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Portable Planetarium: Science Hackathon Project (Reblog from old website)

8 min read

Portable Planetarium: Science Hackathon Project

Posted on November 8, 2015 by BrynLove


Star gazing can be done from any room with the Portable Planetarium...

… Star gazing can be done from any room with the Portable Planetarium…


There is a certain awe cultivated when gazing at a star filled sky. I always imagine it as a biological impulse, something deep in our DNA, that makes our heartbeat change, that deepens our breath as a gasp catches in our throat; our eyes widen, pupils dilate and we begin to take stock of our size and place in this cosmic spacescape. Perhaps it was the sky that inspired our ancestors to consider their origins in this world, perhaps during late nights by campfire the stars above became guiding beacons of hope, reasons to dream, reasons to search for what lies beyond. Countless art and poetry, songs and stories of the stars have enriched each culture in human history. We had amazing astronomers, navigators, philosophers, seers, and even wise elders that understood the passing of time and seasons… all because of their nightly exposure to a clear sky of slightly changing stars.

Today the densest populations of people rely on well-lit electric and gas powered cities. Cities with lots of carbon emissions leading to light pollution block out the beauty of the sky. When we get awed by lights, it’s likely from the Vegas Strip, or some electrical carnival at BurningMan. Rarely do we get to see the stars, and unfortunately where they are most easily viewed is at isolated, wild campground sites and many people nowadays don’t grow up with that kind of past-time. Sadly, even those that do have to deal with one fact: it takes time and travel to get to those spots. Cut off from the spiraling, spinning galaxies around us, it’s also easy to disconnect from our place in the universe. We easily are absorbed into the world we see; a world limited to this earth, this pale blue dot. Neil DeGrasse Tyson once commented on some people’s sad self-projection of smallness, a response of overwhelming insignificance when faced with how vast the universe really is when viewing the stars, that seeing all that “out there” makes them feel small. He responded with how the universe made him feel.

“I look up at the night sky, and I know that, yes, we are part of this Universe, we are in this Universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up—many people feel small, because they’re small and the Universe is big, but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars.” – Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

What if simply seeing the stars made us feel like adventurers? What if exploring this galaxy made us united as humans, not under one God or even under one sky, but within this solar system, this galaxy? What if wonder itself was part of the key to innovation, passion, and the future?

Yes, the stars are hidden from us citydwellers when we walk outside. But what if we could create that magical and awe-inspiring phenomena of stargazing to somewhere as intimate as the home or as common as the classroom? These very ideas are what inspired the construction of one of the easiest Do It Yourself projects at last week’s Science Day Hackathon hosted by GitHub and supported by many awesome volunteers.  (Photos here, credit Matt Biddulph: )


Tantek Çelik andEddie Codel brainstorming the Portable Planetarium idea. Photo by Matt Biddulph

Tantek Çelik andEddie Codel brainstorming the Portable Planetarium idea

So you want to create your own Portable Planetarium? I approve! Let’s do it!

Stuff you need:

  • Pico Projector

  • Fish Eye lens

  • Stellarium

  • Smart phone or computer (cost ranges)

  • Scrap cardboard (just any good box laying about will do)

  • Duct tape (you know, the type you use to tape bad guys mouths shut with)

  • A sharp cutting object (I used a ‘Cutter’ tool. You should probably stick with whatever is sharp and safe for you to use. If you are accident prone, ask for someone else’s help/supervision)

  • A cutting board (Just like a wooden one for dicing your veggies)

  • Measuring tape

  • Sharpie/pen


  1. Projector

  2. Measuring tape

  3. Fish eye lens

  4. *A friend (suggested)

Let’s not assume you have the same setup as I did. What you’ll need to do is find a dark room with minimal/no outside light and shut all doors and windows. Then you want to take the projector, turn it on. Make sure you can see the display lit up on the ceiling. Now, with the lights off you should hold the lens above the projector until it is clear and the picture looks good. Use the measuring tape (this is where a friend is quite helpful) to measure the distance between the lens and the top of the projector, where the light is coming from. This distance isn’t likely to change and you’ll use it later in your dimensions.


  1. Cardboard

  2. Cutting tool

Take the cardboard and cut out a very long rectangular piece of it. I used about 3 x 2 ft strip initially and trimmed it down later. Then begin to bend it vertically into 1″ slats.

Bending cardboard into slats

Bending cardboard into slats


  1. Cardboard spare piece

  2. Fish Eye lens

  3. pen/sharpie

  4. Measuring tape

  5. Cutting board

Measure the diameter of the lens. Make sure to measure only the inner rim of the lens. Then use spare cardboard and cut out a square or octagon (your choice) that is at least 2″ wider in diameter to that. (Cutting on the cutting board minimizes mistakes and injury).The lens I used was about 3″, so my mounting piece was about 5″ in diameter. Then draw a line around the edge of the lens and cut out a hole for it to be mounted on.





  1. Duct tape

  2. Slatted cardboard

  3. Fish Eye lens

Begin to wrap the slatted cardboard in on itself (kind of like a spiral). You’re going to make one small ring on the inside that is slightly smaller than the diameter of the lens. Use duct tape to secure this in place. Secondly, take the rest of the cardboard and use it as an outer ring for more balance.





  1. Cutting tool

  2. Measurements taken previously (length of lens to projector)

  3. Pen/Sharpie

  4. Pico Projector

Use the measurements taken previously and mark how far down away from the top of the cardboard tower that the pico projector is going to have to be. Keep in mind that the lens is going at the top, and the projector is going to be embedded within. *It’s important to level out the top and the bottom at this point so your measurements are accurate. Then, when you have found where the projector should go, place it at the location against the outside of the cardboard and draw an outline of the frame. Cut out the frame and make adjustments until the projector fits inside firmly (not loosely). *Hint: it’s okay to cut it too small at first, and then adjust to a larger size later. You want the projector to fit snugly inside the window you’re creating to minimize light leakage.




  1. Pico projector

  2. Cardboard tower

  3. Fish Eye lens

  4. Cardboard mounting bracket for lens

Put all the pieces together and test out the light in a dark room. Make adjustments as necessary by refitting and cutting the cardboard so it works. I used duct tape to level out the top and make it more secure. Get creative with this part as it is fairly individual.




A DIY Portable Planetairum

A DIY Portable Planetairum


  1. Stellarium

  2. Your new portable projector (cardboard tower + Fish Eye lens + pico projector)

  3. Phone or computer to run the Stellarium program on

Download Stellarium to your phone or computer, hook up the video feed to the pico projector, turn off the lights, and enjoy exploring the universe!!


Let me know how this project helped you and any improvements you made. Hope you get to experience how awesome this is too!


Photo by Matt Biddulph

Helpful link on how to use the Stellarium program:

My favorite quote with awesome visuals by Neil DeGrasse Tyson: