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Suggestions for a very low-cost remote observatory?

lmk's picture
lmk
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Joined: 2010-07-23

Greetings remote aficionados !

You may know of me as a die-hard visual observer, which still remains true. However, I have been entertaining thoughts of installing a very basic, low-cost remote observing capability on one of my dark-sky properties here in Hawaii.

I really need to emphasize "basic" - I have little hands-on experience with electronic photometry, nor do I have much time to spend on building or maintaining it either. And "low-cost" - really have little funds available for purchasing and operating this remote system, beyond what I already have available on site.

Here is what I already have available for a remote project:

A dark-sky site near 19N 156W, elevation 800 feet MSL. Nightly annual temperature range 62-75F, humidity range 50%-100%, mean annual precipitation 40 inches. No "monsoon" or other adverse seasonal factors. But clouds/showers can occur fairly frequently on short notice.

A secure site with steel shipping container. 12VDC battery/solar power, 3 Mbit/s unlimited up/down link DSL internet service.  Netbook PC running Windows XP SP3, 1.6 Ghz Cpu, 1 GB RAM, 144 GB HD. Partially working GP-DX mount (The dec axis motor/gear is damaged).

Given these parameters, what would you suggest as the easiest, least costly way for me to get a remote system up and running here? I am thinking more along the lines of a BSM/ telephoto lens than a 16" RC with Astrophysics mount ;)

Mahalo, Mike LMK

 

Mike, I have some ideas and
bjs's picture
bjs
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Mike,

I have some ideas and I'll e-mail you off the forum.  How often are you at the site?  If you are not an on-site operator,  the biggest problem I see is an automated enclosure that will open, close detect rain, etc., all autonomously.  If you were on-site to run it, I'd say it would be relatively easy to get you going.

Jim B.

Off-site control
lmk's picture
lmk
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Joined: 2010-07-23

bjs wrote:

How often are you at the site?  If you are not an on-site operator,  the biggest problem I see is an automated enclosure that will open, close detect rain, etc., all autonomously.  If you were on-site to run it, I'd say it would be relatively easy to get you going.

I will not be an on-site operator. I go there a few times a week for visual observing, but want to make use of the site remotely when I am not there. I suspected the rain issue may be the more complex one, remotely. One thought may be just a large plexiglas hemisphere for a dome, rather than some more complex movable/opening enclosure?

Mike

Well, there is an outfit
bjs's picture
bjs
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Joined: 2010-07-24

Well, there is an outfit online advertising camera domes, largest is 69"dia. x 25" high, costs $620.  Wonder if something like that would be practical?  I'd think that would be big enough for something like a BSM.  Dew protection would be a trick, and cooling during the day.  And one stray bird poop in the wrong place would be disastrous.  Still an interesting idea, but I don't know how much it saves you. 

remote observatory
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HNL
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Joined: 2010-08-02

Hi:  Our organization has a remote telescope. There are people in attendance pretty much all the time.  The problem so far as:  Computer programs that don't function properly. A dome that stuck in place and a slit that was in the wrong place. As, in the telescope was looking at the wall. I think that they got it going OK.  But, just thought that I would mention these items. Without someone to moniter that scope visually, It could be a problem especially in a rain storm.  I am not versed in this subject but I can say what the problems were anyhow.   Best  HNL 

Mike I don't want to be
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jji
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Mike

I don't want to be negative but this isn't an undertaking for the faint of heart.  You need to do some up front planning....lots of it.

Do you want to be automated (you sleep while the system observes) or do you want to sit at a computer and operate from a remote location?  Automation is more exensive in both time and money.

What do you want to do with this observatory?  Do you want to observe one or two stars all night long (time series) or do you want to do a list of 30 stars a night.  It makes a difference.

You can start with your choice of equipment which you have partially done.  A GP-DX mount, an unspecified camera and lens and a netbook. 

Then look to the remote location.   You can probably build an enclosure that you can open and close remotely.  Can a enclosure sit on the ground or do you need to elevate it to see over obstructions.  Dome control and shutter control add a whole new level of complexity to the problem.  You will need an internet addressable power strip on site to turn your equipment on and off.  You will also probably want a web cam on site so you can see what's going on. You need to sutomatically shut down and shut the enclosure in you loose connectivity.  Do you have to worry about lightning?  How are you going to shut enclosure in the case of rain?  Cloud detectors can be surprisingly expensive.  And a lot more questions.

Are you ok with zoning, building permits, neighbors, neighborhood associations and other irritants at this site?

Finally you need to consider how you are going to control all this.......software.  You need to control the enclosure, mount, cloud detector and camera and they all have to play nicely together.  If you want true automation, you are looking at something like MaxIm and ACP.  If you want remote operation without automation, there are some lesser cost alternatives. 

This is a very, very brief discussion of the issure.

I hope you do under take this.  It can be a fascinating journey.  But you are going to invest more time and money in the effort than you expect.  If I can be any help, please feel free to contact me off list.

 

Jim Jones

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clear domes
lmk's picture
lmk
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Following up on BJS's post, I think I found the manufacturer of clear domes he mentioned - http://www.cleardome.com/cameradomes.htm A 36" diameter acrylic hemisphere at 3/16" thickness costs under $150. Searching their website I found a spec sheet on the Acrylite FF material it is made of. It has a flat 92% transmission from 400nm to 1100nm, with very sharp cutoff in the UV, and absorption bands beyond 1100nm in the NIR. So, it looks like it would work perfectly well for BVR photometry at least.

The other issue I could not determine about, is its optical quality or smoothness. Obviously it should work for 1x or low magnification surveillance imaging as its designed for, but will it hold up under higher magnification levels such as a BSM with telephoto lens? 

Regarding keeping it clean, that needs to be addressed as well. I will be onsite at least weekly to take care of it. But to me, it seems not having to deal with the complexities of dome control and maintenance and failures is a very strong point in support of a simple clear dome!

Responding to a few of Jim's comments below:

jji wrote:

Do you want to be automated (you sleep while the system observes) or do you want to sit at a computer and operate from a remote location?  Automation is more exensive in both time and money.

I will be operating it "manually" remotely.

Quote:

What do you want to do with this observatory?  Do you want to observe one or two stars all night long (time series) or do you want to do a list of 30 stars a night.  It makes a difference.

Probably for general usage. But more likely in survey mode than time-series.

Quote:

Then look to the remote location.   You can probably build an enclosure that you can open and close remotely.  Can a enclosure sit on the ground or do you need to elevate it to see over obstructions.  Dome control and shutter control add a whole new level of complexity to the problem.  You will need an internet addressable power strip on site to turn your equipment on and off.  You will also probably want a web cam on site so you can see what's going on. You need to sutomatically shut down and shut the enclosure in you loose connectivity.  Do you have to worry about lightning?  How are you going to shut enclosure in the case of rain?  Cloud detectors can be surprisingly expensive.  And a lot more questions.

The clear dome should simplify matters a lot. Never any severe weather here.

Quote:

Are you ok with zoning, building permits, neighbors, neighborhood associations and other irritants at this site?

No problems like this at all here :)

other considerations
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incomtech
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lmk wrote:

Netbook PC running Windows XP SP3, 1.6 Ghz Cpu, 1 GB RAM, 144 GB HD. 

Hello there.

Have you considered replacing the netbook with a single-board computer, like a raspberry pi or beagleboard? IMHO it is theoretically feasible to have it drive the mount and snap photos, then save it to either a sd card or upload it to a remote directory. It would have the additional benefit of drawing less power.

I'm not saying it's the only or even the best way to go, but an option worth pondering on.

Just my 2 cents.

Best regards,

Tom

low cost remote...
GFB's picture
GFB
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Joined: 2010-07-08

 Mike,

Low cost and remote are almost a contradiction in terms, for an observatory as Jim points out.  Low cost for me has usually meant DIY which doesn't really mean 'easy' unless you like DIY projects.  

 

You will probably face the dilemma of remote and unattended.  It's one thing to connect to a system and manually launch computer programs to do automated tasks such as pointing the mount and running the camera.  But then running it unattended means the automation has to deal with the frequent, short notice storms you mention or power failures.

 

Remote means that pointing and tracking have to be well executed.  It's not clear to me if the GP-DX can be pointed from software.  It's hard to overemphasize how much grief this causes unless it's been fully worked through.  

 

One system I know of close to your parameters can be seen at:

 

http://www.mtco.com/~jgunn/

 

It maybe enough of a starting point for your consideration.

 

Bill Goff

GFB

AAVSO 49 Bay State Rd. Cambridge, MA 02138 aavso@aavso.org 617-354-0484