New General Detector Controller

Between 1998 and 2008, a total of 30 FIERA and IRACE [18] systems will have been deployed at ESO's La Silla Paranal Observatory for optical and infrared detector systems respectively. Good performance and high reliability (the combined downtime of the FIERA hard- and software is of order 0.5%) have been demonstrated in more than 10,000 nights of scientific operation. On June 30, 2005, the ESO Science Archive Facility held a total of 4.4 million raw files from the La Silla Paranal Observatory, of which nearly 100,000 were acquisition images, suggesting that a similar number of targets and fields having been observed.

Nevertheless, the above sections have already identified some limitations of FIERA. These partly exist in a similar way for IRACE, with the additions of the following: mass, volume, heat dissipation, insufficient range and swing in voltage for more advanced detectors such as fully depleted CCDs, speed, number of channels, system noise, obsolete components, etc.

In response to these and further challenges resulting largely from adaptive optics and interferometry, ESO has decided to design and build a new-generation detector controller that not only satisfies the above requirements but will also be color blind and so serve both optical and IR detector systems. This also acknowledges the fact that two parallel successes may result in a larger total personal satisfaction but also incur two costs.

Because of its broad range of applications, the system is called New General detector Controller (NGC). A 4-channel prototype of the hardware has already successfully 'seen' first light with a 256 x 256 PICNIC array from Rockwell as well as with a CCD44-82 device from e2v. The detailed quantitative characterization and improvement, the design and integration of a 34-channel acquisition board, the extension to the needs of adaptive optics [19], and the development of the associated control software [20], which will include a substantial complement of test software, etc. will take most of the coming 3 years.

NGC will be in operation until at least 2015 when the construction of the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope (OWL) could commence. It will pave the way of detector control into the ELT era, at which time it will become clear what role ASICs will play and whether and where CMOS devices can replace CCDs.

A both wider and deeper overview of the NGC hardware is available in Meyer, et al. [21].

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