Newton STFC-NARIT: A telescope control system for the next generation of facilities

Lead Research Organisation: Liverpool John Moores University
Department Name: Astrophysics Research Institute

Abstract

We propose a collaborative project of software and hardware development towards a new telescope control system for current and new UK and Thai telescopes. This is a large project, and following a successful application in Phase I of the STFC-NARIT collaboration we anticipate applying for continued funding for a further two years in Phase II. The priority of the first year will be a requirements analysis and prototype of critical parts of the proposed system for benchmarking against the existing Liverpool Telescope systems. This will naturally lead into a two-year programme of software development, with delivery in 2020.

Thailand has a burgeoning astronomical community and an impressive array of existing infrastructure, along with an established engineering team for the support of operations. However, since much of their equipment has been purchased from external suppliers some of the systems are poorly understood. The TNT control systems for example are based around a proprietary, closed source software, and their network of 0.7 metre telescopes have also been supplied with an entirely different, dedicated interface. This is a risk for the long term stability of these facilities, compromises productivity and limits the ability of the NARIT team to provide upgrades to the current system.

The ARI owns and operates the LT, with operational support from STFC. This facility has a bespoke and established telescope control system (TCS), which is well documented, well understood and with source code available. However, by modern standards it is out-dated, having been developed from the VMS-based system in use on the Isaac Newton Group telescope for some decades. The ARI intends to build within the next decade the Large Robotic Telescope (LRT): a new, 4-metre class robotic telescope, and so will need to develop new control software for this facility. It will obviously be desirable to build a versatile, modular system which could also be deployed on the existing LT, bringing enhanced reliability and control via modern technologies. Many astrometric libraries in modern languages such as Python have now been developed and a new Linux based TCS using such libraries would be open and maintainable, and applicable to a range of infrastructure.

There is therefore scope for a collaborative project which will deliver a control framework which can be deployed on a variety of different facilities. The end product will be a system which will be used on facilities owned by both partners. The project can be fairly easily divided into two components based on the capabilities and expertise of the two partners. There are two levels of telescope control: the low-level 'fast loop' software control which drives the servos for the individual axes and the higher-level 'slow loop' control software which deals with the astrometry, converting RAs and DECs into axis positions and velocities with timestamps. The 'fast loop' work for the Thai telescopes will be led by the NARIT engineering team, with support from local expertise such as experienced mechatronics engineers at the Thai-German Institute. The higher level 'slow loop' work will be led at the ARI, where there is existing expertise and established systems for the benchmarking and testing of new technologies.

Planned Impact

This project seeks to meet UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 through high quality technical, vocational and tertiary education as a route to economic development. Thailand is an example of a nation suffering from the `middle income trap', in which their economy has developed to the point where their competitive edge in exports of goods has been blunted by rising wages, but they cannot yet compete in high-value added sectors with more developed economies. Increased technical, vocational and tertiary education is one route towards escaping the trap, developing the technical skills within the workforce necessary for an advanced, innovation driven society.

Thailand have developed a National Science, Technology and Innovation Policy and Plan, covering 2012 to 2021, in which technology, engineering and computing are highlighted as key areas for development. Astronomy in particular is understood as a powerful and cost-effective way to drive economic advancement. Not only do astronomy research programmes have an inspirational impact for young students considering science and technology careers, but more directly it provides skills and training which are applicable in other sectors, leading increased economic development and supporting the growth of a high-technology society.

The project proposed here is the beginning of a collaborative development of new telescope control software, which will ultimately be deployed on both NARIT and STFC-funded facilities. Existing software on the Thai National Telescope and 0.7m Thai robotic telescope network are closed-source and poorly documented. New software will enhance the scientific and outreach potential of these existing facilities, and the shared development will build within Thailand the software expertise required for the development of systems for future facilities such as the proposed Thai radio telescopes (SDG 9: enhancing research, upgrading technological capabilities and encouraging domestic technology development). This project will also build links between NARIT and local industry within Thailand, with a collaboration with the Thai-German Institute in order to develop the low-level, servo control aspects of the software. There is a clear overlap between the high precision mechatronics skills needed for telescope control systems and Thailand's industries in areas such as automobile control systems and high precision machining, and strengthening the links between industry and academia within Thailand is an important goal of the project, providing scope for internal knowledge transfer as well as between the UK and Thailand (SDG 8: promoting economic productivity through technology upgrading and innovation to focus on high-value added sectors).

The importance of outreach is recognised as being of fundamental importance at the ARI, which is home to the National Schools Observatory. Similarly, NARIT places outreach at the core of its programme. A key benefit of the project proposed here is an enhancement of the schools engagement programme within Thailand. The TNT is used as an educational tool, and the primary purpose of the 0.7m network is educational outreach. Development of new control systems is a key step towards taking operation of the telescopes out of the visitor centre and directly into the classroom: comparable to the model via which usage of the LT is offered to schools in the UK through the NSO. This enables both wider access as well as increased depth to the educational offering: permanent access in the classroom provides scope for long term projects and assessment activities.

Publications

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Description While this grant has concluded the project is still active through the further two years of funding awarded (ST/R006571/1). The initial 1 year of funding described here was always intended to the a feasibility study and requirements analysis for the full project. It's therefore somewhat premature to talk about outcomes at this stage.

Nevertheless, this award achieved all the major outcomes which were intended. The feasibility study was successful, and on the software side (which we led) a paper was published comparing the options, a detailed collaborative design document was written and a road map for successful delivery was constructed. On the hardware side (the responsibility of our Thai partners) there was a successful engagement with local industry, with the Thai-German Institute diversifying into work on telescope control technologies for the first time. In 2018 a workshop was held where we presented our progress to various Thai academic and industrial representatives, with the aim of showing the benefits of Thai-UK research collaborations and building interest for future collaborations. This workshop was well attended and successful.
Exploitation Route Our findings are being taken forward by ourselves as part into grant ST/R006571/1. The final product will be a publicly available (through GitHub) and modular piece of software which could be employed on telescopes around the world. The application of this software (and the associated hardware, which is out partner's responsibility) will represent an considerable upgrade to the Thai National Telescope, and it's associated public engagement programme.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software)

 
Description Newton Fund
Amount £184,529 (GBP)
Funding ID ST/R006571/1 
Organisation Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC) 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2018 
End 03/2020
 
Description Newton Fund (Thailand Match)
Amount ฿8,100,000 (THB)
Organisation National Astronomical Research Institute Of Thailand 
Sector Public
Country Thailand
Start 03/2018 
End 03/2020
 
Description LJMU - NARIT 
Organisation National Astronomical Research Institute Of Thailand
Country Thailand 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution This project seeks to meet UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 through high quality technical, vocational and tertiary education as a route to economic development. It is a collaborative development activity between NARIT and LJMU. On our side we are employing 1 PDRA and 0.1 staff effort to deliver components of a control framework for telescope facilities owned by both partners. Aside from the software itself the key benefit for NARIT is knowledge transfer from the Liverpool Telescope group, which has over a decade of telescope control system experience and expertise. This is providing the NARIT group with the capability to build new control systems for future hardware (SDG 9: enhancing research, upgrading technological capabilities and encouraging domestic technology development). The overall goal here is Official Development Assistance through knowledge transfer, provide skills and training which are applicable in sectors beyond academia, leading increased economic development and growth of a high-technology society.
Collaborator Contribution NARIT have matched funding supplied by the Newton Fund. This match provides for staff effort as well, the purchase of hardware, and also consultancy work from the industrial partners in the project, the Thai German Institute. Strengthening the links between industry and academia within Thailand is an important goal of the project, providing scope for internal knowledge transfer as well as between the UK and Thailand (SDG 8: promoting economic productivity through technology upgrading and innovation to focus on high-value added sectors).
Impact This project was the first year of a three-year programme which will deliver the new control system. Outputs from the first year are the hardware specification for the Thai telescope, and the new hardware required. We have also produced the software specification, use cases and interfaces documentation, as well as the work package breakdown, which will feed into a design review in the first half of this year.
Start Year 2017
 
Description NARIT partnership in New Robotic Telescope ('Liverpool Telescope 2') project 
Organisation Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands
Country Spain 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution A major development activity at LJMU is the New Robotic Telescope - a new, 4 metre class robotic telescope which we aim to deliver in the next decade via an international collaboration. The software development activity at the core of this project is for us an exercise in preparation for building that new facility. Our partnership with NARIT also deepens our links with a view to eventual Thai participation in the collaboration.
Collaborator Contribution The NARIT director and a deputation of his staff attended a workshop for potential collaboration partners in Liverpool in February 2018. Following that workshop, NARIT signed an MoU with LJMU to become partners in the project.
Impact NARIT have signed an MoU to become a partner in the NRT project. The size of their contribution is not yet agreed, but is likely to be an in-kind contribution of 5-10% of the project cost (1-2M GBP).
Start Year 2018
 
Description NARIT partnership in New Robotic Telescope ('Liverpool Telescope 2') project 
Organisation National Astronomical Research Institute Of Thailand
Country Thailand 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution A major development activity at LJMU is the New Robotic Telescope - a new, 4 metre class robotic telescope which we aim to deliver in the next decade via an international collaboration. The software development activity at the core of this project is for us an exercise in preparation for building that new facility. Our partnership with NARIT also deepens our links with a view to eventual Thai participation in the collaboration.
Collaborator Contribution The NARIT director and a deputation of his staff attended a workshop for potential collaboration partners in Liverpool in February 2018. Following that workshop, NARIT signed an MoU with LJMU to become partners in the project.
Impact NARIT have signed an MoU to become a partner in the NRT project. The size of their contribution is not yet agreed, but is likely to be an in-kind contribution of 5-10% of the project cost (1-2M GBP).
Start Year 2018
 
Description NARIT-TGI 
Organisation Thai-German Institute
PI Contribution This is a relationship between our partners at NARIT and local industry in Thailand, so apart from a summit meeting involving all partners in Thailand our direct involvement with TGI has been limited. It was however the Newton award itself which made this link possible.
Collaborator Contribution One of the goals of this project is developing links between NARIT and local industry within Thailand, through a collaboration with the Thai-German Institute which is developing the low-level, servo control aspects of the software. There is a clear overlap between the high precision mechatronics skills needed for telescope control systems and Thailand's industries in areas such as automobile control systems and high precision machining. Strengthening the links between industry and academia within Thailand is an important goal of the project, providing scope for internal knowledge transfer as well as between the UK and Thailand (SDG 8: promoting economic productivity through technology upgrading and innovation to focus on high-value added sectors).
Impact NARIT commissioned design work from TGI, that led to a new hardware specification for their telescope and NARIT's purchase of the commercial hardware necessary for the development. NARIT and TGI worked closely on the design, building links between academia and industry within Thailand.
Start Year 2017
 
Title TCS software prototype 
Description Telescope control system software. This is the main output of this project. We currently have various prototype pieces of code which will be tested on the Thai National Telescope in 2018. The final software product will be deployed in 2020, at the end of the additional two years of funding which we have received. This final product will be a modular control system which could potentially be deployed on telescopes around the world, and will be made freely available. 
Type Of Technology Systems, Materials & Instrumental Engineering 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact Existing TNT control systems are based around a proprietary, closed source software, and their network of 0.7 metre telescopes have also been supplied with an entirely different, dedicated interface. This is a risk for the long term stability of these facilities, compromises productivity and limits the ability of the NARIT team to provide upgrades to the current system. The new control system under development will enhance both the science programme and the outreach potential of Thai telescopes. The TNT is used as an educational tool, and the primary purpose of the 0.7m network is educational outreach. Development of new control systems will provide a key step towards taking operation of the telescopes out of the visitor centre and directly into the classroom. 
 
Description Thailand workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact We visited Thailand 23-28 April 2018. The purpose of our visit was twofold. Firstly, we met with our academic and industrial partners to discuss the progress of our collaborative project, and establish the milestones and work packages for the year ahead.

Secondly we participated in a workshop arranged by the Thai host institute, NARIT. The purpose of this workshop was to review the activities from the first year of Newton Funded collaboration between STFC and NARIT, but also to present the opportunities available through UK collaboration with other potential partners in Thailand. We presented our work and experiences of collaboration with Thai researchers. The audience consisted of Thai academics, industrial representatives and postgraduate students. The British Embassy in Thailand was also represented.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Workshop in Thailand 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Workshop bringing together academics and engineers working on the project, external partners from industry, and academic researchers and other stakeholders
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017