The Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) on Cerro Paranal (2635 m) in Northern Chile reached a major milestone in September 2003 when the mid infrared instrument MIDI was offered for scientific observations to the community. This was only nine months after MIDI had recorded first fringes. In the meantime, the near infrared instrument AMBER saw first fringes in March 2004, and it is planned to offer AMBER in September 2004.
The large number of subsystems that have been installed in the last two years - amongst them adaptive optics for the 8-m Unit Telescopes (UT), the first 1.8-m Auxiliary Telescope (AT), the fringe tracker FINITO and three more Delay Lines for a total of six, only to name the major ones - will be described in this article. We will also discuss the next steps of the VLTI mainly concerned with the dual feed system PRIMA and we will give an outlook to possible future extensions.
Now that the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) is producing regular scientific observations, the field of optical interferometry has moved from being a specialist niche area into mainstream astronomy. Making such instruments available to the general community involves difficult challenges in modelling, presentation and automation. The planning of each interferometric observation requires calibrator source selection, visibility prediction, signal-to-noise estimation and exposure time calculation. These planning tools require detailed physical models simulating the complete telescope system - including the observed source, atmosphere, array configuration, optics, detector and data processing. Only then can these software utilities provide accurate predictions about instrument performance, robust noise estimation and reliable metrics indicating the anticipated success of an observation. The information must be presented in a clear, intelligible manner, sufficiently abstract to hide the details of telescope technicalities, but still giving the user a degree of control over the system. The Data Flow System group has addressed the needs of the VLTI and, in doing so, has gained some new insights into the planning of observations, and the modelling and simulation of interferometer performance. This paper reports these new techniques, as well as the successes of the Data Flow System group in this area and a summary of what is now offered as standard to VLTI observers.
The European Southern Observatory (ESO) develops and maintains a large number of instrument-specific data processing pipelines. These pipelines must produce standard-format output and meet the need for data archiving and the computation and logging of quality assurance parameters. As the number, complexity and data-output-rate of instrument increases, so does the challenge to develop and maintain the associated processing software. ESO has developed the Common Pipeline Library (CPL) in order to unify the pipeline production effort and to minimise code duplication. The CPL is a self-contained ISO-C library, designed for use in a C/C++ environment. It is designed to work with FITS data, extensions and meta-data, and provides a template for standard algorithms, thus unifying the look-and-feel of pipelines. It has been written in such a way to make it extremely robust, fast and generic, in order to cope with the operation-critical online data reduction requirements of modern observatories. The CPL has now been successfully incorporated into several new and existing instrument systems. In order to achieve such success, it is essential to go beyond simply making the code publicly available, but also engage in training, support and promotion. There must be a commitment to maintenance, development, standards-compliance, optimisation, consistency and testing. This paper describes in detail the experiences of the CPL in all these areas. It covers the general principles applicable to any such software project and the specific challenges and solutions, that make the CPL unique.
Science interferometry instruments are now available at the Very Large Telescope for observations in service mode; the MID-Infrared interferometry instrument, MIDI, started commissioning and has been opened to observations in 2003 and the AMBER 3-beam instrument shall follow in 2004. The Data Flow System is the VLT end-to-end software system for handling astronomical observations from the initial observation proposal phase through to the acquisition, archiving, processing, and control of the astronomical data. In this paper we present the interferometry specific components of the Data Flow System and the software tools which are used for the VLTI.
Telescopes capable of making observing decisions independent of human supervision have become a reality in the 21st century. These new telescopes are likely to replace automated systems as the telescopes of choice. A fully robotic implementation offers not only reduced operating costs, but also significant gains in scientific output over automated or remotely operated systems.
The design goals are to maximise the telescope operating time and minimise the cost of diagnosis and repair. However, the demands of a robotic telescope greatly exceed those of its remotely operated counterpart, and the design of the computing system is key to its operational performance.
This paper outlines the challenges facing the designer of these computing systems, and describes some of the principles of design which may be applied. Issues considered include automatic control and efficiency, system awareness, robustness and reliability, access, security and safety, as well as ease-of-use and maintenance. These requirements cannot be considered simply within the context of the application software. Hence, this paper takes into account operating system, hardware and environmental issues. Consideration is also given to accommodating different levels of manual control within robotic telescopes, as well as methods of accessing and overriding the system in the event of failure.