Under the galactic telescope 2014-12-19
Helping scientists to retrieve data from a remote desert telescope
The smallest devices in data acquisition systems are often overlooked despite being vital in helping to sustain both mission-critical and commercial-grade applications. However, the networking reliability delivered by Ethernet to serial device servers is out of this world – literally. Eamonn Walsh of Brainboxes explains how the company’s products are helping scientists to retrieve data from a remote desert telescope targeting distant galaxies millions of light years away.
Robust, dependable technology that offers consistent operation is at the forefront of The Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy’s roadmap for the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX), which it runs in collaboration with the Onsala Space Observatory and the European Southern Observatory (ESO).
APEX is the first and largest submillimetre wavelength observation facility in the Southern hemisphere. Submillimetre astronomy opens up exciting possibilities in the study of the first galaxies in the Universe and the formation processes of the stars and planets. The APEX project hosts a suite of instruments for astronomers to collect data including LABOCA, the large APEX Bolometer camera which uses sensitive thermometers to detect submillimetre light.
APEX required some demanding geographical logistics to break new barriers in the study of space. The project centres on a 12m telescope consisting of 264 aluminium panels with an average surface accuracy of 17 micrometres. It is constructed at an altitude of 5100m and is located on one of the highest observation points on Earth – the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Because submillimetre radiation from space is heavily absorbed by water vapour in the earth’s atmosphere, the telescope’s location had to be exceptionally dry. The Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on the planet, thereby provides unsurpassed opportunities to observe space.
In parallel to the construction of the APEX telescope, a demanding technology programme has been put in place to provide the best possible detectors and data collection infrastructure for the facility. The Max Planck Institute for Radioastronomy itself collects data on electromagnetic radiation from a variety of astronomical sources, including galaxies and dust clouds down to a 300GHz-1THz frequency range – which is referred to as ‘far infrared radiation’ – in a bid to better understand the distant galaxies and our Earth.
Allowing computers to communicate to each other securely on the local area network or anywhere in the world via the internet is a base requirement for the APEX technology team. APEX uses four devices from Brainboxes. They include an ES-257 adapter, a two-port Ethernet to Serial server that connects, configures and controls serial devices, alongside an ES-279 8-port RS232 Ethernet to Serial device server.
“Brainboxes solutions made a far more robust impression than any cheaper competing products found on the market. The devices are reliable, well machined and can be neatly integrated into custom mechanical designs and rack modules,” explained Mirek Ciechanowicz from the Max Planck Institute of Radioastronomy. “On the functional side the modules create a highly reliable interface to the host computer. Any issues have been promptly resolved by Brainboxes support team.”
Reliability can’t be over emphasised on the APEX project. A failure in any subsystem would mean the receiver could be out of service for a day – and as a worst-case scenario for a whole month. To avoid such pitfalls and any potential loss of extremely costly observation time, components such as Brainboxes Ethernet to Serial devices have been chosen because they are trustworthy, robust and can be managed remotely giving instant access from anywhere in the world (and beyond).
“We are delighted to be involved in this cutting edge project, opening up the relatively unexplored frontier of submillimetre astronomy. Brainboxes devices provide instant networked serial ports with remote management, which here play a key role in the collection of data which is helping astronomers study some of the earliest and most distant galaxies in our universe,” commented Eamonn Walsh, Managing Director of Brainboxes.
The Ethernet to Serial devices are being used in the FLASH+ receiver, one of them connected to Lake Shore, a temperature measuring unit for monitoring temperatures inside a high vacuum vessel and the other connected to a Pfeiffer vacuum pressure measuring unit. The FLASH+ receiver is a single pixel receiver with two frequency channels of around 345GHz and 460GHz respectively.
Receiving such weak signals from outer space at very high frequencies requires as low as possible temperatures in the receiver, so that the signals do not simply disappear in the thermal noise generated. This coupled with the temperature sensitivity of the mixers (detectors) cooled down by liquid helium, used for detection work means that the monitoring and control of temperature and pressure are critical to ensuring the receiver’s functionality.
In addition, two 8-port RS232 Ethernet to serial devices from Brainboxes are being used in the CHAMP+ receiver. After a decade of service, the CHAMP+ receiver recently underwent a complete refurbishment of the control system, swapping from a Unix based PC to Microsoft Windows 7 with NI LabView software and an internal Ethernet backbone. “The devices from Brainboxes were the natural choice in this case as almost all the components in the system feature a Serial interface,” adds Mirek Ciechanowicz.
In the CHAMP+ receiver, the interfaced devices include RF Signal Synthesisers, optical moving parts, a Rotation encoder and cooling machine plus temperature and vacuum monitoring units.
For Windows, Brainboxes’ in-house designed 32 bit and 64 bit drivers provide local COM ports, retaining existing software applications and enabling users to connect remote devices to a network just as if they were attached locally. Serial Port Tunneling, which is individually configurable allows, serial cable replacement over any distance, without the need for software. Devices can be accessed via TCP/IP sockets from any networked device such as an Android tablet, PC or mobile phone.
APEX is always looking to add and upgrade its solutions. Recently ArTEMIS, a wide-field submillimetre-wavelength camera, was installed. The camera has already delivered detail images of the Cat’s Paw Nebula, located about 5,500 light-years from earth. As APEX continues to innovate technology to create more detailed maps of the sky, its technology team are all too aware that staying connected is paramount and reliability is key, right down to the smallest devices on its network.