An amateur astronomical observatory in the digital age

ottobre 08, 2012  |   AstronomiaNova,In Primo Piano   |     |   0 Commenti
An amateur astronomical observatory in the digital age

A match of software and dispositives able to offer scientific value to amateur astronomical observatories.

Mario Dho

The last decade of the past century testified a continuous proliferation of software applications dedicated to amateur Astronomy. The diffusion of computers and internet connections allowed users to reach data of catalogues and databases other than up-to-date lists of objects signed up as “worthy to be observed” by the International Astronomical Community. These elements together with the advent of the CCD technology, have entirely transformed the amateur Astronomy: presently it is possible to give a scientific value to the observations, to perform discoveries, to develop detailed studies, to cooperate with professional astronomers just by remaining comfortably seated in front of the monitor of a personal computer and passively following the cycle of all operations that involve the whole observatory.

There are uncountable hardware and software instruments that allow the remote and robotic control of a telescope and all of its connected accessories. Indicatively, at the moment of planning the running of  modern amateur astronomical observatory, we should consider four different types of programs and applications:

  • Software to interface and control the roof system;
  • Software to interface and control the mount of the telescope;
  • Software to interface and control hardware proposed to the correct acquisition of films or images;
  • Planetary.

Frontal view of the “A67 Dho’s Observatory” located in Chiusa di Pesio, Cuneo, Italy; an observatory wholy designed and built by the author Mario Dho. Instruments and accessories can operate in remote and robotical mode without interference of the user. The "heart" of the observatory is the application Ricerca 4.

Depending on the kind of study or research one intends to develop, it will also be necessary a fifth group of programs which will allow the elaboration, the treatment and the reduction of a number of frames, taking out their data, measurements, graphics, statistics and reports.

It is necessary to make a distinction between remote controlled observatories and robotic observatories. The former ones, even being enabled to run through a local net or internet, need always and in anyway the presence of an operator (user), who should impart commands and inputs from the keyboard or through the mouse of the client computer. A robotic structure, instead, is projected and developed to operate autonomously, without the direct or indirect intervention of a human user.

This latest managerial solution constitutes doubtlessly the arrival point also for more demanding amateur astronomers, since it allows running observation sections entirely similar to those undertaken by professional astronomers.

The Dho’s Observatory, located in Chiusa di Pesio, Cuneo, in Northern Italy, which is authorized by the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge to perform astronomical shootings and measurements of minor planets present in the Solar System is identified by the code A67. It is a structure wholly projected and built by the author Mario Dho. The observatory dimensions are reduced since all of its instruments and dispositives run in robotic mode and, in this way, it does not require the presence of a human user, exception done to maintenance routine practices or eventual repairs.

The outside structure is controlled by a video cam and observatory has also got a webcam inside. Being so, when necessary, they allow the user to have a whole vision of all the instruments designed to the acquisition of astroimaging. Both video hardware together constitute optimal instruments to verify the correct running of the roofing system at the beginning and at the end of an astroimaging section, should there happen an interruption caused by the degradation of meteorological conditions.

Control videocam installed on a special metallic carter and transparent lexan to be protected against atmospheric agents in general. This video hardware allows, through an internet connection, to verify the correct opening and shutting of the dome system.

In order to control the remote opening and shutting of the electrical circuits connected to the gears, to the CCD camera power supply, to the telescope and the focuser, to the points of light, to the voltage stabilizers and to the group of continuity, Dho’s Observatory has got a dispositive named OCSIII, Observatory Control System.

The module software  of the above mentioned hardware interfaced to the computer server, located in the observatory is an Active-X compatible component.

OCSIII communicates to a meteorological unit which includes rain sensors and detection of clouds that,  through the “computer heart” of the observatory, constituted by Ricerca 4 program, in a completely autonomous way, will, in case of a cloud cover or rain, close the roofing system in order to protect all the instruments.

The main point is that with Ricerca 4, either a real sky researcher or a simple fan, an advanced scholar or a great aesthetic impact shooting hunter, will be able to plan multiple and systematic observations of lists of objects, created in a completely customized way. Depending on the nature of the target, of its relative luminosity, of the adopted optical configuration and the kind of activity one intends to undertake, the specific parameters must be established (time of exposure, type of calibration, number of frames to be acquired, synchronization of the telescope on real pointed out sky coordinates, retouching of the best focus position, type of filter, etc.) independently on any object contained in the list of the EOS (Enhanced Objects Sequence) module.

The main window of the E.O.S., Enhanced Objects Sequence module; an editor through which one can plan the whole observatory session, configurating parameters for specific shots of every object included in the list

The communication between software and roofing system, in the case of the author’s observatory, occurs through the driver OCSIII but, the modules ATC Plus , Advanced Telescope Control and ASC, Advanced Scope Control, are also structured by the use of specific drivers or ASCOM driver. Substantially, each kind of roof or dome (of commercial type, handcraft, or even DIY) can be driven directly or remotely by Ricerca 4 and its relative modules and plug-ins.

The CCD camera is controlled by MaxIm DL CCD, while the electric focuser is managed by FocusMax.

The CCD cam is controlled by MaxIm DL CCD software, while the focuser is controlled by FocusMax. In this image, a screen shot captured during a test procedure of the shot dispositives and the automatic focusing operation.

Besides being a robotic astronomical observatory, A67 in Chiusa di Pesio, in its category should be classified as a remote observation structure, this is, a group of hardware and software able to undertake observations in autonomous mode, as well as measurements, reports, light curves in real time (through the ADC, Astronomical Diagram Creator module). The complete operations and phases connected to the procedures of  acquisition, analyses, treatment and filing of images and data can be followed, projected, modified, interrupted by an enabled client computer which could be located in any part of the world.

A software which allows communication between the computer server and client represents the key that opens the door to access professional observation methodologies to the amateur astronomer.

ATN Server, Automatic Telescope Network, communicates to Ricerca 4 and distributes timetables, priorities and access levels among one or more clients.

Main window of ATN Server software, which can be seen right above in the image, allows the access to the observatory through a client computer located in any place of the world. In this way, the user can share researches, studies,and use the observatory for didactic purposes.

These functional features make the observatory not only an instrument for sky observation but also for sharing practices and didactics.

If, during the accomplishment of an observation procedure some new objects are detected (possibly minor planets, comets, supernovae), the user will be informed through an automatic mail alert or per messages and sound signals.

The pointing of objects reaches astrometrical precision through the constant  controlling of the images taken by PinPoint.

The full compatibility and the automatic pointing with The Sky give the astronomical instruments of the observatory flexibility and access to an important and up-to-date database.

Ricerca 4 is completely compatible with TheSkyX. Just by a simple click, it is possible to import objects in automatic observation lists, by accessing the database and implemented catalogs of the famous program of Software Bisque.

The author

Mario Dho

technician and industrial expert, first responsible for the Section Instruments of the Unione Astrofili Italiani UAI and the project “CCD-UAI”.

Author of a technical manual, with a foreword by Margherita Hack, mainly designed to the automation and remote controlling of astronomical observatories, and of several technical articles published by Italian scientific and cultural magazines, as well as webzines.

Tester of software and application modules developed for the automatic control of astronomical instruments.

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