Beckhoff Automation
Savage, MN

Once installed at Las Campanas Observatory in the Chilean Andes, the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) will introduce incredible opportunities for the astrophysics and cosmology research communities. The telescope design boasts an angular resolution 10 times greater than that of the Hubble Space Telescope by combining seven mirrors into a singular optical system with a total diameter of 25 meters. When the GMT goes online in 2029, it will represent the next evolution of the giant ground-based telescopes that became possible in the 1990s with the advent of new industrial control technologies. Telescope technology has changed significantly since those days through advanced computer architectures, modern programming languages, real-time industrial protocols, web-based standards, and specialized controllers.

GMTO engineers tested and specified a number of Beckhoff Industrial PCs for various tasks throughout the distributed architecture. (All photos: Giant Magellan Telescope – GMTO Corporation)

These advances will enable the GMT to capture images of astronomical objects sharper than currently possible by reducing distortions introduced by the terrestrial atmosphere. It will also allow scientists to peer back into the first one billion years after the Big Bang, according to former GMTO Corporation Vice President Dr. Patrick McCarthy.

With these extreme capabilities and requirements, the GMT may seem to have little in common with general production machinery and factory automation. In fact, scientists and engineers working on similar telescope projects have traditionally built their own automation solutions using custom control components; however, the team building the GMT sees this differently, explained GMTO Senior Electronics Engineer José Soto. “We want to change the historical method of treating telescopes as special and totally unlike other automated systems. Future-facing industrial control solutions have the power to solve many problems we face today in astrophysics.”

From GMTO headquarters in Pasadena, CA, it takes about 24 hours of travel to reach the summit at Las Campanas Observatory. The site is optimal for astronomy due to its elevation and documented history of favorable weather, minimal light pollution, and smooth airflow, which reduces image distortion due to inhomogeneities of heat and turbulence. As a result, the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC purchased about 60 square miles of this mountainous area in the mid-1960s and since then, multiple telescopes have been built there. Eventually, Carnegie became one of the 12 founding partner institutions of GMTO.

While the journey to the summit is long, the GMT journey from concept to completion has also required perseverance. Since the GMTO project started in the early 2000s, engineers, scientists, and administrators have been working to design the physical structures and systems of the telescope, according to GMTO Project Manager Dr. James Fanson. Crews have been working to shape mirrors at the University of Arizona’s Richard F. Caris Mirror Laboratory since 2005 and GMTO broke ground on Las Campanas peak in 2015 said Fanson, who previously led telescope and astrophysics projects at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Since 2015, we have built offices, construction infrastructure, and residence, dining, and recreation facilities to accommodate up to 200 construction workers and GMTO staff,” said Fanson.

Beckhoff AM8000 Servomotors are specified throughout the telescope design, which includes more than 3,000 axes of motion.

Specifying automation and controls components for the GMT also required careful consideration due to the real-time communication and control requirements, especially considering the system will possess more than 3,000 axes of motion. Beyond rotating the telescope’s 22-story-tall enclosure, the flexible mirrors must be moved with utmost precision to implement adaptive optics and achieve the highest possible image resolution. One example is the active optics system, which requires integration of 170 pneumatic actuators per primary mirror to support the mass of each mirror. The engineering team identified the need for automation and controls components that were powerful now but would also support future advances in technology, explained Soto. “Since these projects take a long time, we must account for obsolescence in every aspect. The most effective method of fighting obsolescence is standardizing on proven industrial technologies.” These factors led GMTO to standardize many specifications for the control system using industrial standards such as those found in solutions offered by Beckhoff Automation.

GMTO Engineer Hector Swett tests various I/O and controls components at the organization’s headquarters in Pasadena, CA.

Looking to PC-Based Automation Solutions

GMTO engineers began exploring industrial automation and control solutions offered by Beckhoff to satisfy the team’s desire to implement fieldbus technologies to a greater degree than other telescopes have previously achieved. The engineers examined multiple industrial Ethernet networks but found EtherCAT to provide a flexible topology and scalability — along with the ability to incorporate up to 65,535 EtherCAT devices in one network — that matched the system specification of the GMT. “EtherCAT will be embedded in nearly every GMT telescope system — from the primary mirrors to the atmospheric dispersion compensator, the enclosure, mount, and even the building automation in the facilities,” Soto said. According to GMTO Engineer Hector Swett, Safety over EtherCAT (FSoE) also offered impressive functionality for the telescope’s interlock and safety systems. FSoE provides GMT with safety-rated, TÜV-certified communication over standard EtherCAT networks, numerous options for distributed Twin-SAFE I/O modules, and integration with the Beckhoff engineering environment and industrial PCs (IPCs).

Certain current GMT specifications recommend multiple PC-based controllers that could be fulfilled by Beckhoff solutions. The interlock and safety system relies on many safety controllers, DIN-rail-mounted CX9020 Embedded PCs, working in conjunction with EL6910 TwinSAFE Logic I/O modules. These interface with each other through FSoE via EtherCAT Automation Profile (EAP) to implement safety functions as required by the hazard analysis, Swett said. Beckhoff CX2020 Embedded PCs with single-core 1.4 GHz Intel ® Celeron® processors are used in the GMT Hardware Development Kit, which was built for the project’s partners to develop instruments for the telescope. In addition to performance, the rugged design of these controllers remains key. “Observatories located in remote mountaintops experience harsh conditions that these IPCs can easily withstand,” Soto explaied. “Also, the embedded PCs offered great scalability and small form factors, which saves valuable space in control cabinets.”

TwinCAT 3 automation software from Beckhoff has offered a key platform to test devices and it is specified for control of the structures around the telescope. “The PC-based controller for the telescope’s enclosure will run TwinCAT directly,” Swett said. “It also provides the real-time capability to interface this massive application with the observatory control system via OPC UA.” Exemplifying system openness, TwinCAT supports programming of control logic in many languages — such as those in IEC 61131-3 — including object-oriented extensions and the computer science languages offered in Microsoft Visual Studio®. The software can automatically scan and configure third-party devices over ADS and EtherCAT, providing an optimal platform for tasks from sensing to motion control.

While working to implement off-the-shelf, industrial components into the telescope design, GMTO engineers tested many Beckhoff components including CX2020 Basic CPU Modules, AS1020 Stepper Motors, and EtherCAT I/O modules.

Because the telescope will have thousands of axes of motion, dependable motors and drives will be crucial in the final configuration. Soto finds the capabilities of Beckhoff AM8000 servomotors impressive and sees them as a serious contender for multiple areas throughout the telescope. “When our integrator teams begin to commission the telescope, they will very likely use AM8000 servomotors, for example, in the atmospheric dispersion compensator or the GIR (Gregorian Instrument Rotator) that will move all instruments attached to the Cassegrain focus,” Soto said.

Technologies and Creativity Redefine our Universe

After decades in the making, the end goal is coming into focus for GMTO and the reliable automation and controls components specified for the telescope add clarity. EtherCAT first led the GMTO engineers to Beckhoff and it remains foundational to the telescope’s control architecture design, Soto explained. “Using EtherCAT as the GMT fieldbus enables realtime communication down to the I/O level. We have achieved cycle times of 2 kHz, which allows enough bandwidth to close the loop on a range of subsystems, expanding our control and networking abilities significantly.” Compact EtherCAT I/O modules and Embedded PCs save space in control cabinets and because the PC-based controllers can be located at a distance from the I/Os, this reduces heat dissipation. “Reducing heat is a very big deal for the GMT,” Swett added. “Heat makes the air more turbulent inside the enclosure and turbulence distorts images as the light travels through the air. This distributed I/O architecture helps us prevent that.”

Assistance and advice from Beckhoff — combined with rigorous testing and dedication to finding the right solutions — has made the implementation of industrial automation and controls components a reality. Apart from its size and complexity, Soto said, the GMT has one major difference between other machinery that uses similar off-the-shelf components: “This is a one-time project. It is not one of many machines coming down a production line. So the main challenges are to perfect the design and select the right products for the telescope the first time.”

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This article first appeared in the November, 2020 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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