|The 150-Foot Solar Tower Towercam
Frequently Asked Questions Page (FAQ)
Q1: Why is the camera always pointing toward the large telescope dome?
A: This is our default position. The camera's mount can turn 360 degrees, but of all the possible positions, we found this one to be the most rewarding to the greatest number of viewers (including astronomers checking weather conditions at the observatory). There are hikers who use this view to see what the conditions are like in the mountains, motorcyclists who check the the Angeles Crest Highway, skiers who want to see if Waterman Mountain has any new snow, and even airplane pilots who check to see where the cloud layer ends. And it seems that no matter what position the camera is facing, we always get email requesting some other position! So we had to decide upon a position which satisfies the most number of people, most of the time. This is the one facing northeast toward the 100-Inch Telescope dome.
Q2: Could you turn the view towards Los Angeles more often?
A: This answer is related to the above answer. We would be happy to oblige, but it's surprising how often the view of the valley below is obscured by haze, fog, clouds, or smog. When the camera is facing south on days like this, sometimes all that is seen is a disappointing gray-brown mess. However, if the observers on duty notice that the southward view is really clear, they will often point the camera in that direction. On these days the view will look like what is seen in this fantastic image.
Q3: How do you decide which direction to turn the camera?
A: It is entirely at the whim of the observers on duty. We will, however, turn the camera to show any unusual phenomena that might be occurring, like a rocket launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base. We also occasionally accommodate special requests, but keep in mind that there is no one available to turn the camera at night.
Q4: Is it possible for me to change the direction of the camera from home?
A: No. Since this is a non web-interactive camera, it can only be controlled manually by the observers on duty at the 150-foot solar tower.
Q5: Why is the image completely gray?
A: The camera was probably looking into fog during the day. (Example)
Q6: Why is the image completely black?
A: The camera is probably looking into fog at night, or there is a low overcast during a moonless night. (Example)
Q7: Why does the image look like a moonscape?
A: This is ice or water droplets on the front window of the camera enclosure - seen up close - with fog in the background. (Example)
Q8: Are those white specks I see in the sky at night stars?
A: Yes, the camera is actually sensitive enough to record many of the brighter stars. There are a some bad CCD pixels interspersed in there too, and these look like stars, but show up in the foreground. The stars will move through the frame with time, of course, and the bad camera pixels will not.
Q9: How much would it cost to set up my own "Towercam."
A: Depending on what camera/enclosure/computer you use, the whole thing can easily be done for less than $1,000 as a do-it-yourself project. The VM95 camera control software is available as a free download from Erdman Video Systems, but they also offer several turn-key systems if you want to go that route. If you're really frugal about parts, it could probably be done for only a few hundred dollars. In our own case, the whole Towercam system (not including man hours) ran us about $1,200 - $554 for the Dell computer; the SP-350 camera was donated; $120 for the Pelco heated camera enclosure; $125 for the USB extenders; $45 for 250 feet of CAT-5 cable; $45 for a Tripp Lite AC surge suppressor; $70 for two Tripp Lite RJ45 lightning suppressors; $90 for two TV antenna rotators; $24 for 4 Radio Shack RF chokes; $140 in misc. pipes, mounting hardware, ground straps, and electrical flex conduit.
Q10: What was that strange light seen on last night's image a UFO?
A: If by "UFO" you mean an alien spacecraft, the answer is: Probably not! Invariably, what Towercam viewers call "UFO's" turn out to be the streak of time-exposed aircraft lights, the overexposed image of the moon, a falling meteor, or some internal lens reflections within the camera.
Q11: Are you conspiring with the government to hide certain images that would prove the existence of an alien spacecraft hiding behind the sun?
A: No. In fact as scientists, any one of us would welcome the opportunity to actually PROVE that there is an alien spacecraft hiding behind the sun. But there almost certainly is not, so we don't waste time on the proposition.