OnQ Blog

Inventor James Parr on citizen science and his 3D-printable telescope [VIDEO]


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Inventor James Parr is using smartphones equipped with the Qualcomm Snapdragon processor inside and 4G LTE to power the Ultrascope, an open-source, 3D-printed telescope that aims to bring astronomy to citizen scientists across the globe. He’s also a member of The Qualcomm Inventor Lab: a select group of visionaries who combine creativity and Qualcomm technology to build inventions that are a lot like magic. If you’re heading to the Maker Faire in San Diego on October 3rd and 4th, you’ll be able to meet James and see the Ultrascope in action.

James Parr spoke with us about how this fascinating project got off the ground:

The concept for the Ultrascope arose when I realized that the tools and technologies to pull it off—cloud computing; high-speed phone networks; low-cost, high performance chips and CCDs; 3D printing; and the Maker Movement—had all matured around the same time, enabling a new era in citizen science. This couldn’t have been done 24 months ago, but now it’s all here.

Citizen science was once about borrowing CPU clock cycles. Then researchers realized that humans had unparalleled pattern-recognition capabilities, which gave birth to tools such as Galaxy Zoo. Our project really takes this trajectory to the next level and says, ‘Citizen scientists can also make the tools for research,’ which we believe is the next chapter of citizen science: huge science projects that are conducted by armies of highly skilled data-gathering individuals who build the tools to do the work. The Ultrascope project is this—a passionate, highly skilled data-harvesting army who build their own devices to help save the world.

I’m not an astronomy geek, but I love the challenge of creating tools for citizen scientists to do useful work that has a genuine contribution to make. This is really the core driving force behind the project. People see the Ultrascope, but actually, the innovation is that it is a ‘scope for everyone’: an ‘ultranet’ of AROs (Automated Robotic Observatories) that work as a collective, combining observations of the same object from around the world.”

We are working through a number of tech demonstrators, each of which is a more capable asteroid-hunting Ultrascope. Our goal is to mature the hardware and software architecture in parallel. We currently can track and image the large asteroids in the asteroid belt (Ceres and Vesta) and send images to the cloud from any location in the world. Each time a new iteration of the Ultrascope is built, a small group of alpha testers around the world also builds the scope, to test core assumptions and offer suggestions.

The Ultrascope project can help in NASA’s asteroid detection effort (“The Asteroid Grand Challenge”) by developing a network of low-cost scopes that can contribute to this task from anywhere on the globe. Objects hit the Earth constantly. Indeed, this is a natural part of the way planets form. It turns out that our planet is hit far more frequently than we thought by objects called bolides, which explode in the upper atmosphere. For decades, we were unaware of the power of these objects, which create airburst events similar in magnitude to nuclear weapon as they strike the Earth. (Witness the Chelyabinsk object in Russia two years ago that injured 1,200 people.)

What’s exciting is that NASA now has the ability to do something about this. But NASA needs the help of amateurs. Asteroids come in different categories: rocky, iron, icy, rubble pile. And although NASA is really the only entity with the technology to detect these objects, amateurs can play a critical role in distinguishing what kinds of asteroids they are—a process called ‘asteroid characterization.’ This work can be done from the ground when asteroids pass close to Earth.

The Ultrascope is really a network, and this is where Qualcomm came in. We needed a technology platform that enabled a scope to be located anywhere in the world and receive data and transmit large images—something that, before 4G LTE, was simply impossible. Similarly, we needed a chipset that was easily programmable, didn’t compress images on the GPU, and had fast input/output (i/o) and multitasking capabilities, such as a camera, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and of course, 4G LTE capability. Last, as we need to ultimately make thousands of Ultrascopes, we needed all this power and capability in a low-cost device that was used in every hemisphere.

Qualcomm Snapdragon is a product of Qualcomm Technologies, Inc.