Thursday, December 19, 2013

Controlling the world's largest telescope with a Nexus 7

it's 5:30 in the morning, and I'm playing with my tablet. But this isn't a Candy Crush all-nighter, or even a Minecraft marathon. This is work - I'm using the tablet to observe. Via a combination of free apps from the Google Play store, I've taken control of the biggest telescope in the world, the Arecibo 305-m.
Remote observing allows observers to connect to the telescope from anywhere in the world (if they have an internet connection). People use Linux boxes, Macs, Windows PCs and, nowadays, tablets. I'm using a +Nexus 7, its high-resolution screen making it ideal for this sort of task.
To connect to the telescope, I'm using two pieces of software - an SSH  client and a VNC viewer. The first of these isn't, strictly speaking, necessary. I use it only to log in to the Arecibo Linux network and start up a VNC server, something I could do from a different computer at an earlier time. However, computers crash and there's no absolute guarantee that a VNC session started earlier will still be running, so I like to have the SSH client to hand. I use JuiceSSH, which is simple and does everything I need it to do.
The second app, the VNC client, is absolutely essential. By connecting to a VNC session running on the Arecibo system, it transforms the tablet into a remote terminal that can do (almost) anything I could do from the control room. I use the bVNC app, which supports SSH tunnelling in its free version, allowing me to connect through the gateway machine to a computer in the control room.
Once I'm in, the operator turns over control of the telescope to me, and I'm away. I can tap a source on the graphical display and bring up its information, then hit another button to send the telescope to point at that source. I can tweak the settings for the observations, or even change to a completely different observing mode. I can call up monitoring software and watch the data flow in, or even run a quick data reduction script to see if I've found anything.

This is all great fun, right up to the point where the operator says "time's up" and I have to hand the telescope over to the next user. And to think - I can do all this from the comfort of my armchair, with a computer I can hold in the palm of my hand!

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