If as­tronomer Franck Marchis has his way, cit­i­zen sci­en­tists will soon pe­ruse the cos­mos like the pro­fes­sion­als do. His eVs­cope te­le­scope will con­nect SETI re­searchers with the masses, al­low­ing the ex­perts to broaden their galac­tic gaze.

Popular Science - - CONTENTS - by Sarah Scoles / pho­to­graph by Christie Hemm Klok

WHEN SETI RE­SEARCHER FRANCK MARCHIS WAS A KID IN France, he looked at Saturn for the first time through a te­le­scope and saw the planet mag­ni­fied from a speck in the night sky to a beau­ti­fully ringed orb. There’s a whole uni­verse out there, he thought. Which, of course, he al­ready knew, but it’s dif­fer­ent to feel it.

Young Marchis’ stud­ies slewed him to­ward Chile, where tele­scopes atop arid moun­tain­scapes cap­ture light from dis­tant heav­ens. In 1996, he trained one on Io, a moon of Jupiter, and caught some­thing no one had ever wit­nessed from the ground: a far-off vol­cano belch­ing its in­nards into alien air.

Hooked on sharp­en­ing his view, he con­cen­trated on devel­op­ing adap­tive op­tics—te­le­scope sen­sors and mir­rors that con­tort to make up for at­mo­spheric tur­bu­lence that other­wise blurs images. With these sys­tems, Marchis got crazy-clear pic­tures of comets, Uranus, and Nep­tune. In 2005, he was the first to dis­cover an as­ter­oid with two tiny moons. He also helped de­velop the Gemini Planet Imager, an in­stru­ment that de­buted in 2014. It blocks diffracted starlight from ob­scur­ing your tar­get orb and then uses spec­troscopy to mea­sure its telling fea­tures.

Re­cently, Marchis joined Project Blue, a col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­fort to snap images of plan­ets in the hab­it­able zones of Al­pha Cen­tauri, the star sys­tem clos­est to the sun. “We are kind of like the car­tog­ra­phers of the 18th cen­tury,” he says. But for space. The un­der­tak­ing re­lies on pri­vate fund­ing, so Marchis went to the 2017 Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics Show to learn how other peo­ple pitch. There he came across a te­le­scope cre­ated by two physi­cists and an en­gi­neer. It was an early de­sign of an in­stru­ment called the eVs­cope. They hoped, once per­fected, it would re­veal the skies to am­a­teurs in color­ful de­tail typ­i­cally re­served for pro­fes­sion­als.

Marchis ended up join­ing the ven­ture as chief sci­en­tific of­fi­cer. The team had al­ready en­gi­neered the eVs­cope’s sight, but the sys­tem needed refin­ing, and its auto-point­ing abil­i­ties needed work. “We are a small startup, mean­ing that our work is not com­part­men­tal­ized and some­times is out­side the scope of our main skills,” Marchis says. To­day, with Marchis’ help, the te­le­scope uses GPS and a map of ce­les­tial ob­jects to fig­ure out where it is cur­rently pointed, then can aim some­where else au­tonomously. Just tell it you want to look at, say, the Orion Nebula.

View­ing it through a typ­i­cal back­yard scope, you’d see the nebula as a blackand-white patch of dots and smudges. That’s be­cause when we gaze up at a dim fig­ure in the dark sky, our eyes don’t re­ceive enough pho­tons to ac­ti­vate our color vi­sion. The eVs­cope, though, can col­lect light over time. If you look at the nebula for 10 sec­onds, you’ll see a smaller-scale color ver­sion of what those mountaintop Chilean tele­scopes show.

While the eVs­cope will com­pete with sim­i­lar in­stru­ments when it ships in early 2019, Marchis lever­aged his as­tro bona fides to help con­nect his prod­uct to the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity. SETI re­searchers can alert eVs­cope own­ers to here-now-gone-later cos­mic events such as comet out­bursts or su­per­nova ex­plo­sions, and users can opt for the te­le­scope’s soft­ware to trans­mit their view of the phe­nom­e­non straight to SETI.

Marchis has been test­ing eVs­cope pro­to­types with non­pro­fes­sion­als on Bay Area streets and at star par­ties. “See­ing color in a nebula from a gar­den in San Fran­cisco?” he says. “That’s pretty cool.”


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