the Search for Planet X

Reproducing a blog article originally published August 2006

P0003148No, not the title of an episode of Star Trek; this is real science. Over the past 18 months TiGra Networks has worked with Space Exploration Limited, based in County Roscommon, Ireland on an ambitious project to set up and automate two astronomical observatories (left). One of the goals of the project will be to carry out asteroid surveys and, using the power of the large custom built telescope, to discover new minor planets known as EKBOs after their location in the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt. Ultimately, the plan is to search for a theoretical tenth planet, known as Planet X which could lie at the outermost reaches of the solar system. Astronomers may be divided on whether a tenth planet really exists, but there is some evidence that something may be out there. One thing’s for certain – the only way to find out is to look for it, and the giant 36-inch Newtonian reflector at Kingsland Observatory might just be the only instrument (certainly in the British Isles) capable of finding it. A second goal is to hire out telescope time to guest astronomers so that the best use can be made of the instruments and the observing time available.

(photos: Kingsland Observatory 36" and 16" telescopes)

TiGra Networks’ role

As an enthusiastic amateur astronomer and someone who develops and sells software for the astronomy community, TiGra Network’s technical lead Tim Long was an natural choice for this project, which demanded skills across several disciplines including Information Technology, astronomy, electronics, software development and business analysis. Tim has experience with robotic observatories and has built his own internet-enabled observatory in Llantwit Fardre, South Wales, equipped with a 12” Schmidt cassegrain telescope and specialist CCD camera.

The first priority was to commission the instruments and ensure they could safely work robotically (that is, unattended). This has involved working on the mechanics of the telescope mounts to ensure they have the required pointing and tracking accuracy, adding safety interlocks to protect the equipment from damaging itself and to monitor weather conditions, designing and installing electronics to control the observatory roof along with driver software to enable it to be PC-controlled. This also involved identifying and configuring software to control the instruments, provide the web interface for remote access and perform scheduling of the telescope time.

Another part of the project was software development, which has included drivers for interfacing to the telescope and roof controller electronics, some scripts to customise the observatory automation software and various file format conversions for getting data in and out of the scheduler database. Further work in this area is anticipated as the observatory moves towards renting telescope time to external astronomers.

The third phase of the project was to set up an IT infrastructure based on Windows PCs to provide networking between the observatories and offices, storage and backup for the images obtained from the specialist CCD cameras plus internet access for the remote control of the instruments.

A final yet-to-be-completed phase will look at the business logic of hiring out telescope time to third parties and to implement software and web applications to simplify the task.

P0003163Science Objectives

Both Kingsland Observatory and Brynllefrith Observatory have recently been recognised by the International Astronomical Union and have received official designations “J62” and “J58” respectively from the IAU’s Minor Planet Center based at Harvard. These uninspiring reference numbers recognise that the observatories have proven their ability to image minor planets (asteroids) and measure their positions with sufficient accuracy to make useful contributions to solar system science. This is an important first step into making sky surveys with a view to discovering new solar system objects.

Kingsland Observatory is particularly concerned with Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt objects (EKBOs) one of which could turn out to be the fabled ‘Planet X’. A number of interesting objects have been discovered in recent years, including Sedna which at the time of discovery in 2003 was the most distant observed solar system object. Sedna is an interesting object with an unusual highly-elliptical orbit and its origins are unclear, but one explanation involves the presence of a distant planet, ‘Planet X’. There is also some evidence based on observed groupings of comets that might suggest the presence of a distant planetary object.

(Photo: Kingsland Observatory’s 96 cm telescope – the largest operational optical telescope in the British Isles)

About TiGra Networks

TiGra Networks (http://www.tigranetworks.co.uk) was formed in November 2005 and is a small but progressive family-run business based in Llantwit Fardre. Tim Long (owner and technology consultant) has 20 years experience working in software development and IT with companies such as Nortel Networks and Cisco Systems. We are passionate about the benefits of Information Technology for the smaller business and helping people get the most from their IT investment. Our speciality is setting up and maintaining networks based on Windows Small Business Server, but we also undertake software development projects and Tim develops astronomy software under the brand Software-y-Ddraig (http://syd.tigranetworks.co.uk). We are one of a small handful of qualified Microsoft Small Business Specialists in South Wales and in November we led the formation of South Wales Small Business Specialist Group.

Further Information

Space Exploration Limited / Kingsland Observatory:Eamonn Ansbro, Director. +353 (94) 98 70974 eansbro@eircom.net

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