolar planets, he'll name one Barbara, because he has to sleep sometime.


PQ expects to release beta versions of their distributed processing software late in 2005 and to go live in spring 2006.


    3. Scope Hacks

      Section 3.1.  Hacks 3343

      Hack 33.  Center-Spot Your Mirror

      Hack 34.  Clean Your Primary Mirror

      Hack 35.  Eliminate Astigmatism

      Hack 36.  Eliminate Diffraction Spikes and Increase Contrast

      Hack 37.  Build a Film Can Collimating Tool

      Hack 38.  Tune Your Newtonian Reflector for Maximum Performance

      Hack 39.  Collimate Your Primary Mirror Quickly and Accurately

      Hack 40.  Star-Collimate Your Scope

      Hack 41.  Counterweight a Dobsonian Scope

      Hack 42.  Improve Dobsonian Motions with Milk Jug Washers

      Hack 43.  Upgrade Your Dobsonian Bearings


    3.1. Hacks 3343

    Hacking is a time-honored custom in amateur astronomy. When Robert started observing in the mid-60s, most people built their own scopes. As a teenager, Robert couldn't afford a commercial scope, so he did what thousands of others did: bought a mirror kit from Edmund Scientific and ground his own 6" mirror, built a finder scope from half of a discarded binocular, assembled an equatorial mount from pipe fittings, and scrounged far and wide for parts to build the mirror cell, focuser, and so on.

    Life is easier for amateur astronomers nowadays. In 2000, when Robert decided to jump back into amateur astronomy, someone gave him a catalog from Orion Telescope & Binocular Center (http://www.telescope.com). Flipping through it, he spotted a 10" SkyQuest XT10 Dobsonian telescope for only $699. It certainly looked odd to Robert, whose idea of a scope was a tube sitting on a tripod. This one was a tube sitting in what looked like a large box on the ground. OK, so things had changed. But $700 for a complete 10" scope? It must be a piece of junk, right?

    Wrong. More Internet searching turned up a lot of answers. The telescope sold by Orion as the SkyQuest XT10 was actually made in Taiwan by a company named Guan Sheng, which mass-produces telescopes of astonishingly good quality at surprisingly low prices. The mechanicalsmirror cell, focuser, and so onwere much better than what Robert had made himself in the 60s, and the optics were, if not quite up to the best premium custom optics, probably better than Robert could have produced himself. Make or buy? The decision was a no-brainer. We ordered an Orion SkyQuest XT10 Dob and have never looked back. (Nowadays, you can buy a very similar 10" Dob for about $500.)

    Dobsonian scopes are simple, intuitive to use, have rock-solid mounts, and provide much more aperture for the money than any other type of scope. It's no wonder that Dobs are overwhelmingly popular nowadays. But we think there's another factor.

    If you buy a refractor, SCT, or other traditional scope, you've bought a scope. You unpack and assemble it, set it up, and use it. Sure, you can buy more eyepieces and other accessories. Perhaps you can adjust the focuser or tweak the mount a bit, but that's about it. There's not much you can (or should) do to modify the scope itself. If you attend a large star party, you'll see dozens of scopes set up. Every SCT or refractor looks pretty much like every other. There's not much opportunity for personalization or customization.

    If you buy a Dobsonian scope, you've bought an ongoing project, or atleast the opportunity for one. Although most Dobs work pretty well without any modifications, their inherent simplicity makes it easy to customize them. Dobs appeal to the shade-tree mechanic in all of us. We tweak, modify, upgrade, improve, and tinker with our Dobs. We build new bases, upgrade the bearings, paint the tubes, install cooling fans, replace the mirror cells and focusers, flock the tubes, and on and on. In short, we hack on them.

    It's not that a typical Dob actually needs all this work, you understand. It's that the simplicity of a Dob allowsyou to make these changes, and each change makes the scope more and more your own personalized instrument. Some Dob owners modify their scopes so heavily that they are no longer recognizable as the commercial telescope that was the starting point.

    So, although some of the hacks in this chapter also pertain to other scope types, we focus our efforts on the most important tweaks and upgrades for Dobsonian scopes.