Why have a separate astrophotography laptop?

One of the best decisions I have made in my astrophotography endeavors is to have bought a completely separate astrophotography laptop for use out in the field. This is also one of the first things I tell newcomers to the hobby. They often look at me strangely which then leads to a lengthy explanation. Hopefully this article will help everyone understand the benefits.

Astrophotography laptop

Let talk about what an astrophotography laptop does. My astrophotography laptop pretty much does everything. The only computer related task that it does not do in the field is play movies to keep me entertained while imaging. My laptop does the following:

  • Drives the telescope mount
  • Makes corrections to the tracking based on input from the guidescope
  • Manages the camera including temperature control and exposures
  • Stores the images
  • Allows quick and dirty processing to make sure the target is what and where expected
  • Provides a bridge to my gamepad for manual mount control
  • Provides target management including notes on exposures, temperatures, seeing conditions and more
  • Runs many miscellaneous astronomy software programs

A good portion of this requires drivers, software components and direct hardware access. For example driving the telescope mount requires the astrophotography laptop communicate with a third party PC card installed in the PC card slot. This PC card has a serial port in it, another driver is required for that. Then the serial data has to talk directly to the hardware in the mount. On my system this is all linked into the software running the guider, the software running the mount, the planetarium software and finally, EQMOD which ties all this together.

Once you have all this working working (which in itself can be no easy feat) you certainly do not want anything to mess it up. Unfortunately there are a lot of things that can break some of your functionality:

  • Update of your drivers
  • Update of Windows (or Mac OS)
  • Software installation/updates that replace Windows DLL/OCX files (or Mac equivalent)
  • Update of other components such as Java/Flash/DirectX/.NET etc

If any of this happens, there is a good chance that one or more of your astronomy computer programs may quit working. If it does, it can be difficult to figure out what exactly did what and even more difficult to put things back like they were.

The real bummer here is that if your luck is like mine, you won’t even know something is broken until you get out into the field, get your equipment set up and are settling in for a long night when you realize you can’t track an object. Now you get to spend the next four hours tracking down the problem. At this point you will be more than ready for a dedicated astrophotography laptop!

I know I need an astrophotography laptop, now what do I do?

There is good news in that an astrophotography laptop can be an inexpensive addition to your astrophotography equipment. There is for example no reason to purchase a new unit unless you just want to. A nice refurbished (by the manufacturer) or off lease unit can often cost $300 or less. You can get a really nice unit for under $500 if you want to splurge. When you compare this to what you paid for the rest of your equipment this is not too expensive.

Some things to think about when purchasing an astrophotography laptop are:

  • If you image at a site with AC power, you may not need a battery
  • You probably do not need a large screen size, something in the 14″ range would probably be fine
  • If you are downloading images to your laptop you should consider at least a 250GB hard drive or SSD
  • If you control everything like I do make sure you get at least 4GB of RAM, 2GB is fine for camera control only
  • If you require a serial port to run your mount, make sure the unit has one or has a way to add one (PC card slots are awesome), USB to serial adapters are finicky so treat them as a last resort
  • Once you load your stuff on it you probably will not need a CD/DVD drive so an external may be fine
  • Count how many USB ports you will need, add a few extra, maybe with a USB hub
  • Relegate ports on a USB hub to mice, game controllers, etc. Try to never use a USB hub port for mount/camera control
  • If thinking about a netbook, remember some programs will not like the low screen resolution and may be difficult to use
  • Buy a Windows computer. Macs are great computers but will MASSIVELY increase the difficulty of getting things to work, there are far more astronomy programs for Windows

My favorite places to buy an astrophotography laptop include eBay (directly from the official Dell depot only) and Newegg.com. I can not count how many I have bought from these two places and have had very few issues (the least from Dell). When problems have happened they were resolved quickly.

Good luck with your astrophotography laptop!


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Keeping warm while observing or imaging

It is time to start thinking about keeping warm while observing and imaging as winter is right around the corner. Observing is a very low energy activity. During the winter when views are the best you will be shocked at how cold you can get when you are not moving. Even in warmer climates like down here in Texas where a really cold winter night might typically hit 20F, it is amazing how cold you feel when you haven’t really moved in hours.

The key is to always take far more warmth than you expect to need and to layer. My rule is that if I am comfortable walking out my front door and sitting on a deck chair for fifteen minutes, I need at least four times that much clothing/blankets.

Yes, this sounds like overkill but if you wear too many layers you can just peel one or two off. If you do not bring enough, you have to pack up and go home. Which would you rather be prepared to do?

Clothes for keeping warm while observing

When I will be out all night and the temps will be below 30F I wear two layers of long thermals, pants, ski pants, socks, wool socks, insulated boots, shirt, sweatshirt, fleece jacket, heavy jacket, scarf, gloves and hat. As if that is not enough I carry two wool blankets and an electric blanket as well.

Silly? As long as I am keeping warm while observing you can call me anything you like. Every hour you spend out there bleeds off heat. You are far colder at the end of the first hour than if you sat on your deck for fifteen minutes. You are far colder after eight hours at a dark site than any deer hunter after sitting in a stand for two or three hours.

Thermoses

Two things that help are a thermos full of hot chocolate/coffee and another one with some hot soup. Stay away from alcohol as it may make you feel warmer right as you drink it but it actually causes your body temperature to drop (that was a really fun experiment that the television show Mythbusters did).

alcohol

What you want to avoid is anything that generates enough heat that it might affect your viewing/imaging. Things such as space heaters, or firepits are really bad ideas. Fire is particularly bad as not only does the rising heat waves and light cause problems but the ash floating in the air will cause visual/imaging issues and will tend to coat everything within a much larger area than you think. I will be the first to admit doing some binocular viewing on a crisp night with a roaring firepit is a lot of fun, but I certainly will not be setting up my serious equipment anywhere near a fire. Keeping warm while observing is not worth having to spend an hour cleaning all my equipment and having poor quality images.

If the cold begins to get to you while imaging you can always retreat to your car. I would not start it, as the lights and heat waves rising from the vehicle could cause problems with your imaging. You certainly will be warmer inside an enclosed vehicle even if it is not running. If you are at a site that has AC power you could even run an extension cord through a cracked window and use it to power your electric blanket.

I hope some of this will give you ideas for keeping warm while observing.


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Historical Astronomy Equipment

Recently I became interested in astronomy equipment that was, shall we say, less than modern. I was enthralled with the way they used to do things we we take for granted today, such as tell time.

I live about an hour drive from Plantersville, Tx, home of the Texas Renaissance Festival. The Ren Fest as it is popularly known is like a theme park based very roughly on a renaissance time period European town with inhabitants dressing as people from all over the world in that general era. There are a ton of shops (over 300 I read somewhere), shows and rides. One can spend the day watching jousting, see a falconer, ride a camel, shoot a bow and arrow, visit a period tavern (or twenty) and listen to live music. It runs every weekend in October through November and really is a lot of fun.

This year my wife and I went and I was fascinated with a few pieces of astronomy equipment for sale I thought I would share with you.

The first item is an Astrolabe. What is that you may ask? It is a device used to calculate and predict the positions of celestial objects including the sun, moon, planets, and stars. You can think of it as one of the first handheld astronomy calculators or computers. It was also used to determine the local time, for surveying and triangulation. It was first used around 150BC and continued use into the 15th century.

An astrolabe, an early piece of astronomy equipment

The front and rear of my 4″ bronze and pewter astrolabe.

There is a shop that has a lot of this kind of stuff, all hand made in the workshop of Norman Greene from Berkeley California. The astrolabes came in a variety of sizes with the 4″ I bought being the second largest I remember. They also come in a few finishes including a monotone pewter, monotone bronze, this dual tone bronze/pewter and a gold plated monotone. I opted for the dual tone because I thought it was much better looking and easier to read. I also took the display model instead of a new one as the use gave it a lot of character. I also bought the optional stand you see in the images above.

Included with this device is a book describing a variety of basic astronomy uses such as finding the time, showing the position of stars and more. While giving the instructions is well beyond the scope of this blog post I will give you some of the instructions so that you get an idea of how it can work.

To find the elevation of the sun during the day, hold the device about waist level by the included chain or ring through the top. Rotate the pointer on the rear of the device so that the shadow of the leading part is centered on the rear part of the pointer. This gives you the sun’s elevation in degrees as read on the outer ring where the pointer is pointing (approximately 51 degrees in the image below).

astrolabe4

This calculation can be used to further determine the time of day or night (using a star instead of the sun). I don’t pretend to be an expert with this thing but I am certainly having fun learning how it works.

As an aside, mine has a single plate and there are versions with many plates that supposedly can do advanced stellar calculations. If I ever get good with this one I might move to the more advanced model, we will see.

Up next is an Aquitaine Sundial, or Shepherds Watch. This is a much simpler device to tell time which looks like a large ring. I did not purchase this from the Ren Fest as I had already spent too much money on the astrolabe and did not want to push my luck with this too as the wife was already looking at me funny. Instead I bought my Aquitaine Sundial from Amazon.

Aquitaine Sundial

My Aquitaine Sundial.

To use one this amazing piece of astronomy equipment, simply adjust the center brass ring to align the hole with the current month marked on the outer pewter colored ring. Holding the device by the included strap/necklace point the hole towards the sun and look where the bright light shines through the hole and onto the scale marked on the inside of the ring. This should show the current time.

The one downside of this simple astronomy equipment is that it has to be made for a specific latitude. The one I have is designed for about 40 degrees north latitude (about the center of the US). Unfortunately I live just over 30 degrees, which means I have to make adjustments to get it to show approximately the correct time. It is still a fun thing to whip out at astronomy events and have people ask you how it works.

Star gazing equipment like this sure does make you respect the ingenuity of renaissance scientists.

You can read more about the Renaissance period at Wikipedia.

 


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Time for a new coat of paint, website paint that is.

As you may have noticed, the website looks a little different. After many (and I mean many) years I have finally quit designing and publishing a website by editing HTML and now everything is in WordPress. This should make the site faster, cleaner and allow for a far superior mobile experience.

The bad news is that the website is huge, and so this will take quite a bit of time. The basics including book pages, how to articles, blog (news section), and forums are online and functional. The hundreds of astrophotography images and pages will take a little more time.

The good news is that this will allow for some much needed updating in design, layout and images. If you are patient I think you will really like the new site, I have some interesting plans.

Just to commemorate this event, here is a reminder of what the old site looked like:

old-as-website

As always, use the contact page to let me know if you find a problem (other than a page isn’t there anymore as I am steadily working on adding them back in).

Allan


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Windows 10 for astronomy, should you upgrade?

Recently I have been asked several times about using Windows 10 for astronomy or astrophotography. Many of you know that my day job is in technology. I am constantly being forced into looking at new technology no matter how well my equipment may or may not be working. Sometimes this gives me huge increases in productivity.  When I went from Windows XP to Vista itgave me the ability to search inside documents and launch programs fast from the Windows key which was awesome. Sometimes keeping current makes me buy headache medication in bulk. When I rant Windows 8 it originally would not run two desktop monitors, clobbered my searching, generally made me mad.

Using Windows 10 for astronomy

In July Microsoft began releasing Windows 10, the replacement for Windows 8. They have been heavily pushing this version with pop-ups on virtually all Windows Vista and Windows 7 computers enticing you to reserve your “free upgrade”. With the issues presented with Windows 8 it is no wonder they are really advertising the heck out of this release. Is it something you should run to, or away from when considering running Windows 10 for astronomy uses?

The first concern I have heard about from many people is usability, is it easier to use than Windows 8? If you found Windows 8 hard to use or confusing, you were not alone. Regardless of how good the operating system was, Windows 8 was a substantial departure in the way you interfaced with it from virtually all Windows versions since Windows 3.1. From the users I have talked to, and my own personal opinion is that yes, Windows 10 is vastly easier and more familiar to most Windows users. I think Microsoft did a good job keeping the elements that most users wanted and introducing new features. This is very important when using Windows 10 for astronomy as everything needs to be as easy as possible out in the dark.

windows10-1

After usability the next question is always how easy it is to upgrade. With few exceptions all of the Windows 10 upgrades I have seen have been lengthy, but smooth. I have seen a couple of cases where the upgrade went horribly wrong however this could have been because the computer lost power or was forcibly rebooted by a user who didn’t understand what was happening. The vast majority of installs were trouble free. Regardless of the odds, you should always make backups before you upgrade any software, particularly the operating system. If you are in doubt, take it to a professional and have them make an image so that if something does go wrong they can put it back exactly the way it was.

Compatibility with existing software is generally the next question with the worst problems I have seen involving antivirus. If you are using any of the major AV suppliers such as Norton, Kaspersky, or MacAfee and are using your computer in a home or small business environment (not using corporate class antivirus, not on a domain) then you will most likely only have to reinstall your antivirus after the upgrade to Windows 10. All these vendors have current versions that work with Windows 10. If however you are using corporate class AV then you should wait at least until mid December to ensure that you have antivirus that works as that seems to be when the vendors will be ready to roll out corporate protection for Windows 10. If you are on a business network and are unsure, contact your system administrator or person in charge of your network at your office and ask before upgrading. Again, if you are planning on running Windows 10 for astronomy you may not even run antivirus on your computer if it is dedicated to that use.

Another problem with compatibility is any software that relies on hardware drivers to provide a specific function. These include software to scan, print, or display high resolution graphics such as gaming software. One piece that did not work on one of my laptops that surprised me was Stellarium. It worked fine under Windows 7 but once I upgraded to Windows 10 it would not launch but instead displayed an error about my system not having OpenGL. This of course is not a fault with Stellarium but with the video drivers on my computer of which I have the latest version (both the latest version from Intel and the latest version from Microsoft failed). This laptop was originally designed for Windows XP and has been upgraded through Vista, 7 and now 10. That really did not shock me and I am not sure I will pursue the issue as this is not my astronomy laptop anyway. 

windows10-stellarium-error

Fortunately if something goes wrong Windows 10 gives you 30 days to make up your mind as long as you did the standard upgrade and not a clean install. If you decide that Windows 10 is not for you, or that it simply will not work with your equipment, click the start menu (or hit the Windows key) and type “go back to windows 7” and you should see the “Go Back to Windows 7” system setting right at the top. Click on that and follow the prompts to get you right back to where you started. I will assume there is something similar for Vista but since all my upgrades were from 7 I have no way to verify that. 

windows10-go-back-to-7

There are a couple of ways you can install Windows 10. The first is that little icon in your system tray that keeps telling you to reserve your copy. That method will download the entire installation to your hard drive and then prompt you to install it when it is done and ready. The next method involves making a DVD or USB drive to run the upgrade from. Simply visit the following website:

https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/software-download/windows10

and follow the directions. You will need a USB drive that has nothing on it you want to keep (preferred, I recommend an 8GB USB 3.0) or blank DVD media and a DVD burner. I do all my installs now off a USB 3.0 drive and the installs are fast and easy.

If you plan on primarily using Windows 10 for astronomy should you try it? My opinion is that if you have a rock solid setup on Windows 7 and it is just for Astronomy/Astrophotography, then no. The reason is that there is nothing to gain and quite a bit to lose if in nothing else, time trying to get things working again. This includes the fact that I have found no compelling astronomy apps for Windows 10. Then again, it isn’t like there is much in the way of Microsoft astronomy software.

If however the computer is running Windows 8, 8.1, Vista or is dual purpose (astronomy and every day use) then sure. Just be sure you have excellent backups just in case, as you should have anyway. For me, my daily use machines are all being converted to 10, my one astrophotography only unit will currently stay at 7, and my astrophotography backup unit will probably be converted to 10 as the test bed for the primary unit.

One problem with Windows 10 that may affect your desire to upgrade is the Windows 10 broken search feature. In previous versions of Windows if you downloaded an exe file, it was added to the search index and you could hit your Windows key on the keyboard, type the filename and it would appear in the search results. Unfortunately that no longer works. I have an executable file that it has not found in weeks, reindexing does not help, and even pinning the file to the start menu will not cause it to show up in search results.

I verified this problem on other Windows 10 machines with other executable files in different directories and even found a thread about it online at Windows 10 broken search with some other additional quirks in the search. If you rely heavily on the search capabilities of Windows then Vista, 7 or 8 would be a better choice for you than 10.

Another issue is the Win 10 forced updates, and you can not easily turn off the automatic update feature. While this may not sound too bad there have been many times I went to leave my office only to have Windows start to install updates which I could not stop. Once I just left the laptop running in the passenger seat of my car updating because I have to leave right then for any appointment. If however you are using Windows 10 for astronomy forced updates may not be an issue for you.

The bottom line is that I think Windows 10 is a good step forward in the Windows ecosystem as long as they fix issues with the search feature and maybe do something with the forced updates. While more evolutionary than revolutionary it is what Windows 8 should have been and is faster and sleeker than either Windows 7 or 8. Even better, if you have Windows Vista, 7, 8 or 8.1 your upgrade to 10 is free!

If you are considering running Windows 10 for astronomy or astrophotography and are sure all your software and drivers will run, give it a shot.


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Pluto finally gets a face!

I admit it, I am one of those people who has a bumper sticker that reads “Pluto is SO a planet!” I grew up with nine planets, Mercury through Pluto, and no group of astronomers (not planetary scientists!) was going to kill that childhood memory. Yes, it is irrational, sue me. Regardless of it’s current planetary status the object known as Pluto is the furthest object we have visited and taken close range photographs of, and it is not at all what we thought. Lets start with the probe we sent, New Horizons.

newhorizon1

Launched on January 19th, 2006 from Cape Canaveral Florida on the back of an Atlas V rocket it took nine long years to reach it’s ultimate target. At around one thousand pounds Sir Patrick Moore made comment that it resembled a piano glued to a cocktail bar-sized satellite dish.

pluto-mosaic

The closest images were taken at approximately 7,800 miles above the surface of Pluto on July 14th, 2015. Data took about thirteen hours to travel from the spacecraft back to Earth making the first images from this distance arriving early in the morning on July 15th, my birthday!

Pluto

What is fascinating is that just when you think you know what is out there, science throws you a curve ball. We expected tons of craters since it is near the Kuiper belt, we see few. We expected a fairly featureless ball of ice, we see mountains, valleys, and a huge smooth area being called the heart. This heart shows in false color as two distinct areas that could be caused by geologic activity, or surface erosion. Amazing. There is still more data to come and it will be slowly streaming in and being processed for quite some time, around sixteen months to be a bit more accurate. Stay tuned to NASA for more!

More information on New Horizons and the latest pictures of Pluto are on NASA’s website.


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How to keep cool observing in the summer heat.

Unfortunately I have to start with a disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. What I present here is my opinion from my experiences. If you have any questions or health concerns you should seek the advice of a qualified health care professional.

I live in east Texas and we have a unique problem in that when it is hot, it is really hot. In the summer however, people really do die from the heat, and you can get heat exhaustion or worse without really any physical activity. So how so you stay cool while out observing?

The first thing is shade assuming you are doing solar observing during the day. This is the only difference between day and night observing. You absolutely need to stay in the shade. Most major retailers sell four post canopies for very little such as <<insert amazon link here>>. These are worth every cent you spend on them. I also recommend you use as little sunblock as possible as it seems to make it harder for my natural sweat to do its job cooling me off.

Two excellent hats for keeping your cool in the day

Two excellent hats for keeping your cool in the day

If you absolutely have to be out in the sun, wear a light colored breathable hat. I like the golf hats made by Nike, Under Armor and others. The wide brim hats with mesh around the top are also a nice choice.

I also find that a quality fabric shirt such as a Nike or Under Armor running type shirt that fits a little snug (not skin tight, not really form fitting, just not really loose) works far better than a loose or inexpensive shirt. I am not big on name brand clothes except for certain items, and shirts to keep me cool is one of them. I have tried several less expensive shirts from major sporting goods stores which claim to be excellent for keeping you cool and they all perform substantially poorer than the Nikes I generally wear. If you want to save some money you can find the Nike running shirts cheap at Nike outlet stores. They do not have to be running shirts, they just need to be the high end Nike shirts designed specifically to keep you as cool as possible. Remember that if you are out in the day, the color of the shirt is important as well, lighter colors reflect heat and dark colors absorb them. Wearing black is not a really good idea for solar observing in the heat of the summer.

Nike running shirt on the left, store brand on the right

Nike running shirt on the left, store brand on the right

I have even tried wearing both shirts under my motorcycle riding jacket (a mesh jacket) and got exactly the same results. The Nike shirt felt substantially cooler than the others. The trick is that the material in the shirt needs to wick sweat (take the sweat off your skin and deposit it on top of the fabric). When this works well it is amazing. When it does not (think of a cotton t-shirt soaked with sweat) you can suffer a real health problem from overheating.

Nice compact fan available at Wal-Mart

Nice compact fan available at Wal-Mart

Next is moving air. Your body keeps cool by sweating. This moisture is removed from your skin (or shirt) by wind moving across your skin (or shirt) and evaporating that moisture. This removes heat and makes you feel cooler. No wind means far less cooling. I have found a small fan that moves quite a bit of air and does not make too much noise. This little fan on low has substantially increased my enjoyment of astrophotography during the summer.

No such thing as taking too much water

No amount of cooling is enough if you do not stay hydrated. Take plenty of water. A typical recommendation is to drink six or eight eight ounce glasses of water a day but this is for normal activity without a lot of sweating. All that sweat has to come from somewhere, and it all has to be replaced. When I am out at night in the summer where it can be up to 100F at sunset and not drop below 85F before sunrise I try to drink one 16.9FL OZ bottle of water an hour. Normally I carry six bottles in a cooler and a few more in the back of the car and I normally come back with an empty or almost empty cooler. As the night progresses and gets cooler I tend to sweat less and drink less.

alcohol

You certainly can drink things other than water if you like, just remember that many of them may not hydrate you as well as water and some, such as alcoholic beverages, can actually dehydrate you. Be careful of the warning signs such as not feeling hot, feeling cold, not being thirsty at all, not going to the bathroom for an extended period, or feeling dizzy. If you have any of these symptoms, seek assistance immediately.


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