Tzec Maun Foundation
The Tzec Maun Foundation (TMF) is a non-profit organization which provides access to state-of-the-art robotic telescopes to students and researchers free of cost. It maintains its own observatories, one in Cloudcroft, New Mexico, and the other in Moorook, South Australia, for this purpose. Eight telescopes are housed in the New Mexico observatory while three are in Australia. Unlike conventional “eyeball observing” telescopes, these are attached to charge-coupled device (CCD) cameras. A computer-controlled mount points the telescope towards the area of interest in the sky. The user can command the mount and the camera from anywhere in the world – remotely over the internet.
Astronomy is one of the very few sciences in which amateurs still make genuine contributions. But quality telescopes and imaging equipment are expensive. Moreover, many people today live in heavily light-polluted environments. Light pollution seriously limits the ability to study celestial objects in visible wavelengths. The Tzec Maun Foundation gives enthusiastic amateurs such opportunities to explore the heavens and do real science which would otherwise have been impossible due to financial and/or geographic restraints.
The focus of this study is the software that is in use at the two Tzec Maun observatories, which not only serves as the interface between the user and the computers that control the telescopes but also commands and coordinates all functions of the observatories’ various imaging trains.
The Aim of the Study
The primary purpose of this study is to find a replacement technology or software package for The Sky 6, the telescope Interfacing, Control and Tracking (ICT) software that is currently implemented at the Tzec Maun observatories. Since the interface is the only means by which the remote user can interact with the computer control of the telescopes and have the desired operation accomplished, this software is at the heart of the system. Software Bisque, the parent company of the software, has released a newer version of The Sky, which is a total rewrite. It removes the loopholes found in the version 6.
A secondary objective is to test and implement the usage of a Canon 50D DSLR on the Epsilon 180 f/2.8 astrograph. The built-in H-alpha filter has been removed to allow the camera to perform better on nebulae. Although quite a lot of testing remains to be done, this setup provides finer pixels, larger apparent field of view, and equal or better results as contrasted to the one-shot color camera currently in use (the SBIG ST-2000). Newer control software will be required to ensure that this telescope/camera configuration works smoothly with the telescope interface.
A third objective is to improve the way the FTP downloads and uploads work for student or research images. As judged by the user feedback, the present system once worked well at the Tzec Maun observatories. But now, with larger cameras on some of the telescopes, users acquiring more images and data per night, etc., it is felt that more safeguards need to be introduced to the FTP procedure. There have been added problems over the summer 2010 owing to lightning-caused shutdowns - uploads had to be manually started on a number of occasions. A more robust FTP system is therefore needed.
The Current ICT System
The Sky 6 software package is currently implemented at the Tzec Maun observatories. It provides the interface between the telescopes and the user, uploading commands from the user to the computerized drives that control the telescopes’ motors and cameras and downloading data or image files from the system computers to the user.
A general overview of the functions of this system:
- Charts the night sky and the motions of various celestial objects.
- Lists and plots stars, nebulae, galaxies and other objects from various catalogues.
- Controls various parameters of the motors of the telescope mounts. It slews the telescope to a particular region of the sky on the user’s request and tracks it for the duration of the exposure.
- Automatically adjusts and sharpens the camera focus.
- In case the image is still not in focus, the software allows the user to override the default procedure and manually adjust the focus.
- Brings all these functions online – so that users anywhere in the world having access to the internet can utilize the telescopes.
- If the user commands the telescope to be slewed to an object that is below fifteen degrees in altitude, the software rejects the command.
The Proposed ICT System
An upgrade is required which can handle not only the increased workload at the Tzec Maun observatories but also allow smooth data acquisition, processing and operation of a new camera/telescope configuration that has recently been set up at one of the observatories. This is required because unlike the other cameras attached to the telescopes which are dedicated CCD cameras, the new device is a digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera. The new system should work seamlessly with the tried-and-tested Paramount ME computer controlled mounts upon which guide and slew all the telescope systems at the Tzec Maun observatories.
Designs/Systems That Were Explored
The idea of controlling robotic telescopes remotely over the internet is not new. It is attractive not just for those who cannot physically access the premises due to geographic constraints but also for those who do not want to, for example, leave the comfort of a heated home and head out on a cold, damp night to collect images/data. Our search found that today the choices for software which allow such remote control are plentiful, ranging from expensive software that require annual “maintenance” charges to free of cost open source packages.
There is a wealth of reviews of different software available on the internet. We consulted a large number of reviews. Besides these articles and reviews that were located, we also consulted the vendors’ websites and contacted selected vendors for additional data and information. Three software packages stood out from the rest:
- Starry Night Pro
- The Sky X
Stellarium is a free, open source software available under the Gnu General Public License (GPL). It renders the sky, both at day and night, realistically using openGL in real time. The software is very easy to use. Periodic updates are made available as soon as they are released at no additional cost. It makes heavy use of the computer system’s graphics hardware. Stellarium lists the deep space objects in the Messier catalog and the seven thousand strong objects in the Index Catalog. It also has the Hipparcos satellite stellar survey catalog for 5’00’000 stars. It also simulates photographs of the Messier objects by default.
The software has been translated in more than eighty languages. Because of its realistic rendering, it has actually been adopted in a number of planetariums. The software is in its eighth year of use. The current version is 0.10.5, while version 0.10.6 is expected to be released sometime around the 3rd of December 2010.
Stellarium has various grid and coordinate systems built into it. It can be used to control telescope mounts when additional plug-ins (all open source and free) are installed.
In spite of Stellarium being available free of cost and its attractive look, a number of factors discourage its use with the Tzec Maun observatory telescopes. First, its catalogs are very basic. It does not have the various catalogs and advanced all-sky survey codes for objects that are necessary to identify the myriads of faint, fuzzy galaxies and nebulae that are routinely imaged by telescope and CCD camera combinations of the caliber that are installed at the Tzec Maun observatories. The software does not have a provision for field de-rotation at the eyepiece, which is a requirement in case it is used to control a telescope mounted on an altazimuth drive. Stellarium is also not ASCOM compatible.
The Sky X
Software Bisque has been producing astronomical software for the past twenty years, and The Sky X is the latest version of their product. The feature of this software package that would be a primary requirement of TMO users is its extensive catalogs and databases, coupled with its smoothly flowing graphics and the user-friendliness of its interface.
Starry Night Pro
Starry Night is the primary competition for the control, drive and imaging system released by Software Bisque, the older version of which has until now been used at the Tzec Maun observatory. We did an extensive review of the support material available on the vendor’s website. This is a very stable product and has a large user base in the CCD imaging community. The price is also in the ball park as compared to The Sky X. The major reason for not adopting it as the new control package at the Tzec Maun observatory is that switching to it would necessitate familiarizing all the students and researchers who have been using the Tzec Maun facility with the new interface of Starry Night Pro. These users are already well acquainted with the graphical user interface of The Sky.
Among the three software packages that were reviewed in depth, The Sky X is the one that shows the highest potential for being chosen for upgrading the systems at the Tzec Maun observatory. From its myriads of features, the following stand out most prominently as being useful to the users of TMO:
· Accepts any date from A.D. 10000 to 4712 B.C. and any time of the day to display the simulated sky for a specified location.
· Alter the magnification to display any field of view ranging from 235 degrees to 30 arc seconds.
· Catalogs/lists the following:
· Up to a thousand comets
· Up to a thousand asteroids
· As many as ten thousand satellites
· 7,431 objects from the New General Catalog (NGC)
· Index Catalog (IC)
· The Hipparcos/Tycho catalog; this lists 1.2 million stars
· The Hubble Guide Stars catalog
· Common name (a list of common names that match the letters you type appears automatically)
· Bayer designation
· Flamsteed number
· General Catalog of Variable Star (GCVS) number
· Non-stellar variable star (NSV) number
· Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) catalog designation
· Struve designation
· Washington Catalog of Double Star designation
· Caldwell code
· Herschel number
· Index Catalog (IC) code
· Lorenzin Catalog number
· New General Catalog (NGC/IC Project) code
· Principle Galaxy Catalog (PGC) number
· Principle Galaxy Catalog code (cross-reference)
· Zwicky number
· Arakelian Catalog of Galaxies code
· Catalog of Galaxies and Clusters of Galaxies (CGCG) code
· David Dunlop Observatory Catalog of Galaxies code
· Fairall Catalog of Galaxies code
· Karachentseva Catalog of Galaxies code
· Kazaryan UV Galaxies code
· Kiso UV Galaxies code
· Second Byurakay Survey code
· Tololo Galaxies code
· Uppsala General Catalog of Galaxies (UGC) code
· University of Michigan Catalog of Galaxies code
· Virgo Cluster Catalog of Galaxies code
· Weinberger Catalog of Galaxies code
· Planetary Nebula (PLN) designation
· Saguaro Astronomy Club (SAC) DSO catalog
· Comets by name
· Asteroid by number or name
· The Moon
· Artificial Satellites
· The Sun
· Major planets of the solar system
Quantity X Cost
Analysis, Data Collection, Collaboration with Staff
42 man-hours x 95.00/hr
12 man-hours x 95.00/hr
System Setup, Customization and Testing
60 man-hours x 70.00/hr
9 man-hours x 20.00/hr
Registration Software License/Setup
Annual Upgrade Fee
Project Budget Total
*Note - Estimated staff cost (Items 1 - 4) based on salary and time involved.
Implementation, Testing and Evaluation
The following plan describes the activities that will be performed to evaluate and test the new registration system. During each step, employees at the Tzec Maun observatories and selected users will keep logs recording each problem or issue that is discovered. When performing time-based tests, such as reservation request, average time logs will be kept. Compiled reports will be created once the testing is completed.
The pre-implementation testing took place during the system selection phase. The implementation testing will take three weeks to complete and the three portions will concurrently take place.
Before the final decision about which software system to upgrade to was made, the top choices were evaluated through vendor demonstrations, and this is when the testing and evaluation period began. During the demonstrations, the project team examined which of the user requirements were met and to imagine how the new system would fit within the TMO unit (overall system).
After the completion of the demonstrations, the project team obtained trial accounts for each of the systems. During the trial periods, the team set up reservations remotely, ran scripting routines, automated imaging runs (such as those that will be needed for the student-run Small Budget Sky Survey, SBSS), obtained and processed calibration, bias and dark frames for the respective cameras. This gave the team additional chances to perform evaluation transactions and operations.
After the system is approved and a contract agreed upon, the following implementation testing will be performed. This portion of the testing will be done using remote access over the internet, with the other components (systems) in the observatories communicating with the planetarium software. These components are the reservation software, the live weather-data feed software, the image-acquisition and processing software (Snap-Shot Astronomy for beginner level telescopes and Astronomy Studio for advanced users). The testing will be performed by Ron Wodaski, Chanel Clayton, the project team and selected users. These users will be included in this testing phase because they were actively involved in the usage of the observatory setup when it was running under the previous software system.
Functional testing on the new system is the first phase to be performed in the implementation testing and is composed of two parts: external and internal.
The first component, external testing, evaluates the login page and web front end. This is the interface that users reserving telescope time will see and use. This portion will be performed by members of the project team, various experienced users, since they are familiar with the old system and would hopefully be able to offer valuable feedback on the new system. This portion evaluates the experience of searching for targets to be imaged, adjusting exposure settings and focus, how the rate at which the interface window is refreshed is perceived, etc. Some aspects that will be evaluated include ease of use, visual appeal, and speed of data gathering, astrometry and photometry.
The second portion of the functional test, the internal side of the system, tests the processing of reservation requests, exporting/reporting functions, internal views, and encrypting the raw and transmitted data. Besides these, advanced functions will be tested, including sending/receiving data to/from other online observatories and various organizations such as AAVSO, the Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams (CBAT) etc. This portion will be performed by the project team, and selected users including Erwin Schwab.
Reliability will be evaluated to ensure that the new system merges seamlessly with the hardware at the observatories under various conditions and levels of system loading. Also, since the connections to the system and the other systems in the observatories are already implemented, percentage of downtimes for these components is known beforehand. This includes the internal network and the Internet connection.
The team will be contacting observatories, professional and amateur astronomer who are currently using the software and inquiring with them about system downtime and speed of recovery. Next, the system will be periodically checked over the span of a few weeks to record if the system remains available and there are no bugs or bottlenecks that might cause precious data to be lost or corrupted. The checks will be done at various times each day during the operating hours of the two Tzec Maun observatories.
The main aspect that will be tested during the capacity evaluation is how the system runs when the maximum number of users is logged onto the system and acquiring data. This will be done for the internal staff side only and will last the entire testing phase. It will involve the project team, selected users and other staff members. During this test, normal routines are performed at the same time and include requesting/processing new user accounts, processing/assigning time slots for telescope access, exporting data, processing data and images and uploading them to the user.
Why Upgrade the Telescope Control Software?
There are a number of observatories in the world which allow remote access to their facilities – commercially. The Tzec Maun observatories are the only facilities which have been providing access to expensive, state-of-the-art telescopic imaging instrumentation without any cost for the last two years. This initiative has born its fruit; students using the Tzec Maun facility have discovered various asteroids and are often among the first to confirm new comet discoveries.
Following the recent visual comet discoveries in 2010 after a hiatus of four years, students and researchers alike have started to actively pursue comet hunting. The per-night data gathering requirements of these users has really increased the workload at the Tzec Maun observatories. Moreover, the new camera system that has been put up in the observatories needs to be utilized to its fullest. By upgrading to and implementing the powerful new software The Sky X, the Tzec Maun Foundation can ensure that it continues to live up to its legacy of providing very capable telescopic imaging and data gathering facilities to young researchers and students – from the comfort of their homes and universities.