Telescope News

Join us on this journey

Come with us on our journey to the stars. Monitor our progress with this telescope news blog. It's our way of sharing the behind-the-scenes work that will get the RASC Robotic Telescope ready to explore our universe.

Be the fuel that propels us forward with a donation.

The latest news is at the top, and you can scroll down to see a few images and our progress.

2018-06-27 Weather Server Improved

We are connected to a new weather server, shared by JPL and other organizations. Working well.

2018-06-25 The Eagle Nebula

The Eagle has landed. Almost.  This image of M16 is a single 5-minute, unguided exposure, with dark and bias calibration. The image was taken on the 21st, and the improved pointing model is a success.

M16 Eagle Nebula

2018-06-23 New Weather Report

As an improvement to the weather monitoring at Sierra Remote Observatories, there is a new weather snapshot with a lot more detail than the old version:

Weather Conditions

Weather data including trends and additional info like the Moon Set time is very important for the operation. Changes to the weather monitoring system require minor software configuration changes for our setup. Until that is done and tested, we have to pause some of our efforts and keep the telescope safe.

2018-06-22 Keeping our Telescope (and our Planet) Safe

Sierra Remote Observatories has automated monitoring to keep the keep the equipment safe.  For example, there is a weather monitoring system that prevents the roof from opening, or closes it if the weather is getting worse. There are sensors for temperature, wind speed, humidity, and cloud cover. Windy days, rain (which is quite rare), and heavy dew are all good reasons to button up the roof.

SRO monitors electrical power as well.  We received an email at about 1:30am today (Friday, the 22nd) advising that they would be pro-actively keeping the roof closed due to power concerns affecting electric utility customers including SRO in that part of California. This pro-active approach is very reassuring.

Equipment safety is a priority for SRO.  Planetary safety should be a priority for everybody.  Professional astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics operate the Minor Planet Center. According to the MPC website, the organization is "responsible for the designation of minor bodies in the solar system: minor planets; comets; and natural satellites. The MPC is also responsible for the efficient collection, computation, checking and dissemination of astrometric observations and orbits for minor planets and comets". 

Astronomers use this data to know where asteroids are and any objects that could come close to the Earth can be tracked. It is crucial to predict potentially damaging impacts.

The MPC shares this data.  After downloading it and a few minutes work processing it, the latest data for comets and minor bodies is now available for use in our ACP Observatory Control Software.  Here's a sample using one of our members who just happens to have an asteroid named after him:

    Desig =                   39791
    Epoch =                   2458200.5 (Julian)
    Mean Anomaly =            116.25746
    Mean Daily Motion =       0.36297844 (deg/day)
    Semimajor Axis            1.9463256 (AU)
    Orbital Eccentricity =    0.1047371
    Arg. of Perihelion =      279.10744 (deg)
    Long. of Ascensing Node = 150.54706 (deg)
    Inclination =             23.61005 (deg)

Jim Hesser served as our Honorary President for several years, in addition to having a lengthy career as a professional astronomer who made significant contributions to Canadian astronomy. He's still quite active in the RASC and professional community.

Equipped with this data, our users can make observations of minor bodies, and perhaps keep our planet a little bit safer.  You could, for example, schedule an image set for "jameshesser" a.k.a. "MP39791".

2018-06-21 Targets in the cross hairs

After review of the TPoint model yesterday, it was time to test out the pointing with some real images taken around 4:30am EDT/1:30am PDT.  You can see here that the galaxy M81 and open cluster M4 are close to centre, but not perfect.

M81 and M4 in the crosshairs

The results were sufficient to start mapping the local horizon for trees, buildings, and other obstacles. We'll use this later on to set some practical limits on where in the sky we can get images without obstructions.

During the test run, I found it hard to picture how low in the sky the Big Dipper and northerly objects would appear over the local horizon.  The southerly latitude of the site in California at 37N is 12 degrees lower than most Canadians from the western provinces would have grown up with.

M101 galaxy

A small image of the M101 spiral galaxy showing beautiful spiral arms.

2018-06-20 Pointing Accuracy and the only Super Model in Astronomy

Several of the images we've taken so far have shown the object of interest is slightly off-centre.  So we started work to improve the pointing of the telescope.

This cropped image of M24 shows the open cluster and a few bright field stars.

Open Cluster M24

Ideally, we'd want that object in the centre of the field. It is a real challenge is to ensure that any telescope is pointing correctly.  To adjust for this, we use the TPoint feature of Software Bisque's TheSky X Professional telescope control software.

Automated Pointing Calibration Run

With a bit of startup help from us humans, the Automated Calibration Run will take snapshots of about 60 points in the sky with the SBIG CCD Camera. It then figures out where the stars are, the brighter points in the image, and through a technique called "plate solving" maps the detected stars against a database of charted stellar positions.  At the end of the process, we know how much to correct for any inherent pointing errors.

How do we do that correcting?  With the help of a Super Model of course!

Super Model?  Not a Tyson Beckford, Ashley Graham, or Cindy Crawford. A mathematical model of all of the ways error can creep in to impact the pointing accuracy of the telescope.  In our case, we took an initial star position, measured it to be out of alignment, made a correction, and then took 60 additional points around the sky.  Using the TSX TPoint Super Model capabilities, it calculates the amount of correction needed for each direction that the Paramount ME will point.

Super Model

After the Tpoint calculations are complete, we can generate a Super Model, which will refine the error corrections to the mathematical model.  In the results graph shown above, you can see our telescope will generally point within 7.6 arc seconds. This good result gives us confidence that the mount is running well.  With a bit of effort, we may be able to improve this further.  That will involve mechanical adjustments to eliminate any flop, misalignment, flexure, and other imperfections.  Gathering additional Tpoint samples will improve the model further.

The Polar Alignment report is good, and it may not be worth trying to improve.

Polar Alignment

The adjustment to raise the polar axis is very small, and we'll consider making that adjustment.

2018-06-12 Digital Single-Lens-Reflex Camera

Fundraising continues, with donations coming in daily. We're all very excited about this project, and are glad people like you are supporting us!

On a technical note, Sierra Remote Observatories helped install an improved power adapter for the Digital SLR camera, and a dew heater strap for the 200mm f/2.8 lens.

A potential cabling issue with the precision instrument rotator was hopefully resolved.

Rotator cables on CCD camera

2018-06-11 TheSkyX Pro update and Pointing tests

A new "daily build" of TheSkyX Pro was installed.  The telescope is pointing fairly well, and will need some refinement over several more nights.  A slight adjustment to the polar alignment to ensure stars don't trail will be needed once we have an improved pointing model.

A test shot of the Veil Nebula in Cygnus shows the star slightly off centre, and a trace of faint nebulosity. We need to improve pointing further.

Veil Nebula

2018-06-06  Power under control

We now have software control of the AC power outlets, and can reboot any piece of equipment without manual intervention.  This will come in handy for sequencing a proper startup and shutdown once we've finished setting up the ACP automation software.

2018-05-30 Software Bug Squashed

A particularly odd software problem was traced to an operating system update. Uninstalling the update and applying the component pieces manually solved the issue.  This wasted nearly a full week tracking down the root cause.

2018-05-29 SBIG CCD Camera ordered

We got started with a borrowed SBIG STL-11000 full-frame CCD camera (thank you Stef C. !). This has helped us with testing and alignment.

As funds are starting to come in, we worked with SBIG Imaging Systems to find the right match of camera for the telescope we have.  Thanks for your support!  Special thanks to Doug G. and Tim P. of Diffraction Limited / SBIG for their help.

This image below taken by Paul M. is an unprocessed (not prettied up) sample of what might be expected from the new camera.

Horsehead and Hamburger Nebulae


2018-05-20  Software configuration and problem solving

Initial setup went reasonably well, but a nagging problem showed up when trying to find objects and submit them for imaging.  This wasn't an issue with ACP, the cause is some underlying operating system issue. Troubleshooting is going slowly.

2018-05-18 Why is this computer so SLOWWWWW ?...

Turns out that the default settings for TheSky X are designed to give you a beautiful graphical experience. Well, we don't need that.  Our little Intel NUC i5 computer was spending its time trying to render (redraw) the visible sky graphics 30 times per second, for about a zillion stars.  It looks great on a high-end PC or Mac, but definitely too much horsepower was being used for something we didn't need. A quick fix was turning off hardware acceleration and lowering the frame rate.  Now it zips along nicely.

2018-05-16 DSLR Camera won't power up

Turns out the DC adapter we were using with the Digital SLR camera isn't completely compatible. RASC volunteer Colin Haig made this camera available to support wide-field observing. The camera is an astro-modified Canon 6D that is sensitive to hydrogen-alpha light, bringing out the red colour of nebula.  This will take some time to sort out.

2018-05-11 Sponsors, Donors, Board support

For several weeks, Colin H. was reaching out to a number of potential suppliers of astronomical equipment and software and was able to obtain commitments from two key partners, and consideration from a few others.  Donated software and equipment will save the RASC several thousand dollars.  The RASC Board continues to be very supportive. Fundraising efforts are about to shift into higher gear.

2018-05-09 IAU Observatory Code

We need to get an observatory code from the International Astronomical Union.  Better put this on the to-do list!

2018-05-02 Teams - Tech, Science, Photo, Outreach

We've concluded that we need a technical team of experts, as well as a science team to help plan the observations, a team for astrophotos, and people to help create educational and outreach actvities.

2018-04-23 Management Group

Executive Director Randy Attwood, Colin H., and Paul M. started a management group to get the project rolling. 

2018-04-13 Getting good advice

Past president and astronomer David Lane shared some phenomenal advice on how to avoid problems, likely issues we will face, and offered his support and guidance. Colin H picked his brain for the better part of a couple hours, and Dave was his usual generous self, and pointed out many pitfalls and shared his experiences running the Abbey Ridge Observatory and the Burke-Gaffney Observatory at St. Mary's University.  There were some valuable lessons learned.

2018-04-11 Informal kick-off

RASC president Colin Haig and astronomer & computer scientist Paul Mortfield met to work through the practical aspects of getting this project done. We have a lot of work ahead of us.

See the Telescope Origins link for more info on how this got going.

Last modified: 
Thursday, June 28, 2018 - 10:58am