Prototyping of the NRT Observing Portal

A major contributor to the success of the Liverpool Telescope (LT) has been its Robotic Operations model. Applications for telescope time are submitted at the beginning of a semester (a ‘Phase1’ proposal), and the applicants with the strongest scientific cases are then awarded a time allocation on the telescope, which is assigned to their Proposal within a graphical user interface (GUI) called the ‘Phase2’. Users then create and submit observation requests, which contain the target co-ordinates, an instrument setup along with constraints of when and under what environmental conditions the observation can be performed (i.e. ‘good atmospheric conditions with no moon’).

Currently, users of the LT make use of the Phase2 UI (user interface) tool to enter observations. This tool is downloaded to the user’s computer and enables direct communication with the Telescope Phase2 database, which the Robotic scheduler accesses to select and perform observations. However, for the New Robotic Telescope the team wish to move this functionality to a modern web-based system providing easier usage and navigation to the observers. A key requirement for the NRT is that users should be able to see observations and their associated data through the same interface, rather than using one tool to submit observations and another to retrieve the data.

Both the NRT and LT benefit from being part of the Astrophysics Research Institute (ARI) at Liverpool John Moores University. With the ARI being a world class research institute in Time Domain Astrophysics the LT team has many ‘in-house’ users who are easily accessible. The NRT team are also able to integrate with the LJMU undergraduate teaching programmes, offering final year projects in observatory related disciplines such weather prediction, instrumentation and optical lab work.

Over the summer, one of the department’s undergraduate students, Chris Rowe, undertook a project working with Dr Doug Arnold on investigations into the technologies used to create the future NRT Phase2 system. The project involved the creation of a prototype website which linked to a Phase2 database backend, and then testing of the architecture for the anticipated load (amount of website traffic) and database volume (number of observations) that the NRT would experience over its lifetime.

Screenshot of the Proposal Page of the Observation Portal Prototype hosted on a cloud service.

Developing with modern based web technologies (Django, Javascript, Ajax), Chris was able to quickly develop a prototype front end to the Phase2 database system. This was then containerised using Docker and deployed to the Heroku Cloud hosting system. To analyse the system, Chris created testing scripts to populate the database with simulated data and to load the Phase2 interface. In the largest of these tests, the database had 10,000 users and a million observations, a factor of 10 larger than would be anticipated over a 10 year operational period.

The project culminated in Chris presenting the work and findings to both the NRT Science Working Group, and a more technical software meeting involving engineers from the LT, IAC and Grantecan Telescopes.

After a successful project, Chris Rowe will be returning to finish his final year on the Undergraduate program. “Working with the department couldn’t have been more rewarding!” said Chris, “I’ve had a chance to work on a cutting-edge project with professionals doing the jobs I aspire to do myself. I was able to hone the skills I have been learning for the last few years and put them into practice with a project that I enjoyed.”

Chris Rowe and Dr Doug Arnold

“We are in such a fortunate position to be able to offer such projects and experience to keen undergraduates”, adds project supervisor Dr Arnold. “Chris has done excellent work in creating a working, deployed prototype which can be used to engage Astronomers and get feedback on the features & design. In return, he has learned technologies such as Docker and web deployment of containerised systems. These are skills that will really set him apart and widen his options as a technical scientist, whether he chooses to follow a path within scientific research or high-tech industry.”