LSO Technology Updated To 2010 Technology

During its first 18 years of operation, Lone Star Observatory was very successfully operated and controlled by custom software written by Jack Hudler, one of the original founding members of the organization. During the period in which the scope was designed and built there were virtually no fully computerized telescopes, either professionally or amateur built. Thus his accomplishments and upgrades with the original control system were quite extraordinary.

However, in the fall of 2008, either a rat or squirrel brought the enjoyment of that system to a very rude and sudden crash. Not a physical crash, but when the unidentified varmint managed to get inside one of the fork arms and chew through power cables, the resulting short completely fried the motherboard.

When we rushed to the computer supply stores, including Internet searches, to purchase a new motherboard, a slow realization began to confront us. Being totally late 1980s technology, virtually everything involved in operating and control of the LSO telescope was all based on analog technology. But by late 2008, the entire world had advanced to digital. Thus the entire control system was effectively an antique and should be updated to contemporary technology.

During several membership meetings we explored all our options and finally decided to proceed with such a full system upgrade. We are extremely fortunate in having two members with extraordinary talents and thus appointed Mike Klinke as project manager for all telescope control system upgrades and Gary Mueller, the original designer and builder of the telescope, to be his associate responsible for any mechanical and/or electrical upgrades required to implement the upgrade.

While the demise of the computer control system was a major temporary blow to the LSO observatory, during the 18 years of its operation under the original system, advances and growth of computer controlled amateur telescopes had exploded with products and services. Thus we were blessed in having available a host of alternative products, and equally importantly, massive amounts of information available through the Internet.

After several months of evaluating, Mike and Gary recommended and received approval to move forward by totally replacing the original customized software and to purchase and install the Software Bisque Professional Telescope Control System.

A primary advantage of this package was that it was one of the only fully integrated packages. It not only included operating software but also came with new dual axis motion control system, brushless DC servomotors, AutoHoming sensors for rapid unattended startup, USB or serial interface, and the Bisque Observatory Software Suite (TheSky6 Professional Edition, CCDSoft, TPoint and ProTrack, Orchestrate, Internet Astronomy Client and Server Software). Importantly, the Bisque TCS came with complete documentation and a step-by-step guide for easy retrofit installation to interface with our 24-inch RA and Declination worm gears and a single point contact regarding any problems throughout the entire operating control system.

As Mike and Gary moved forward with integration of the new control system, other benefits of the latest technology proved to be a major plus.

First, they realized that to permenantly eliminate any future potential varmit problems the entire system could be converted to use wireless technology for communications and thus eliminate virtually all delectable wires for chewing. Thus a full wireless communications system was installed that enables communication throughout the observtory and also communicates with a computer system in the Club House such that members can not only monitor telescope activities from the Club House but control it from there as well.

The members elected to install a GPS Time Server in the Club House. This provides the operating control system with sub-millisecond time accuracy for the most accurate time calculations. Knowing that the time is accurate to between 3 and 6 milliseconds always brings a smile to our faces

Next, the Software Bisque system could be controlled from a notebook sized computer and communicate directly with the telescope using Bluetooth wireless protocol. Testing has demonstrated that the notebook computer can even communicate with the telescope from inside the Club House. When imaging with the scope on bitterly cold nights, being able to operate the scope from inside the Club House while sipping hot chocolate inside the 72 degree environment is a wonderful capability.

Another new feature added to the system is the Robofocus Motorized Focuser. This note only provides focus control during visual operation but can be used in conjunction with CCDSoft software to have the focuser automatically test and achieve ultra precise focus using image size as recorded by the CCD chip. On imaging nights of highly variable seeing conditions this, is an exceptional benefit.

As the scope was going to be down for an extended time, we elected to have the mirrors re-coated. This was done by Optical Mechanics Inc., and while the mirrors were there, this firm tested and confirmed the original specs for the mirror. Using their optical ray software, they recommeded an adjustment in the existing primary baffle length. As a result, once the mirrors were re-installed and precise testing could begin, we shortened the baffle and replaced it with an extension that allowed us to more accurately set the baffle length.

Some years back, with the former operting system, Gary Mueller had designed and created a wireless hand paddle to operate the scope. Fabulous device. About 3 inches by 5 inches. Not only did it permit movement in RA and Dec, but it could adjust focus and command rotation of the dome. Probably the most outstanding and convenient accessory ever made for the LSO telescope. With the new system, Gary had to re-designed and construct a new hand paddle, and with all the wireless signals zinging about inside the observatory, a host of testing, adjustments and modifications were required. But as usual, Gary succeeded.

Also while the scope was down, Gary took his many dozens of original engineering drawings done by hand in the late 1980s and converted them all using CAD design software. Not only is virtually every piece of equipment now rendered and converted to color coded drawings, you can flip, rotate and inspect the hardware from any angle with compatable software.

Once Mike and Gary had the system performaning within normal parameters, by using the LSO SBIT STL-1001E, Class 2 CCD and feeding the data into current technology software packages, a host of advanced information became available to much more accurately identify and correct mechanical issues with the telescope. Very slight glitches in RA and Dec could be witnessed and measured, leading to their cause being identifieyd and mechanical improvements and adjustment made to correct these prior, unknown faults. Even the collimation of the telescope could be precisely adjusted and locked into position, improving the integrity of the images.

As a result, the LSO telescope that Mike and Gary put back into service in the spring of 2010 is a much more precise and accurate system than we had used during the previous 18 years. Its full sky slewing accuracy remains at approximately 22 arc seconds meaning that when you slew to an object, you know that it will be located almost precisely in the center of the field of view of either the eyepiece or the CCD chip.