Alright , not exactly as dramatic as the Apollo Moon landing but for an astroimager it does represent a significant milestone! On July 17, 2018 the first totally remote operation of Orion’s Belt Observatory took place. I was operating the equipment from Las Cruces which is about 2 hours away. The first remote session took place without any major glitches. Basically I did what I always do: open the roof, turn on the equipment, boot all of the programs up and program the night’s session, except this time I was not at the observatory location at all. I have been operating my equipment unattended using CCD autopilot for years but since Orion’s Belt Observatory was built, now 2 years ago already, I still had to be physically present to open the roof and turn everything on….until now!
The evening’s targets were M51 and M20 which I had already been working on. It was a great night for once since now we are in the “Monsoon” season in the Southwest. Really the bottom line with the remote stuff is you do not want your equipment rained on. You must have a reliable weather / cloud monitor. The Boltwood II which I am using has an audible alarm feature you can activate so if clouds appear you will be woken up so you can shut everything down. In the future I will install a scope sensor so that the main program will be able to execute emergency shutdown automatically but the sensor will prevent the roof closing until the telescope is properly parked. That’s an extra detail you need to keep in mind when operating a roll-off remotely. For a dome you can close it with scope in any position, but then there are other issues to deal with for domes! Anyway here are the key elements you need for successful remote observatory control assuming you are already able to operate your equipment unattended:
- Decent internet so you can reliably access your observatory computer. I use Team Viewer application for remote access which is pretty good and has a lot of features. It is also free.
- Video cameras so you can see what is happening
- Reliable software to control opening and closing your roof
- Internet based “switches” to turn on and off equipment.
- Weather monitoring. I have an observatory cloud monitor that also records wind speed, humidity etc
- All sky camera- this is not a must but extremely useful. I am very lucky to have several neighbors up here with reliable already installed cameras that I can link to!
- Ability to cycle power on your observatory PC. If the computer locks up you have to be able to turn it off and then back on again. This is possible for contemporary PC’s by going into the BIOS on your computer and setting that option, to restart after power is shut off
- Back up battery power for all equipment. I use UPS devices. They can email you when power goes out. They will work for a couple of hours so you can at least shut everything down with power out
- Ability to reboot your modem. When the internet drops you’re screwed unless you have a way of restoring it. Some internet switches have an “autoping” feature that will enable rebooting the modem if it does not get a response to pings sent to the router IP address
That’s really it in a nutshell! If you are able to operate your equipment unattended, this is all you need to get to the next level. Happy remoting! Thanks for reading!
And now after the session completes, the telescope parks: https://youtu.be/po1nB5qmS5k
And the roof closes: https://youtu.be/mONzt5HO9xY
Here is a sample of what we did. This is a single 15 minute raw frame in hydrogen alpha,
using a 3nm HA filter, of the Trifid nebula taken with the 16″ RiDK telescope. The project calls for a total of about 20 hours of HA, SII, OII and blue channels!