ShopBot Helps UNC Students See the Stars

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“Making” as distinct from “Building” is as much about knowing how each part is made as it is about arriving at a finished product. Through the exercise of planning and designing, we learn skills that apply to more than just the project at hand and we become more capable of creating new and better things.

Teaching a set of these skills is the goal of University of North Carolina’s BeAM Maker in Residence program; a project based class where students are guided through the creation of a complicated device by an experienced maker. BeAM facilitates this by identifying a project that will have a significant impact on campus and finding a local maker who can provide the know-how to pull it off. This year, their project was to design and build a large telescope that could be used in cooperation with the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center to teach students about astronomy at a series of free events on campus.

Raleigh Astronomy Club member Jim Presley, who has built a number of custom telescopes and helped with the observatory at North Carolina State University (NCSU) won the residency. I met Jim at a free sky-watching event where we both volunteer regularly with the planetarium. The kind of telescope that Jim creates is called a Newtonian Reflector. It consists of a large primary mirror that sits at the base of a long tube, the primary mirror gathers and reflects light towards a secondary angled mirror at the top of the tube and this, in turn, reflects the light through an eyepiece which magnifies and focuses the image for the viewer. The tube and mirror assembly is usually attached to a simple stand referred to as a Dobsonian Mount which allows the astronomer to pitch the scope up and down and swivel around to find his target.

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Jim was operating one of his beautiful hand-made telescopes that night and we spoke about his process for creating them. Most of the components for the mount are typically designed with simple, straight lines so that they can be hand cut. I asked if he’d thought of using CNC to cut the parts for the project scope and Jim replied that he knew BeAM had a ShopBot but wasn’t sure if they were going to use it. I replied that I just so happened to work for ShopBot and would be happy to come to the class and help out if they wanted a little introduction to the tool.

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A few weeks later Andy Martin, Anthony Wong, and I (employees of ShopBot) visited BeAM to provide a brief training session for anyone who was interested in learning more about the ShopBot. We brought along a Handibot that could be set in the center of a large table where everyone was seated while I projected my laptop screen onto a large monitor to give a demo of CAD/CAM and using the ShopBot control software. After a few test cuts with the Handibot, we moved over to the large 5×8 ShopBot to cut out parts for the telescope mount that had been designed for the student scope.

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The project telescope turned out beautifully with a hand painted version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night around the body (with the UNC bell tower standing in for the big cypress tree in the original). The signatures of all of the participants were also laser engraved on the side of the mount.

On November 19, the class brought their new scope out to greet students after a planetarium show where the clouds cleared just in time to provide gorgeous views of the moon and stars.

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Contributed by Brian Owen

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