It’s been nearly a year since that day last July 7th when everything changed forever and I was finally able to open and close the observatory roof remotely! You can read that post how excited I was about that because from then on I had pretty much unlimited access to the sky since I did not have to physically be there (hence the term “remote”). A few weeks ago I went about my usual routine, about to start an imaging session, clicked on the “open roof” button, watched the progress bar indicating everything was fine, all systems operating normally, but one thing was different. The roof was clearly NOT OPENING! The system which was fairly easy to install and operate had failed after about 9 months. For the 2 weeks following I spent hours troubleshooting it. I started from the beginning, testing the board, checking the wire continuity, metering everything, even replacing all of the wiring I had going from the 12 volt relays to the board. For whatever reason when I tested the board, only the open relay would light up but very briefly. I even replaced the relays.This was without the roof motor connected. I tried a spare board, tried different software versions, even tried 2 different windows operating systems. Nothing. This really made no sense at all. I checked and rechecked the connections. There was no rhyme or reason to it. Unfortunately support was completely non existent. I was told to update the software which I did but no answers to any of the questions regarding the steps I had already taken. Frustrated to no end I began to realize that this was not only about the system failing but the fact that all indications were that it was working properly and zero support for troubleshooting this. If this happened once it would surely happen again even if I was able to sort it out which probably would have occurred eventually. The only option was to at least look at other “more robust” options for roof control if they existed. The most important function is to open your observatory reliably otherwise you can’t use it! Despite the early success I had with the Foster System board it looked like that was not going to be the long term answer.
I looked at it this way. Thousands of people open and close their garage doors every day from a phone app! Never fails. Those of you who are reading this probably have a garage door and never for a second wondered if it will open or not. A roll off roof is basically a heavy duty garage door. There has to be by now a nearly fullproof system for its operation. I understand any time you have a control system which requires usb to function and Windows you can only expect so much, but nevertheless I posted this question on the Cloudy Nights astronomy board and I received several responses from folks who apparently had success with a system called “Skyroof” which I hadn’t yet heard of. It’s produced by InteractiveAstronomy.com and apparently it is based on arduino control board technology. It looked interesting. More expensive than the Foster control board by around $100, so not too much more. It looked like a much more durable circuit board although I am no expert on these. Other features which were attractive were the fact that I could direct connect the motor wires to the board without additional relays, the board was a direct usb connection rather than serial to usb, and powered by usb, so it didn’t require a secondary 12 volt power supply. No cumbersome firmware updates or bootloader programs we had to use. I was going to give it some thought before purchasing yet another roof control system and figured I would try just a couple of other things to get the Foster board to work but actually got a phone call from Jim over at Interactive Astronomy and he answered the questions I had about his SkyRoof system over the phone that same day! He also emailed detailed instructions on how to wire the board. I asked him about their support system and he basically confirmed they responded by email or phone that same day, even on the weekend. No support forums required. Ok I’m sold! I bought the Skyroof kit and it arrived 2 days later. Free shipping! I went up to the observatory that weekend and in 15 minutes the roof was operational once again! All I had to do was connect the open and close motor wires to the board, no additional relays, as well as the common wire and on the other end connect the open and close roof sensors. The software was simple to install and everything worked pretty much right away. We’re back in business!
So in summary, this is the 3rd roof control system I have used. The first one which was installed as a bundled product by Backyard Observatory when the structure was built was M1OASYS ,which is basically the M1 Elk Gold home security system adapted to roof control as an afterthought. It was like trying to kill a fly with an assault weapon. Nearly 2 years I could never get it off the ground. I finally had someone who is using it at Deep Sky West hosting facility in Rowe NM confirm it is not a product for astronomy. They use it there because they have a lot of scopes and benefit from the security features.
The second system was the Foster Astro MC control board which worked great for 9 months but then as I have been detailing, stopped working. It is similar to the Skyroof system I have just started using but different in a few key ways as follows:
$250-300 not including shipping $395 with free shipping
12 volt power supply required Direct usb which powers the board
Serial to usb adaptor required No additional adaptors or drivers
Firmware updates/ bootloader app No regular firmware updates
*Warranty not documented *Clearly stated 1year warranty
*Support essentially non existent *Support by phone/email same day
Documentation not clear to inexperienced Documentation clear to anyone
Skyroof supports many additional features such as a Sky X driver as well as text message alerts if desired. Many standard features are suported on both systems such as emergency shut down for weather related and other conditions but for the Sky Roof these are activated by simply checking a box in the software set up. For Foster, it appears much more complex to set these up. Bottom line, if you are like me and “I’m not a mechanic Jim. I’m just an old country doctor!” then definitely Sky Roof would be for you, but I am not yet going to wax poetic about this new system right now since I have learned there is no such thing as a sure thing in this business!
Thanks for reading!