Observatory Automation - Senior Design - Iowa State University


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Observatory Automation

Project Plan



October 9, 2001


ISU Physics Department


Dr. J. Basart

Team Members:

Justin Doyle

Derek Halverson

John Kurniawan

Chris PeBenito

Nate Pierce

Rob Walstrom

Tai Ward

Jason Wa


Table of Contents




Definition of Terms




Design Requirements


Product Description


Approach and Design

Financial Budget


Personnel Effort Budget


Project Schedule


Project Te
am Information






Gantt chart



Financial Budget


Personnel Effort Budget




The primary goal for this project is the automation of the Fick Observatory
in Boone, Iowa, allowing for remote operation of th
e facilities. Problems to be dealt
with include controlling the telescope, operating the CCD camera and a minimum
of three NTSC video feeds, installing a weather station, and operating the
retractable roof. As many of these as possible will be handled by

one or more
networked computers that will be accessible from Ames via the Internet. The end
result will be a fully automated system in which the user is granted complete
control either locally or remotely, of all of the observatory’s systems.


The team would like to thank Joe Eitter for his assistance in familiarizing the
team with the current operations of the telescope facility. The team would also like
to thank the ISU Physics department for providing the needed funding and
nt. Last but not least, the team appreciates the enthusiastic and
encouraging efforts of faculty advisor Dr. J. Basart.

Definition of Terms


Heating ventilation and air conditioning



Charge coupled device. The technology on which the digiti
zing camera is



National television standards committee. A popular video format


General Background

The Fick Observatory in Boone, Iowa is operated by the Iowa State
University Department of Physics & Astronomy. The

driving distance from Ames
is nearly 30 miles, which limits usability of the telescope. The automation of the
observatory will make it possible for a remote user on campus to control the
equipment via the Internet. This requires computer systems to cont
rol each of the
individual components related to the overall operation, such as positioning and
focusing the telescope, operating the retractable roof, capturing images, and
gathering current weather data. Additional computers will be accessible via the


ain computer, to allow the operation of the entire observatory from one station,
either locally or remotely.

Technical Problem

Problems include networking computers running different operating
systems, developing software to control the telescope and o
ther hardware, and
designing hardware to operate mechanical systems from the main computer. The
methods of communication for each of the devices must be examined, and re
implemented in a common platform for assimilation into the new system. The
master co
mputer will be able to control all of the subsystems directly or through a
second computer, and can be operated at the observatory or from Ames via the
Internet. The main controller computer will run Red Hat Linux and the second
computer will likely run W
indows. Some of the hardware to be developed
includes a parallel port
based switch to control the three NTSC video feeds and the
installation of actuators to interface the existing controls with the computer.

Operating Environment

Most of the updated
system shall be designed to function in the
environment in which the existing system currently operates. Additions to the
system will include components mounted externally to the structure, which must
endure temperature extremes and harsh weather conditio
ns. The weather station
used to check current weather conditions must be reliable in all sorts of conditions
in order to prevent damage to the telescope.

Intended Users and Uses

The user base will remain unchanged from the current one, as remote
tion of the observatory will require knowledge of the existing equipment.
Currently, the observatory is only accessible to qualified and authorized users.
These users will also be the only ones granted access to the system remotely.
Existing features wi
ll be enhanced by the automated interface, slightly expanding
uses and usability of the entire system.



The system will be designed to take advantage of a high
speed Internet
connection. It is assumed that a high
speed connection will e
become available. Currently, the Physics department is considering a
DSL or wireless broadband connection.

It is assumed that only a single user will be able to access the system at a
time. Safeguards will be implemented to prevent multiple us
ers from
attempting to control the system simultaneously.

It is assumed that budget exists and is limited.

The end product must be secure from attacks via the Internet.

It is assumed that the necessary system components will be powered up
and ready for
use prior to being accessed remotely.


The speed of the Internet access determines how usable the remote
access to the observatory will be. Controlling the roof and moving the
telescope remotely are examples of operations that are in critical

need of
accurate visual feedback with minimal delay to be used safely.

The end product must be secure from attacks via the Internet.

The number of cameras that may be controlled by the main computer is
dependent upon the amount of parallel and serial po
rts that are


Design Requirements

Design Objectives

Set up a central computer within the observatory
. This main computer
will control the secondary computers and provide Internet access to any
other local computer systems.

Update and consoli
date existing components controlling hardware
and software
. The current computers will be updated so that each
computer will be able to control more devices. This will reduce the
number of computers in the control center, and increase the
effectiveness o
f each computer.

Configure the network to be accessed securely via the Internet
Setting up a network in the observatory will allow the computers and
facilities to be utilized remotely, eliminating the need to travel to Boone
to use the telescope.

n the system for expandability
. The system will need to be
flexible in order to easily integrate new devices or software. This
includes the addition of more computers onto the network, operating
system and application software upgrades, and new component
s added
to the observatory.

Install a weather station to monitor weather conditions
. The weather
system will provide an instantaneous summary of weather conditions at
the observatory. This information will be used by the control system to
tell the user
whether current conditions will allow the operation of the
telescope. Critical conditions to be checked include the current
temperature, precipitation activity, and wind speed.

Set up system to monitor and adjust HVAC system to maintain a
stable internal

. This system will regulate the
environment in which the sensitive components of the observatory are
located. The HVAC system is currently manually adjusted.
Temperature sensors shall be added, and the controls automated, so that
the control

room temperature remains within acceptable levels.

Install sensors to monitor the position of the roof
. Such devices will
assist the controlling computers in opening and closing the retractable
roof and also prevent repositioning of the telescope when t
he roof is
closed or only partially open.


Functional Requirements

Gather current weather conditions
. The system should prevent the
telescope from operating in weather conditions that could be potentially
damaging. For example, the telescope should
not be moved if the roof
is not fully retracted, and the roof should not be retracted if weather
conditions are adverse.

Monitor control room temperatures
The system must monitor and
control the temperature of the control room to avoid thermal damage to

the sensitive system components. If temperature exceeds operating
limits, the HVAC system will be automatically adjusted to compensate.

Operate retractable roof controls
. The system shall roll back the roof
when the telescope is to be operated.

e CCD camera
. The system shall control the telescope
camera, digitizing images seen by the telescope and passing them to the

Control video camera feeds
. The system shall manage the video feeds
from each of the NTSC cameras, allowing a
specific digitized video
image to be displayed either locally or remotely.

Ensure stability of computers
. The system shall monitor each
computer and recover quickly in the event of a software crash.

perate the telescope by computer
. The system will ma
neuver the
telescope using a serial connection.

Operate the system remotely
. The system shall perform all of the
functions through a secure Internet connection.


Design Constraints

Inaccurate budget

As with any ongoing project, the cost for com
of the project is initially estimated. As the project progresses, the budget
will need to be reassessed and possibly revised for a more accurate cost

Lack of funding
. Due to current budget limitations of the Physics
Department some of t
he design objectives may not be achievable due to
the inability to purchase necessary equipment.


Proper scheduling is essential to the success of the project. Also,
interaction time between the team and the observatory equipment is
limited. Althou
gh this is an ongoing project, each team member is
limited to two semesters. When new team members are added, time is
required to educate the new members on the project and it’s objectives.

Lack of machining support
. Some parts of the components will ne
ed to
be machined in order to function in their specific applications. This
service was previously by the Physics Department, but is no longer
available due to budget cuts. Therefore, we need to find a different
source that will be able to provide this s

Lack of space

Limited control room space is available for setting up
additional equipment. More space might be needed as the project
continues to expand to allow the integration of newer and more
technologically advanced components.

External w
eather conditions
. Weather conditions will always be one of
the most important factors in determining the operation of the telescope.
Adverse weather conditions will limit our ability to test the system.

Interfacing difficulties with current equipment

Much of the existing
equipment needs to be upgraded or modified before it can be
incorporated into the remotely controlled system. The hydraulically
controlled roof will need to be fitted with electronic actuators before it
can be operable by any type of

computer system. We are restricted to
using this existing equipment, as replacing it would be cost prohibitive.


Measurable Milestones


An Ethernet network and controlling computer will connect
all other systems and allow them to be accessed
via the Internet. 100%
of all computers that need to use the network will be provided with
network connectivity.

Roof control

The hydraulic roof control system will be upgraded to
allow it to be controlled remotely. The system should be able to close
the roof within 1 inch of the current manual stopping point.

Telescope control
. Software will be written to control telescope from
the main computer. Although it will be necessary to rewrite most of the
existing software, 100% of current functionality s
hould be maintained in
the new system.

Weather station

A local weather station will be installed to
instantaneously summarize weather conditions, allowing a remote user
to determine whether or not the system should be operated. This is
crucial, as cert
ain system components should not be subjected to harsh
weather conditions. Therefore, the system must be reliable 100% of the
time to prevent damage to the telescope.

Video feeds
. This system will allow images from several video cameras
to be digitized
and accessed by a remote user. These real
time images
will allow the remote user to visually inspect equipment and assess
weather conditions. The system will use images of 320x240 resolution
that update at least once per second.

End Product Description

The goal of this project is to provide complete remote control over all
equipment necessary to operate the observatory telescope while not sacrificing the
usability of any on
site controls. The desirable outcome of the project will be the
ability to ac
cess and operate the telescope and its components via the Internet, thus
eliminating need to travel to the observatory site and dramatically increasing the
usability of the observatory.


Approach and Design

Technical Approaches

depth research wi
ll be done prior to delving into any single aspect of this
project. It is imperative that any added components or system alterations be
completely functional, reliable, low maintenance, and have a long life cycle.

For the Ethernet network, careful consi
deration will be taken in deciding
which components will be used and where they will be physically placed. In
addition to serving the observatory, this system also has to accommodate the radio
telescope controller. The radio
telescope team and the observ
atory automation
team will work together on this aspect of the project.

The actuators for the roof controls must be strong enough to operate the
controls. They must also be strategically mounted so that they do not interfere
with other systems. They mu
st also be easily defeated for manual operation of the
levers in case of a malfunction.

The telescope controls must be made available via the Internet without
sacrificing on
site features. Currently, the scope is controlled through both a
Windows and a
DOS environment. Functionality that is available only through the
DOS interface must be made available through the Windows interface, to prevent
loss of functionality.

A weather station will be selected based on features, price, and
compatibility. The
software must be easily configurable to be accessed via the

A video switch will be designed and constructed to allow the separate video
signals to feed into a single digitizer. The switch must be constructed for several
video feeds, as more ca
meras may be added periodically.

Technical Design

The team will need to come up with solutions and plans for implementing
several of the desired features. The main ones include hardware and software
design for the roof control, telescope control, vide
o cameras, weather station, an
Ethernet network, and gateway machine. Much additional and ongoing research
must be done before specific design aspects can be further summarized.


Testing Description

In testing the designs and implementations, the in
dividual modules will be
tested at different stages in development to assure the proper functionality of the
end equipment. This will ease further development and prevent surprises.

The network will be tested in three phases. Phase one will test the
ability of
the main controller to communicate with other controllers on the network. Phase
two will test the ability to access the main controller via the Internet. Phase three
will test the ability to access the other controllers via the Internet. In t
he end, all
systems must be available both locally and over the Internet.

The retractable roof will be tested from the main controller computer. It
must be fully operable, and must not operate past its physical constraints, causing
damage. Testing remo
te controllability of the roof through its entire range of
motion will in turn verify the functionality of each of the individual limit switches.

The telescope will be tested through its entire range of motion from the
controlling computer. Its function
s will also be fully verified. The end product will
guaranty that all telescope functions can be accessed remotely, without possible
damage to the telescope components.

The weather station must be tested for accuracy. Readings will be taken
daily and v
erified against visible conditions and forecasted conditions. The more
time spent testing this unit, the more accurate the results. Test accuracy is reliant
upon varying weather conditions. The weather stations interface to the computer
network must als
o be tested and verified.

The cameras must be tested and fine
tuned for functionality and placement.
The video switch must also be sequenced through from the main controller to
guarantee full compatibility with the system.

Risks and Risk Management

Since this is a relatively new ongoing project, not very much information or
documented is available to help expedite the project. One of the most important
resources is the access to the observatory, which depends on Joe Eitter’s
availability. Joe’s avai
lability and expertise is vital to the project, as he has done
much of his own research on the subject. Proper scheduling and good
communication with Joe will greatly increase the likelihood of a successful project.


All currently existing hardware must
continue to function reliably to ensure
the stability of the would
be implemented and/or integrated components.
Specifically, failure of the hydraulic system operating the retractable roof would
require a complete electrical redesign of that system, which

would be cost
prohibitive and severely delay any additional work on the project. Continuous
inspections and scheduled maintenance of the existing equipment should greatly
decrease the possibility of such an event.

Financial Budget

The ISU Physics Dep
artment will provide the necessary funds for parts and
machining. Due to current market conditions, any machining may need to be
delayed and/or outsourced. Equipment and parts costs will include the
purchasing of various electronic switches and sensors,
as well as minimal computer
hardware, mostly consisting of a watchdog timer, Ethernet components, and
parallel port expansion cards. Printing costs resulting from the poster design and
production should not exceed $50.00. Telephone and travel costs will
include any
long distance calls made to or from the observatory as well as the cost of fuel.
Internet access may be provided through a wireless connection. Our main
computer has been donated this semester from the Radio Telescope team. For
travel costs,

the team will log the number of trips each member's vehicle has made
and will divide the funds accordingly.

Table 1 Estimated financial budget


Original Estimated Cost



Watchdog Timer


Parallel Ports


Internet Connection


Weather Station






Miscellaneous Parts


Total Estimated Cost



Personnel Effort Budget

Each of the team members will be spending a considerable amount of time
on this project. Some anticipated time consumi
ng activities involve brainstorming,
performing research, designing solutions, implementing solutions, testing
solutions, and keeping accurate documentation for each step taken.

Table 2 Personnel effort budget


Original Estimated Effort



105 hours

Derek Halverson

115 hours

John Kurniawan

105 hours

Chris PeBenito

110 hours

Nate Pierce

100 hours

Rob Walstrom

115 hours

Tai Ward

110 hours

Jason Warschauer

110 hours

Total Estimated Effort

870 hours

Project Schedule

The sche
dule is tentative for such an ongoing project, and will be revised as
the semester progresses. As shown in the Gantt chart (Figure 1), the team intends
to break into sub
groups, headed by different members, and accomplish several
tasks this semester. Thr
oughout the semester, the various groups will keep in high
communication so the maximum amount of work can be done.


Figure 1

Gantt chart for Fall 2001


Project Team Information


Iowa State University, Physics Department.

Joe J. Eitter


Ames, IA 50011

(515) 294


Faculty advisor

Dr. John P. Basart

1028 Ash Ave.

Ames, IA

(515) 294
8487, (515)294


Team members

Justin Doyle

232 South Walnut #9

Ames, IA

(515) 460



Derek Halverson

307 Lyon

Ames, IA

(515) 572



John Kurniawan

221 Sheldon Ave. #2

Ames, IA

(515) 268



Chris Pebenito

Hawthorn 6323

Ames, IA

(515) 572



Nate Pierce

Hawthorn 1333 Bldg 13

Ames, IA

(515) 572



Rob Walstrom

2604 Aspen Rd. #8

Ames, IA

(515) 268



Tai Ward

218 Stanton Ave #5

Ames, IA

(515) 268



Jason Warschauer

105 Strawberry

Ames, IA

(515) 233





The Observatory Automation project is very important to the Physics
Department here at Iowa State University. It will provide a means of controlling
most of the functions of the telescope from
computers here on campus. Not only
will it save people time and resources by not having to drive to Boone, it will also
allow them to use the observatory equipment right from their offices so they can
collect data and images directly to their own computer
s. Our solution will simplify
and expand operation of the observatory, add remote usability, and ensure the
safety and longevity of the equipment.