Brecon Beacons Allsky Project

Version 1 - SBIG

Back in 2012 I was sent an AllSky camera by LCOGT (the observatory I work for). I was incredibly excited at the prospect of being able to see stars above my house or even above Cardiff University. Cardiff has the worst light pollution in Wales. It is pretty shocking that for a nation which can boast 90% dark skies, in the capitol stargazing is virtually impossible.

I hired a summer intern (through the Cardiff University Research Opportunities scheme) to write controller software for the camera (SBIG 340 - which only comes with Windows software) so we could control it with a Raspberry Pi (find his code for SBIG 340 cameras on GitHub). In the summer of 2013 we installed it next to the Cardiff University observatory, in the centre of Cardiff.

Cardiff city centre at 4am with horrific light pollution

The image above is the result. The light pollution on this cloudless night is so bad you cannot identify any stars. Increasing the exposure time just makes the whole sky brighter. You can just about see the Moon at the bottom, left of centre. It looks like street light!

Brecon Beacons Dark Sky Reserve

This was clearly unworkable so I approached the friendly people at Brecon Beacons National Park to install the camera there. In 2012 Brecon Beacons became a Dark Sky reserve meaning the dark skies over this national park are protected. At the time they were building an observatory and this camera would be the perfect accompaniment.

That was the plan… It didn’t quite work out because the SBIG 340 Allsky camera was terribly unreliable. It went back to the manufacturer (in California) because it broke. It eventually came back, it worked for a year, until the day I was installing it in Brecon. Then it broke again.

Version 2 - Oculus

I thought this project was dead and all the free coffee and cake the nice people at Brecon Beacons Mountain Centre had given me would have been in vane. Forutnately, Cardiff University Public Engagement team really liked the idea and gave me a small grant to buy a new camera. This time I was not going to buy the SBIG (which incidentally, costs ~$4000) but there were very few options. Eventually I found the Oculus from Starlight Xpress. Sadly I couldn’t use my intern’s code to control it on a Raspberry Pi.

INDI (Instrument Neutral Distributed Interface) project came to the rescue! I found a way to talk to the camera using INDI, through Python. I also wrote some code to take pictures during the night only, and make nicely scaled images. Its on GitHub, so please fork me! And finally on 20 October 2015, the installed camera finally got its first image of stars.

All Sky view over Wales

First light image from Brecon Beacons All Sky Camera on 20 Oct 2015 at 0610 UTC. Orion is clearly visible on the right of the image, and the Plough on the left.

It is currently up and running in a field outside Brecon, connected to a Raspberry Pi, which takes the pictures and puts them on my website.

You can find the latest images from the camera on my Brecon Beacons All Sky page. I can’t wait to see more images from it looking out over the dark skies of South Wales (between the clouds).

Big thanks to all the friendly and helpful staff at the Brecon Beacons National Park for being supportive of this project, Cardiff University Engagement team for seed funding for the replacement camera, and my Dad who helped me install the camera in Brecon.