Update on the ISSAT: An Email Interview with Terry Mann,
Vice President of the Astronomical League and ISSAT Project Manager
As many of you know, the Battle Point Astronomical Association can be credited with giving birth to the International Space Station Amateur Telescope (ISSAT) program. In 1999, Mac Gardiner, one of BPAA’s founders and now President Emeritus of BPAA, proposed the idea that a telescope should be placed on the International Space Station for exclusive use by amateur astronomers. His vision became what is now known as the ISSAT program, currently administered by the Astronomical League. The first goal for the program has been the establishment of a series of robotic telescopes that can be made available for use and operated by League members. The first of these telescopes systems, located at Arizona Sky Village, is currently being tested and soon will give members a remote viewing experience never thought possible just a few years ago.
BPAA and the Bainbridge Island community have supported the ISSAT program in the past with donations and other contributions. The remote viewing opportunities possible under the program should be of special interest to observers in the Pacific Northwest, where the weather essentially prevents viewing for several months during late fall and early winter. I thought, therefore, that it would be of value to get a progress report from the program’s Project Manager, Terry Mann. What follows is an email interview (edited and reprinted here with her permission) that tells a story of hard work by a dedicated group of volunteers from around the country who believe in Mac Gardiner’s vision of a telescope in space for amateurs.Arizona Sky Village, home of the ISSAT’s first robotic telescope.
Harry Colvin: What is the current organizational structure of the ISSAT and ISSAT committees? Are the committees active and what has been accomplished this past year? Does the program have sufficient volunteers with the essential skills? If not, what steps are planned to recruit volunteers with those essential skills? Is there a fund-raising plan in place?
Terry Mann: The committees that are listed on the website are still standing. Don Parker acts as an advisor when we have questions. A.G. Kasselberg and I have been working pretty steadily in the last couple of months with the telescope. Not all committees have been active. Communications, operations, system analysts, solar station and web masters have been most active. We have had a lot of accomplishment behind the scenes on the website. Much of our software was created by some talented people in Nashville, our system analysts team. This has been a long and painstaking job. The goal was to automate most of our correspondence. They have achieved that. But when you change software, they have to go back and develop the software a little more. We are in that test stage now. We have upgraded most of our software. I think the best accomplishment is the fact we were able to move to a new home, change the hardware on the telescope, develop new software, get used to running a telescope in a different environment. We had to learn how to operate the dome and add our own web cams to check everything as we went. We had some issues with our server we had to straighten out and we did this with a totally volunteer team.
We will soon have three operators. As I said before, sometimes the project doesn’t move as fast as you would like but everyone working on this project is very dedicated. We will probably be looking for a few new operators in the next few months and we would like to add an advisory committee. People that are specialists in the problem areas. Richard [Berry] is “the best” at image processing and imaging. We have some current images that we will be working on after the holidays. We will probably recruit from the Web site or face-to-face. Many of us travel to star parties. As a matter of fact, your name has come up for our advisory committee :-) Are you interested? We can talk after the first of the year :-) We have spoken about fund-raising, we have had people say they would help and found they didn’t have the time. Bob Gent and I were at NASA Headquarters last year and we plan another meeting for 2005. We will continue to work at fund-raising. In my opinion this is one of the weakest points of the League. We have not had anyone step up who is comfortable writing proposals.
We will keep at it!
Harry Colvin: Is the robotic telescope system now in place functioning as expected? If it is not, what are the major problems that need to be solved? How many images have been taken with the system this year? How many nights has the equipment been operational? Are the communication systems; i.e., computers, data links etc. functioning as expected? If not, what are the major problems that need to be solved? What software remains to be developed or purchased?
Terry Mann: The system is functioning as expected. It took a while to get it there. We had a learning curve on the software. I’m sure we will always have some small bugs, I haven’t seen a system that doesn’t. I don’t see any major problems right now. As I said, we are looking at a wireless connection. Anything we do changes operations a bit and we will always be upgrading. This is the nature of the beast. We just need to try to keep the changes to a low roar so we can keep up on the learning curve. I can’t tell you how many images have been taken. I would have to go back to the hard drive and count. We have spent a lot of time testing our software system. We don’t run when we have interference from the moon and we have had the normal bad weather. When our software was being developed we ran just enough to test the software. As I said, this was a long process, with volunteers. The equipment has been operational since our own developed software was done. With learning the software, weather and our own software development we have run around 50%. Currently, all of the computers and telescopes are able to talk to each other. We see some needs to upgrade our hardware in Arizona. It is outdated but still working. We will be looking at our computer to see what we need to add to give us the fastest and most reliable connection. We don’t need to purchase any software at the moment. We will continue to tweak our own software. Currently, I don’t see any major problems.The ISSAT Alpha Telescope on a 1200GTO Astro-Physics mount at Arizona Sky Village.
Harry Colvin: Telescope Dome: Is the arrangement with ASV working as expected? If not, what are the major problems that need to be addressed? Are communications to the facility adequate? When problems with the dome or equipment occur, is there someone on site at ASV to fix problems?
Terry Mann: ASV has been great! We couldn’t ask for better people or a better place. As I mentioned above, we will be looking at speeding up communications, our computer is so out-dated! Yes, Gene Turner has been there to help with any issues we have had with the dome or to reboot our computer, if needed. Jack [Newton], Gene [Turner], Bill [Williams], and Alice [Newton] helped us set up. Their support has really helped us along.
Harry Colvin: Publicity: Although the Web site is very attractive, is the site being updated frequently? Is there one person in charge of publicity and is there a PR plan?
Terry Mann: It is pretty obvious our Web site needs work. We have discussed it and will see what we need to do to get the job done. We don’t have a publicity person. Originally we were going to use the same PR person as the League’s. We really need help with fundraising and PR. The League needs this help in all areas. If you know of anyone that would be interested in helping with PR or fund-raising PLEASE let me know.
Harry Colvin: What are the goals and timelines for 2005? Considering the delays in the funding and construction of the ISS, has consideration been given to a major redirection of the ISSAT program? What is the budget for 2005?
Terry Mann: Our budget is at $8,000.00. That does include donations from the BPAA and from the Rockford club. The League funded a little over $5,000.00. I’m not sure if any one knows at this point what the status of the ISS is or will be in the future.
From the beginning we have all agreed with Richard Berry’s philosophy that having the telescope on the ISS would be the crown jewel. I remember when Mac [Gardiner] first came to talk to us. All of us were and still are very excited about this project. Even if the ISS doesn’t work out, I believe there is a need for this telescope. Who knows what ideas and options could come to light? We keep searching for all possibilities. We continue to concentrate on the groundwork. This is one of the many reasons we keep going back to NASA. The League is working on finding a balance where we can help each other. Outreach is what they need and outreach is what we do. The ISS-AT is an extension of that and so are our many clubs and talented members. If there is one thing many of us know, it is taking astronomy to the public. The excitement is there and the questions are there. The need for our telescope is also there. Our goal is to run the telescope to its optimum performance for the members and then I would like to see the scope involved in science carried out by amateurs. The League can always use volunteers in many areas, including the ISS-AT. If you know of anyone interested please let me know. We will gladly welcome any help!
I would like to thank the BPAA again for their support. Your generosity is greatly appreciated. For more information visit the ISSAT Web site at www.ISSAT.org. Although the Web site is well done, it seems that ISSAT needs someone to help keep it current. PR and fund-raising also need attention.