An unplanned visit to Greg Parker at the New Forest Observatory yesterday to configure the computer systems for the new telescope imaging array that Greg is putting together.

Whilst waiting for the weather to improve so that the dome can be delivered the process of interfacing all the components with the computers has started. I think both Greg and I had under-estimated the amount of good old-fashioned IT services required to get everything working. So I drove over to help and we ended up spending the entire day sorting everything out and testing everything.

telescope imaging array

The imaging array consists of two (eventually to be four) small refracting telescopes. Each scope has a 10 mega-pixel cooled astronomy colour CCD camera attached to it. These cameras from Starlight Xpress are a delight. Each weights about 1lb and are about 75mm diameter and 70mm long. Fantastic engineering. The can cool the sensor to well below freezing to reduce noise on long exposures. Each camera is interfaced to the telescope via a 5 position filter wheel which takes the large 2 inch filters required. On the top is an additional telescope with a guiding camera whose job is to keep the whole thing pointing in the right place.

Each scope has a motorised computer controlled focuser system as well - adding another layer of things to interface to the computers. Of course, the telescope mount needs to plug into a computer somewhere as well - again, another serial connection. USB to serial converters are most useful here!

Initially I was confident that we can run both scopes from a single PC. However, because the devices are essentially duplicates, the manufacturer gives them all the same USB identifier code. Whilst these can be changed it still remains a challange to tell the imaging software (Maxim DL) which devices pair up together. Additionally, focusing is performed by a complex piece of automation software called FocusMax. Doing this reliably for two scopes on one computer is not easy. In the end, I crumbled, and went for the dual computers. Greg was right all along! After a bit of a struggle the device drivers for all the cameras, focusers, filterwheels and telescope mount were installed on all the computers and the guider working. And on both computers as well!We tested everything with the array pointing at the neighbour's house: Perhaps the most complicated peeping Tom in history!

Much time was spent showing Greg how the dual computers (down in the observatory dome) can be controlled via Remote Desktop from the PC in the study. We've got a quad monitor system setup on the computer in the study. This allows us to have a full screen remote desktop session to each observatory computer visible and still have a couple free to do imaging processing. I spent a lot of time setting up saved RDP config files and configuring auto logins so that Greg has an easy set of shortcuts to access the computers.

Next step: When Greg gets the dome setup, he can move the rig down there and do all the wiring more neatly than our prototype setup.