Preparing for Remote Operation at the Observatory

October 3, 2017

Here’s a late-rainy-season update from the observatory.

We’ve spent the summer and early fall putting the pieces in place for remote control operation at the observatory.

Mini Computers

Each of our telescope systems will be controlled by an Intel NUC i7 or i5 mini computer. For those counting, this will mean 6 mini computers for the 6 telescopes (600mm, 400mm, and 300mm 4 scope array).

Additionally, we will use Intel NUC mini computers to control our Astrohaven domes and our weather stations.

All of the mini computers are on UPS (uninterruptible power supply). We have set the NUCs to reboot when power is restored, should there be any power loss that the UPS cannot handle. This also allows them to turn on automatically when we turn on our web power switches.

All NUCs run Teamviewer on startup – for now all of our interaction with the various telescope systems will be through Teamviewer. We are using a Teamviewer commercial account. The imaging system NUCs all run SkyX and various other software and drivers required to control the telescopes and imaging systems. We have one additional i7 NUC as a backup, should any of the other NUCs become inoperative.

Web Power Switches

We’ve purchased web-based power switches, one for each of the three domes. The domes will each have an 8 port Digital-Loggers Web Power Switch 7. We are also using 2-outlet MSNswitches to power dehumidifiers in each dome. The power switches are completely controllable through a web browser. We’ve assigned each of these a fixed IP on our LAN, and have opened router ports allowing us direct access to the power switches from anywhere.

Here is a screenshot taken from Bangkok showing remote power outlet control for our 4-scope array:

IP Cameras

We’ve begun placing IP cameras in various locations on the observatory grounds. While none so far are mounted, we have some connected and sitting on the floor. Our intent is to have at least one IP camera in each dome, one in our control room, and various others. We are using a Chinese brand VStarCam. The indoor 1 megapixel cameras we purchased cost US$25 each, work either on LAN or Wifi, and have a pretty decent feature list including auto infrared, surveillance mode and motion sensor with notifications, record to SD card, etc.

The cameras can be accessed with Windows software, iPhone/Android app, or any browser. We have assigned each camera a fixed IP on our LAN and have opened router ports allowing direct access from anywhere.

Here is a screenshot showing our currently active cams (note: the outdoor and control room images are in color, as they are in natural light during daytime; the dome images are in black and white — they are in completely dark domes and are being lit up with infrared light):

Weather Station and Dome Controllers

We have a SkyAlert weather station and a SkyEye all sky cam from Interactive Astronomy.  A batch script on the celeron NUC controlling the weather station uploads the latest weather graph and skycam image to a server so they can be embedded into our website. Images are updated every 90 seconds. The images are available on our observatory weather page:

https://www.masterdarks.com/weather/

We have installed controllers for the Astrohaven domes from Astrometrics Instruments. These will be connected to our SkyAlert weather station allowing automatic open/close based on weather conditions. Of course we are also able to open/close the dome through a Teamviewer session or through a custom application. Mechanical limit switches guard against opening or closing the domes past their optimal positions.

Teamviewer and Overall Control

Teamviewer will be our primary conduit for remote control of each Intel NUC mini computer. Teamviewer has been set up to open on startup on all of our machines. The Intel NUCs each have a headless display emulator plugged into the HDMI ports, allowing the machines to display at 1920×1080 or higher resolution even though none of these machines has a connected monitor. Without the emulators, the machines default to low resolution and are not effective.

Last year we had three laptops in our control room, each connected by underground ethernet cable to a telescope setup. These are now gone. Instead we will use one Windows 10 PC with a 48″ monitor which will run six Teamviewer sessions (one session for each of our telescopes). This frees up a lot of room on our control room table, and provides centralized access to all of the systems. Similarly, we can Teamviewer into all systems remotely from Bangkok.

And a Network to Connect Them All

We have completed installation of a fiber optic network on the property. While the entire property has 3 routers, one of the routers is dedicated to the observatory grounds. Underground fiber optic cable connects the main router to the control room, and the control room to each of the domes. Switches in the control room and each dome provide ample LAN connectivity, but Wifi has also been enabled.

Moving Forward

Even though we are putting the pieces in place, we won’t be remotely operating from Bangkok right away. First we will test each of the components while on the property until we are confident that everything works as expected. Most importantly we need to know that we can park the scopes and close the domes should any unexpected situation arise.

Update

With the coming of the new year (2018) we have successfully operated the RiLA dome and imaging system from Bangkok.

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