A telescope control system for the next generation of facilities

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

Abstract

Since 2017 we have been undertaking a collaborative project of software and hardware development towards a new telescope control system for current and new UK and Thai telescopes. In 2017 we were awarded a year of funding for the first phase of this project, which is focused around a requirements analysis and prototype of critical parts of the proposed system for benchmarking against the existing Liverpool Telescope systems. We apply here for funding to continue this project into its final phase, in which we will develop the telescope control system with the aim of full deployment on the Thai National Telescope in 2021.

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.

Our collaborative development project will deliver a control framework which can be deployed on a variety of different facilities. The end product will be a versatile, modular system which will be used on facilities owned by both partners. This will be deployed initially on the TNT, enhancing its scientific and outreach productivity. In the medium term this will replace the system in use on the Liverpool Telescope (LT), and form the basis of the control systems for the NRT project: a major international collaboration with NARIT participation. Aside from the software itself the key benefit for NARIT will be knowledge transfer from the Liverpool Telescope group, which has over a decade of telescope control system experience and expertise. This will provide the NARIT group with the capability to build new control systems for future hardware, such as the Thai radio telescope currently under construction.

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 advanced technical skills within the workforce necessary for an innovation driven society.

Thailand have launched an ambitious, 20-year strategy known as 'Thailand 4.0'. The aim of the economic model behind this strategy is to unlock the country from the economic challenges which have resulted from prior models which have emphasised agriculture (Thailand 1.0), light industry (Thailand 2.0), and advanced industry (Thailand 3.0). One of the four objectives of Thailand 4.0 is to create a value-based economy that is driven by innovation, technology and creativity. Astronomy in particular is understood as a powerful and cost-effective way to drive economic prosperity. Astronomical research programmes are inspirational for young students considering science and technology careers, and provide skills and training which are applicable in other sectors, leading to increased economic development and growth of a high-technology society.

The project proposed here is 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. ARI staff will mentor NARIT staff to ensure the new software will enhance the scientific and outreach potential of these existing facilities, and build the software expertise within Thailand required for the development of future facilities such as the proposed Thai radio telescopes (SDG 9: enhancing research, upgrading technological capabilities and encouraging domestic technology development).

This project is also building 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).

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 this project is the 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 will provide a key step towards taking operation of the telescopes out of the visitor centre and directly into the classroom. This is comparable to the model in which LT observing time is available to schools in the UK through the NSO. This increases the depth of educational offering by providing access to data in the classroom environment, which provides scope for long term STEM projects and assessment activities. The visits by ARI staff will support the sharing of best practise related to outreach.

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