Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Hoku Ke'a Cams

One of the main projects I am going to be working on right now is helping Dr. Josh Walawender to get some cameras and other supporting equipment ready for the new UH-Hilo student telescope, Hoku Ke'a. A goal of the student telescope, which will be operated remotely from the observation room on campus, is to be able to monitor as many of the environmental, mechanical, magical, and funtastical conditions that exist inside the dome at any given time. The purpose is two-fold, namely to assist in obtaining better images and observations but also to be able to anticipate any hardware and mechanical problems that might exist with some of the myriad technologies so that we (hopefully) won't have an unexpected failure but instead can diagnosis problems before they happen.

As such, the project I am helping Josh out with will involve pointing two cameras, set up on opposite sides of the 'scope, at the telescope itself and one camera mounted inside the tube pointing in the same direction of an observation. The two side scopes will serve a number of purposes, not all of which we know right now, but with the aim of being able to remotely monitor the 'scope and mounting, the direction it is facing, and many other inside-the-dome conditions. It is these two cameras that I will first be working with.

Since the project is in its' initial phases, Josh is letting me do a lot of the prep work, including the research, setup, and deployment of a mini-ITX machine that will be used to control the cameras. Since we are operating inside the dome, temperature and power become critical factors so we are looking for something that is low-power, low-noise, low-heat.

SolidLogic Atom JT01

In the end I settled on a SolidLogic Atom JT01 Fanless system sold by Logic Supply. We were looking for something that had a number of USB ports (it has 2 in front and 3 in the back), serial ports (2 front, 1 back), low power (less than 11W), no moving parts (SSD hard drive), low temperature and relatively low-profile. 

Out of the box it seems like a good machine with the one exception of an astoundingly bright blue LED on front, which we will obviously need to do something about as it will probably skew the optics for every single telescope on the summit what with how bright it is.
The machine came pre-installed with Ubuntu 10.04 LTS but since we are a month away from 12.04 LTS, which will bump our kernel up from 2.6.x to 3.2.x, by upgrading we should (hopefully) see some more power efficiency gains.

After some snafu's with various monitors in the control room here, I am sitting back and watching the upgrade happen on a monitor that is quite literally 6 times as large as the computer itself. The 'Distribution Upgrade' dialog box is larger than the computer.

Stock Fishcamp Starfish cam
Once we are up on 12.04 I am going to do some preliminary work on getting the system set up, namely installing ssh, something akin to collectd so we can start collecting basic stats, and all the supporting libraries that our Fishcamp Starfish cam is going to use. 

Fishcamp has been kind enough to provide us with some linux drivers for their usb cam and also pointed us in the direction of some other users who had developed INDI server drivers which, upon review, we decided we are not going to use but are useful for me as I sit down to essentially write our own custom server for the three cams we will employ.

In future posts I will be detailing some of that software, how it is programmed - including my learning of C along the way - as well as some of the cooler things Josh hopes to accomplish with the cams, both for this project and potential others. Along the way I plan to have my brain stuffed full of all kinds of good geekery.

Just for fun, here is one of the first images I took with the camera. If you look closely you can just make out the crescent moon above Mauna Kea on the left. :)
One of our first images off the Starfish Cam.

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