Information on the Home Remote Observing Software

Table of Contents

Shane Remote Observing Policy
Nickel Remote Observing Policy

Mt. Hamilton Homepage


Some telescope operations at Lick have resumed with software based on the home observing scheme developed for Keck and experimental network gear. Observers with suitable hardware and network bandwidth have been using Lick telescopes from home.

Please refer to the Shane Remote Observing Policy and the Nickel Remote Observing Policy for more information on who may observe remotely and how to gain authorization to do so.
Local checkouts are not currently available. Any observer requiring a checkout should contact the Support Astronomers to discuss the possibility of a remote checkout.

Requesting Access for Observing from Home

Access to remote observing requires an OpenVPN configuration file. Each file is only valid during a limited timespan (typically becoming valid after 12pm PST (1pm PDT) on the day for which they are assigned and become invalid at 12pm PST (1pm PDT) on the day following the final night of the observing run). OpenVPN files are generated for single nights, for consecutive spans of nights, and for afternoon sessions of testing.
Please ensure you disconnect from the VPN at the end of your run. While the OpenVPN files are only valid for the duration specified, leaving the VPN connected will result in it continually trying to re-connect and may affect the routing of packets from your machine.
Hardware limitations dictate that only a limited number of OpenVPN connections can be simultaneously served reliably (the default is 3 x Shane and 1 x Nickel OpenVPN connections). Each OpenVPN config file can only be used uniquely by a single machine/observer. Observing groups should not attempt to share or re-allocate OpenVPN certificates. If Nickel observing groups require more-than-one OpenVPN certificate, this must be specified in the request for OpenVPN certificates. Whether more-than-one Nickel OpenVPN configuration file can be provided will depend on the number and distribution of Shane OpenVPN files in use.

OpenVPN configuration files and more information about home observing at Lick are available by sending a message to:
Lick Home Observing <>
In the text of the request please be sure that we have enough information to identify:

  1. The Principal Investigator (PI) of the program.
  2. The observing program (e.g. 20XXA_SXXX).
  3. The telescope.
  4. The span of consecutively scheduled calendar nights of the observing run (or the calendar afternoon that has been scheduled with the SAs for a test connection).
  5. The number of OpenVPN configuaration files required (default 3 x Shane and 1 x Nickel).

Please do not request OpenVPN configuration files until a few (e.g. 3) days before they are required. Anyone requesting an OpenVPN configuration file is expected to be listed as a Principal Investigator (PI) of Co-Ivestigator (Co-I) in the cover sheet associated with the program proposal.

In reply, a staff member will provide the appropriate OpenVPN configuration file(s) as attachments and may elect to highlight some advisory points.

Preparing for Observing from Home

The software for connecting to the Shane and Nickel telescopes from home is available from github
That page includes instructions for installing, testing and running the software. See below for information on hardware/network requirements.

We recommend installing the software and arranging an afternoon test session with the SAs well in advance of the first night. This can allow time for upgrades of home networking and/or reconfiguring home hardware (most TVs can act as an extra monitor) that will improve the observing experience.

Home Observing System Requirements

The quality of the home observing experience depends on the hardware and networking available.

We strongly recommend that first time users obtain and install the software as soon as possible and arrange with the Lick SAs for an afternoon test session. Several home observers have contracted with ISPs for increased bandwidth, gone to Best Buy to get bigger monitors, and/or re-purposed components of their home entertainment systems.

For reference, see this web page about the systems that we deployed at UCSC in 2017 along with discussions of their components.

Home Observing Software Requirements

The home observing software for Lick uses Anaconda/Python3 and is based on the new remote observing software for Keck.

The software is well tested and supported on recent versions of Linux and macOS. Some observing teams have succeeded using Windows10, but only those teams know the details of how they installed and configured.

Pre-requisites include:

Full details are at the github page

Home Observing Processor Requirements:

While not an exhaustive list, the Home Observing software has been succesfully tested on:

In short, almost any system from 2016 or later has enough CPU.

Home Observing Screen Real Estate Requirements:

The most critical hardware requirement for good ergonomics running Lick VNCs is screen real estate. Remote observing at Lick involves 6 separate VNC windows, on which the various controls are arranged (just like in the campus remote rooms). Depending on your screen size/layout arranging these VNC windows to allow for efficient observing can be a challenge.

The old remote observing stations at UCSC have 8 megapixels. They have 4 monitors with 2 megapixels each. They do not do Zoom, so all video is on a separate machine.

The new remote observing stations at UCSC have 16 megapixels. They have 2 4k monitors with 8 megapixels each. They do Zoom, and video is on one of the monitors.

Home observers with a 4k monitor (8 megapixels) can see all of the relevant controls and a Zoom session. They have been pleased with the ergonomics of observing from home and are happy to continue that way.

Home observers with 6 megapixels have found that they have enough screen real estate to see most of the relevant windows simultaneously.

Home observers with 4 megapixels or less have found that they need to put each VNC window on a separate desktop and switch between them.

If there is a single monitor with less than 4k horizontal resolution it is very difficult to manage the VNC windows and Zoom. For monitors with less than 4k horizontal we strongly recommend having two monitors for using Shane Kast.

A well-provisioned machine with multi-core processor from 2012 is capable of driving two monitors. An Intel NUC5i5 (2015) running Linux is capable of driving a 4k monitor. Most machines with Intel Core i5 and Core i7 processors of 6th generation (2016) and later should be able to drive more than one 4k monitor.

Home Network Bandwidth Requirements:

The bandwidth required for the home observing software depends on which telescope/instrument you are using.

The downlink bandwidth consumed by the Nickel VNC displays is typically 2 Mbps to 3 Mbps, with occasional peaks of 5 Mbps.

The downlink bandwidth consumed by the Shane VNC displays for Kast is typically less than 1 Mbps.

A home with ADSL network that has a downlink bandwidth of 10 Mbps and uplink bandwidth of 1 Mbps is able to run the Nickel VNC sessions and a Zoom connection.

A home with ADSL network that has a downlink bandwidth of 6 Mbps and uplink bandwidth of 1 Mbps is able to run the Shane VNC sessions and a Zoom connection.

(The reason that Nickel requires more bandwidth than Shane with Kast is that the Nickel VNC displays include windows showing live video images of the telescope. We have not yet measured the bandwidth that Shane will need when ShaneAO is in use.)

The observer will also need sufficient bandwidth for Zoom communications with the SAs/TTs. In many cases it is helpful to configure Zoom not to attempt HD video.

When the bandwidth to home is not adequate observers have seen that the VNC software degrades the resolution of the display. (This happens because VNC uses a tiled image compression scheme where the larger tiles are sent first and the smaller tiles are filled in, or not, later.)

Most of us are already quite familiar with how Zoom behavior degrades when the bandwidth is insufficient.


To the chagrin of astronomers, scheduled network maintenance is commonly performed at night in order to affect the fewest number of customers.

The network pathways to UCSC campus, and the pathways between UCSC and Mt. Hamilton are redundant. No single maintenance operation nor equipment failure can interrupt those connections.

Network pathways from a home to UCSC depend on hardware and peering arrangements of that particular ISP. For important observing programs it may be prudent for several different team members to connect from home and collaborate, or at least stand by, during the night.

Power Saving during Home Observing

Laptops are almost always configured to save power by going to sleep. Desktop systems are often configured to save power by going to sleep. Going to sleep often interrupts the VNC sessions and requires a reconnect.

For both laptops and desktops the system should be configured not to sleep, not to conserve power, and not to lock the screen during the observing session.

Capability of the Experimental Lick VPN

We are using a VPN to secure the connections from home observer machines to the observatory machines. This VPN relies on spare hardware which happened already to be in position when the pandemic restrictions began. This home observing scheme remains experimental.

We have confirmed that the experimental hardware is capable of handling 4 simultaneous connections:
three connections to Shane Kast and one connection to Nickel.

Trios of Shane observers have already collaborated and shared the work load during a night. An experienced Shane observer could support new Shane observers under this scheme. ISPs often perform maintenance during the night, and one observer can continue if another becomes disconnected.

If remote observing from home proves desirable for the long term then we can deploy a better-provisioned VPN. That would be able to handle as many simultaneous collaborators as can be imagined. The limiting factor will be confusion resulting from too many connections contending for input focus on the control windows.

Security of the Experimental Lick VPN

The experimental VPN only allows connections from machines which have cryptographic authentication via an SSL certificate. Each SSL certificate can only be used from one machine, and it is usually valid for only 1 day. In case of misuse the certificates can be revoked so that the VPN will no longer allow the connection.

Contact a support astronomer if you need more information that is not included in this manual.

Support Astronomers,
Last modified: Wed Aug 10 12:46:37 PDT 2021