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Wednesday, 8 January 2014

20140108 - Where would we be without the internet and correct time?

A belated Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.

Have you ever taken anything for granted? We would all like to answer no to that question. :) OK then, lets change the question a little. Have you ever relied on elements of technology and only realised how much you relied on them when they were not available?  To this question I suspect that most will answer yes. :)
I had started writing a Blog on Christmas Eve about how technology has benefited Amateur Astronomers, but events stopped me.

Over the past two weeks events happened that made me realise how tenuous those benefits can be.    I should have realised that with all the recent Solar activity we were due for some bad weather and did we get it, though thankfully not as bad as the United Kingdom has had.  Note to self - plan a Blog on Solar Activity and its effects on weather.

During the past two weeks we have had driving rain, sleet, very high winds, heavy dews, clouds - including being in a cloud, power cuts and loss of Internet

The only weather we have not had has been hail stones and snow - though I expect they will come soon. :(providing the observatory is shut, it can cope with the weather elements and when it is raining (or similar) or if there are clouds above. I do not open up!

With winds, it all depends on the direction. The Observatory is a Clamshell with two pairs of opening leaves, so it is possible to leave one set of leaves closed, fully or partially to protect the telescope from the wind, but that means you can only observe one half of the sky - Sod`s Law states that what you want to observe is mainly in the part of the sky you cannot see! LOL.

Heavy Dews can be a pain and you only realise that it has happened when the images start to look foggy so you have to go to the observatory and wipe everything down, (not the optics!!, though I do have a hair-dryer in the observatory to use on them).

Being at the height we are, sometimes clouds form in the valley below or on the sea side of the mountain. A lot of the time they stay there, but on occasion they rise and the images start to dim and because we will be in the cloud there is another need for a wipe down :( Both this and the dews can be quite a worry because of all the electronics, so spend ages making sure everything is dry again.

Astronomers throughout the centuries have had to put up with and cope with the above problems, though until the introduction of electricity potential problems caused through things getting wet were less of a problem.

Unless there is going to be a drought this year, plenty of more rain has yet to come. Normally by now the Sierra Nevadas are covered in snow - the villages and farms below the peaks depend on the snow melt - but there is only a little snow on there at the moment. On our mountains - Sierra Contraviesa - we need lots more rain for the farms and springs.

Electric - when this goes off that is it - no matter how good the weather is nothing can happen. None of the mounts here will move without electric to power the motors. Sometimes it makes you wish for the old clockwork drives, which some of the older astronomers will have used. Not that it would help, because no one has come up with a clockwork CCD Camera, even though I believe there is such a thing as a wind up computer :)

I do not mind - well I do really - the electric going off as it did on Christmas Day late afternoon for the rest of the day. What causes me the most concern is when it goes off and on in rapid succession as it does in this area. There are Surge Protection connections in the observatory, but only ease my mind a little. When this happens there are constant trips up to the observatory to check and reset the equipment, sometimes hitching a generator to the observatory to open it.

When the electric goes so does the Internet. The ability to update the comet and asteroid orbits - gone. The ability to access the various online astronomical databases - gone. The ability to send and receive emails to keep in touch with fellow astronomers - gone. The ability to download observing schedules and findercharts - gone. My wife thinks that I am an Internet Addict - like all addicts I disagree :) - seriously though, to me the computer and Internet make up most of my research tool set and good tools get used the most.

I am now on my sixth day without Internet. There has been electricity - well for most of the time anyway - and there has been during that time a few nights and mornings suitable to observe, (though I did not on the 4th as it was our 45th Wedding Anniversary and it would not have gone down very well if I had).  So there I am happy to be able to observe, though on a reduced basis as I could not download information I required for exoplanets, so it was mainly comets plus I decided to fine tune the alignment of the telescope.  

Monday we visited some friends in a local village. I took the laptop with me to download emails for me to read when I got home - nothing much else as I did not want to get black looks.

After observing Monday night I arose bright and early - 0500 hrs to catch a couple of more comets. There is a computer in the observatory and on it, is running a programme called VNC Server. On the Laptop, I have a VNC Viewer programme running. This programme shows the Observatory screen on the laptop as a Window and when I have that Window active when I use the mouse or press a key on the laptop, it is though I was physically moving the observatory computer mouse or using its keyboard. I just happened to look at the time showing on the Observatory Window and noticed that there was a slight difference between that time and the time showing on the laptop.

This now brings me back to my second question:

``Have you ever relied on elements of technology and only realised how much you relied on them when they were not available?``

On computers there is a small programme that displays the time from the computer`s system clock. This programme can also access the Internet to check that time is correct and if not to update it. The computers here used to be setup to access the time early evening - I say used to because I have recently started to use a programme I used to use years ago, but had forgotten about it, until a friend +Charles Bell: reminded me about it, so I downloaded D4 and that checks the time every 15 minutes on both computers. The laptop had checked its time yesterday when I was briefly on the net at our friends.

For most things a minute or two does not matter much, but for Astronomy correct time keeping is essential. If you look at the history of time keeping you will see that it was navigation that drove the advances in time keeping technologies. Navigators needed accurate time in conjunction with celestial observations to calculate the ship`s position, (potential for another Blog!?) .

Because I do not know when the time went slightly adrift any observations I have carried out over the past five days are scientifically useless. Most observations I am involved in, involve using two techniques: Photometry and Astrometry, in simplistic terms Photometry is about  how bright something is and Astrometry is about its position in the sky. I feel another blog to be planned :).

The above was written during Tuesday and Wednesday while I was waiting for the Internet to come back on. It has not come on yet so I will continue with what I started on Christmas Eve.

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During the past thirty five years amateur astronomers have taken advantage of three major technical advances and this has enabled amateur astronomers to regain ground lost to the professional astronomers some hundred years ago at the dawn of the Big Telescopes that were -with a few exceptions such as Percival Lowell - beyond the pockets of amateurs. It must be remembered that it was only in the 20th Century that Professional meant more skilled. Until the 20th Century the majority of professional astronomers were employed by national observatories that were more involved in producing information for navigators, others worked in various capacities including being assistants to various private observatories.
First to be taken advantage of was the Personal Computer, then Data Communications and finally the Charged Coupled Device.

This is not a history lesson so I am not going to discuss the early astronomy programmes for the TRS-80 or BBC micros controlling telescopes. Nor am I going to cover the pre Internet BBSs or telecom messaging systems, nor the first homemade CCD Cameras. There is plenty on the net on those matters, but if you are interested then please leave a message and I will point you in the right direction. :)

What I want to do is show how the tools now available to the serious amateur astronomer allows them not only to be able to work on projects side by side with the professionals, but to actually have taken a lead in some areas.

For every area of astronomy there are:

Programmes - both commercial and free available for download - to control all the equipment in an observatory (both local and remote) - and to analyse and model the results.

Internet access - discussion groups, tutorials, manuals, papers, observing  lists, early warnings on objects, latest news, submit observations.

CCD Cameras - the ability to capture data on par with the professionals, limited only by the size of optics and locations of observatories.

The above is just scraping the surface, but enough to start with, should you want to surf and find out more. :)

I will in future blogs highlight various areas of astronomy where amateur have caught back up with the professionals.

Normal Service on observations will start tomorrow.:)