Today's focus: The world's biggest robotic telescope

January 7, 1610 — Galileo Galilei peers through a small, homemade telescope and spies three moons orbiting the planet Jupiter. The discovery throws a wrench into the prevailing belief that everything in the universe orbits the Earth.

May 28, 2008 — Astronomers in Yunnan Province, China, peer through a 40-ton, $4.5 million robotic telescope that has the power to view galaxies more than 5 billion light years away. Their discoveries, no doubt, will throw a wrench into prevailing theories of how the universe works.

Some things, thankfully, never change.

Situated 3,240 meters above sea level, the QNX-controlled Yunnan telescope is the largest optical telescope in China. Designed for multiple applications, it helps astronomers search for planets, analyze supernovae, study the age of the universe, and investigate a variety of other stellar phenomena — this is one system where the sky really is the limit.

Telescope Technologies Limited (TTL), a firm based in Birkenhead, England, designed and built the Yunnan telescope. The firm's design requirements were nothing if not ambitious. The telescope had to:

  • support a variety of scientific instruments — up to 7 at a time
  • simplify maintenance through a modular design and through off-the-shelf software and hardware components
  • support multiple modes of operation, including remote control over the Web and fully autonomous robotic operation
  • satisfy the needs of a variety of observatories, astronomical programs, and user communities
  • simplify operation to minimize the number of human operators
To control the telescope’s many functions, TTL built a distributed system that comprises 7 embedded PCs running the QNX Neutrino RTOS. A separate PC controls each motion axis (azimuth, altitude, rotator) of the telescope; the remaining PCs handle mirror-cell pneumatics, data logging, security, and other auxiliary functions.

Ease of use was critical to the system design, which provides a number of graphical displays for monitoring and control. Take, for example, the autoguider GUI (below), which allows the operator to manually control the autoguider camera for calibration, acquisition, and other purposes.

The autoguider GUI

For a closer look at this telescope’s many capabilities, check out check out TTL’s product specification.

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