Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The SkyTools 4 Scheduler


Recently I needed to make a screen capture of the SkyTools 4 Scheduler tool, and thought I would share it with others as well.


Please keep in mind that this is my unfinished working version and that I didn't spend much time creating the example.

So what are we seeing? This is the SkyTools 4 Professional Edition in Imaging mode. When in imaging mode all tools are customized for imaging, from the planner, to the charts, to the Object Info. It is as if there are two separate versions of SkyTools, one for visual observing and one for imaging. In this way the tools can be specifically designed for visual observations or imaging, without attempting to do both simultaneously.

The Scheduler is used to generate a schedule for observations to be made on a given night. The result might be a schedule to be carried out manually, via Real Time, or it can be a formal plan to be used via a robotic telescope.

At the top of the dialog the iTelescope T21 imaging system has been selected. An Imaging System is more than just a telescope. At a minimum it consists of a telescope OTA + camera + mount.  But it also defines filters, acceptable exposure times, an optional fixed location, focal extenders/reducers, slew speeds, camera readout times, etc.

On the left are the imaging projects that have been created for this imaging system.  An Imaging Project defines how we want to observe each target. It is the heart of SkyTools 4 imaging.  I am not quite ready to show The Imaging Project dialog yet. An imaging project describes the filters to be used, what the exposure targets are for each filter, an observing priority, the positioning of the field of view, optional multiple fields of view to form a mosaic, binning, etc. The project is also used to track progress and to archive your observations.

The schedule is built on the right. It can be built automatically or one target at a time. Each observation includes a start time, filter, sub exposure time, and number of sub exposures. The schedule presented in the example is incomplete. Projects would normally be observed for longer periods of time, and normally there would be more of them to choose from, filling the time allowed.

Under the NightBar are two visual aids. The one directly below the NightBar indicates the quality of the imaging opportunity for the selected imaging project, in this case a project called P9 D. Green is the prime time to image it.  Below this is a visual depiction of the schedule. Green indicates observations, red indicates telescope slews. The spaces in between are where additional imaging projects can be scheduled.

The imaging system in this example is a remote robotic telescope that uses ACP planner for control. When you click Create Plan an ACP plan is generated from the schedule. This plan is uploaded and the observations are made accordingly. Time on this telescope is expensive, so normally we would build a plan for part of the night rather than for all of it, and every minute would be used.




Wednesday, July 15, 2015

All These Worlds are ours to Explore



Pluto is a World

Perhaps people should start thinking about Pluto as a world, rather than a planet. I think that’s what most people really mean anyhow. Our solar system is full of worlds—beautiful and strange places that Captain Kirk might want to beam down to. 

To the ancients a planet was a star in the sky that moved. There were five of these in all: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. They looked just like any other star, but they wandered around the sky as the days, weeks, and months passed. That alone was enough to make them special.

When, in the early 1600’s, Galileo turned his telescope on the sky, he discovered a sixth planet: the one beneath his feet. Galileo’s observations showed that the earth is not the center of the universe, but just another planet orbiting the sun.

In 1783 the astronomer William Herschel discovered Uranus. Although too faint to be seen by the eye alone, he knew immediately that it was no mere star, because it appeared as a small disk in his telescope. Sure enough, as the nights passed, it too wandered. This was the seventh planet.

In 1801, the Italian priest, mathematician and astronomer, Giuseppe Piazzi, discovered the eighth planet: Ceres. Yes, Ceres. Ceres was heralded as a major discovery, for it was found right where astronomers expected it to be, in the big gap between Mars and Jupiter. A year later another similar planet was discovered, named Pallas. Then came Juno, Vesta, and Astraea. If you had studied astronomy in the early 19th century you would have been taught of the 11 planets in our solar system. What an exciting time it must have been, with all these newly discovered planets. But there seemed something amiss with these new planets. Astronomers had expected one big planet in the gap between Mars and Jupiter, but they had found five. Based on how faint they were, these new planets also seemed to be quite small. There was some debate as to whether they were planets at all.

It all came to a head in 1846 when Neptune was discovered. Neptune was another major planet that was found way out beyond Uranus. In 1847, after nearly 50 years of being called planets, Ceres and its compadres were redesignated Asteroids. As many had come to realize, these asteroids were more akin to planet fragments than true planets. So once again there were only eight planets, and as the years passed many more asteroids were discovered. They number in the hundreds of thousands today.

Another fifty years passed. School children became used to the eight planets of the solar system. But astronomers wondered if there were yet more major planets to be discovered. They searched ever deeper into the outer reaches of the solar system, and as the 20th century dawned, Percival Lowell, a man who was flamboyant and wealthy, began a quest to discover what he called, “Planet X.” It took some thirty years, but eventually an astronomer named Clyde Tombaugh, who was employed to pursue Lowell’s dream, found a new wandering star. This was hailed as the first great new planet discovered in the 20th century. Pluto/Planet-X was expected to have a mass of ten Earths, and it was far beyond the region of the asteroids, so few questioned that it was a planet. But this turned out to be hubris. The calculations that had predicted planet X had been in error, and Pluto had been found quite by accident. By 1940, estimates put it at about the same mass of the earth. By the 1970’s, estimates of its mass had shrunk to 1/10 that of the earth.  Pluto was shrinking, if not in reality, at least in the estimation of those studying it. By 1980 it was a mere 2/1000th the mass of the earth. Pluto also has a weird orbit that brings it within the orbit of Neptune for part of the time, and is tilted by a whopping 17o. People started to realize that, like Ceres, Pluto may not be a proper planet, but there was no compelling reason to change its status.

At the dawn of the 21st century, an astronomer named Mike Brown realized that there were likely more objects like Pluto out there, and much like his predecessors, he set out to find one. He and his team eventually discovered many such bodies, including Quaoar, Sedna, Orcus, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris. Eris is big—about the same size as Pluto, but more massive. By 2006, astronomers realized that the Ceres saga was playing out all over again. Rather than call all of these new Pluto-like objects planets, it was decided by the International Astronomical Union to remove Pluto as a planet in much the same way that Ceres had been. In addition, a new class of objects was created, called Dwarf Planets. These objects include Pluto, Ceres, Eris, and a growing list of others in the outer solar system. 

Once again, there were eight planets.

If you look at the question of what constitutes a planet from an historical perspective, a case could be made for only the original five wanderers. Wandering star is, in fact, what the word planet means. Perhaps it all went wrong with Galileo, when people realized that they were living on a planet. After all, the earth is not a star that wanders in the sky. Or perhaps it went wrong when Uranus and Neptune were called planets. Even though they are both large and massive, they are too faint to be seen wandering with the eye alone. It certainly went terribly wrong with planet Ceres, which would have led us to hundreds of thousands of planets and counting. Alas, Pluto has suffered a similar fate. 

Something profound has happened since people first followed the paths in the sky of planets—these wandering stars. We have come to know them as places--places you could visit, with mountains and valleys. Science fiction has depicted them as places where you can land your ship and walk around. In fact these are all worlds to be explored. These worlds include not only Pluto, but Ceres, and Vesta, our Moon, and many of the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Even Pluto’s moon, Charon, is a world waiting to be walked upon. All of these worlds are so much more than wandering stars in the sky; they are places for us to explore.

Perhaps we should start thinking about them as worlds rather than planets, and we can skip the scientific definition. After all, we all know a world when we see one.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Dell Venue 8 Pro Review


Over the summer I purchased a Dell Venue 8 Pro tablet. This is a $200-$220 8-inch tablet that runs full Windows. It is small, thin, and lightweight. I carried it with me on my travels, including campouts, my family vacation and ultimately to the Oregon Star Party, where I used Powerpoint and ran a SkyTools demo on it. It runs SkyTools 3 quite well and, with ASCOM, it will control most any telescope. In fact, there was a gentleman at the OSP using one to drive his 40-inch Dob. He had it attached to the base of the telescope itself, and it was working quite well for him.

It is possible to connect to the telescope via a USB connection, but using a Bluetooth-to-serial adapter may be an even better option, assuming it works (I have not tried this personally).

As others have reported, the Windows touch interface allows SkyTools to work mostly as it would using a mouse (with a few exceptions, such as mousing-over objects on the screen). I must say it's pretty cool to have such easy access to SkyTools in the field.

On the downside, the screen is very small and the video driver does not currently allow you to enlarge the fonts by more than 25%. You need to look pretty closely at it in order to see what is going on, and those with failing vision may find it difficult. In that case, one may wish to go to the larger 11" version. It also can't handle a very heavy load, so it is best to keep your observing lists short, particularly with Real Time, which will keep things rolling along nicely.

It seems clear to me now that this is the future for SkyTools in the field. When it comes to supporting many different mounts, and advanced features, telescope control via ASCOM is difficult to beat, and it runs on Windows. Windows will continue to improve in terms of integrating the touch interface, and there are new processors on the horizon that will be smaller, more powerful, and run longer on a small battery. We may even see some of these things emerge in the coming months. For my part, I am working to make ST4 more compatible with the touch interface, without sacrificing any of the unique capabilities of the mouse.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Imaging Project and the Oregon Star Party


I was recently invited to be a speaker at the 2014 Oregon Star Party. The story of how this came about began last April. I was thinking about the new astro-imaging features that I was adding to SkyTools 4; things like support of image mosaics, generating scripts for automated telescopes, and some sort of image logging. I had in mind about a half-dozen separate features and I wasn't sure how to put them all together.

So there I was, idly pondering the differences between visual observing and imaging. Visual observing is relatively simple to plan: figure out when the best view is going to be and go look. Unless you are doing a detailed sketch, looking doesn't take all that long. But imaging can entail long exposures in multiple filters and even include different positions in the sky for a mosaic. Imaging an object is less like a casual rendezvous, and more like a project. That's when it occurred to me: visually we simply observe celestial objects, but when doing imaging, we should be observing projects.

This idea of an imaging project was like a revelation. I could see how all the imaging features that I wanted to add to SkyTools 4 could all come together. In fact, I could use this idea to create an observing system for imaging rather than simply present a set of disparate tools.

I was excited to say the least. Ideas that bring everything together don't come along every day. On that same day, I was contacted by Mark Martin of the Rose City Astronomers, asking if I would be interested in speaking at the Oregon Star Party. My first answer was that I didn't have anything to talk about, but when he persisted, my excitement about the imaging project idea got the better of me and I accepted his invitation to talk about it. After all, it was April and the OSP wasn't until late August. I had plenty of time to figure it all out.

First I had things I needed to finish that I didn't want to leave half done. Then summer came along and I found myself spending a week in Texas at a scout camp with my boys, and soon after there was a family vacation. Before I knew it, the OSP was only a month away and I had nothing. Absolutely nothing! Not only was there no code to demo, but I hadn't even figured out the details.

After the panic wore off a bit, I got down to work. I went at it for long hours, seven days a week. I also had to prepare a talk, so I combined my work on the overall software design with developing the notes for my presentation. Doing so was odd, but in fact it worked quite well. I chose one part of the new code to focus all my efforts on so I could demo it, redesigning and coming up with new ideas as I went along. In concert, I worked the ongoing story into my presentation. In the end the talk was probably a bit too ambitious, but overall it seemed to go ok.

I really enjoyed being at the Star Party and meeting lots of new people, although it was rather painful to be there under such beautiful dark skies without my telescope. Fortunately I did mooch some great views, including an unforgettable view of M51 in a 40-inch Dob.






Wednesday, October 31, 2012

SkyTools and Windows 8

I haven't posted here much recently, but that is likely to change in the coming months. So to start things off...

With the release of Windows 8 it is time to say a few things about the impact Windows 8 will have on SkyTools users, now and in the future.

First and foremost: SkyTools 3 will continue to work on the Windows 8 desktop just as it has with Windows 7. We have found no compatibility issues. If you are still running ASCOM 5, I do recommend upgrading to ASCOM 6 prior to upgrading to Windows 8.

Windows 8 and the Future
Windows 8 brings some major changes. A lot of confusing things have been written and said about them. The difficult thing to grasp about Windows 8 is that it is at once a bold new operating system, and at the same time the old Windows 7 we are familiar with. This is important to keep in mind when you hear or read broad sweeping statements about it.

Imagine if Microsoft released a whole new version of Windows with only one change: a redesign of the Start button. For most current desktop/laptop users this is all the upgrade to Windows 8 will initially represent. The Win 7 Start button opens a menu that lists all of your programs and is used to start them. In Windows 8 the Start menu has been turned into a full-screen with icons that you use to start programs. Once a traditional Windows program is started you go right back to the desktop. What startles people is that they are greeted by this new Start screen when the computer is booted rather than the familiar desktop. By doing this it literally throws the new Windows features "in your face." But rest assured, the Windows desktop is still there.

In addition to replacing the Start menu, the new screen also launches a new kind of Windows program. These programs are optimized for the touch screen, although a mouse will still work fine, and are meant to be used full screen, like a game, the SkyTools Interactive Atlas, or the "apps" that we have become used to on phones and tablets. The point of all this? It enables tablets and other touch devices to run Windows 8.

Microsoft has made new versions of most of their software, such as Office, Mail, etc, that work with the new interface. Many other developers are in the process of creating similar programs. This leaves developers such as myself with a quandary. Some say that this new "Modern UI" interface is the future and the old Windows desktop will ultimately be replaced, in the same way that DOS was replaced by Windows itself. But I'm a little skeptical about that. It may be that the new interface will not be powerful enough for certain types of applications--those driven by the precision that only a mouse can provide.

An example of what I'm talking about is the way that SkyTools identifies objects as the cursor passes over them. This obviously isn't possible without a mouse. On the other hand, a touch-based Nightly Planner would provide a natural jumping off point for opening charts, logs, and other SkyTools functions. It would also provide a great way to control a telescope in the field.

At the moment the way forward for SkyTools is not yet completely clear. Will it continue to be a desktop program or be ported to the new interface? I can say this for the near term: there will be "companion apps" for SkyTools that use the new interface for use in the field on tablets and other touch devices. But only time will tell if the entire program will eventually be ported to the new interface.

New Windows 8 Hardware and SkyTools
If you are purchasing a new Windows 8 tablet, it is important to be aware that there are two "flavors" and what the differences are. The less expensive "Windows RT" tablets only run programs written for the new interface. They will not run SkyTools 3! These tablets will eventually run the SkyTools "companion apps" which will be available for the next full version of SkyTools.

The more expensive tablets/convertibles will offer the full version of Windows that desktop users have. These will run SkyTools 3 on the traditional desktop.

Should You Upgrade?
Some people are going to hate Windows 8. There is no question about that. I think it comes down to how you approach change. An example of something that is bound to drive old timers like me nuts is the way the Esc key doesn't back out of the new-style programs as we might expect it to. Instead, we are going to have to accept that the "Start/Windows" key (which I personally have ignored for years) is going to become our new friend. Still, I did eventually get used to it (after a few hours spent cursing). There are also times when using the new interface that you will think, "I could have done that with a lot fewer movements and clicks!" But I have found that in most of these cases there are ultimately better ways to do the task, such as a keyboard shortcut. It is often my natural desire to do things the way I'm used to doing them that is the cause of most of the trouble.

Some have claimed that Windows 8 will have big problems like Vista did, and it is popular to claim that they won't have things ironed out until Windows 9. The reality is a bit more subtle than that. On the desktop things are pretty solid, although there are some weird issues that crop up. One of my computers didn't shut down properly using the Windows 8 preview version (there was an easy work around) and sometimes system error messages appear on the desktop where you can't see them. But in general I don't believe that upgrading a desktop/laptop to Windows 8 will cause people anywhere near the problems they had with Vista. This is primarily due to the fact that for most users it's really still Windows 7 under the hood. When Vista appeared I counseled people not to upgrade their existing XP machines, but I see little reason not to upgrade to Windows 8, particularly when it can be easily done as a download for $40.

On the other hand, the picture may not be so rosy for the new Windows RT tablets. This is where most of the new aspects of Windows are concentrated and it has had the least testing on this hardware, so this is where people will likely see the most trouble. At the moment there aren't enough quality apps available to make these tablets as useful as they should be. As an example, Microsoft's Mail app doesn't have many of the features people expect, crashes constantly, and I was not successful in getting it to send mail to my outgoing mail server. On a desktop/laptop many other options are available, but I feel a bit sorry for the early adopters of Windows RT tablets. I'm looking forward to owning one of these myself, but I'll wait until things are sorted out.

Although I've been testing the new OS for months, the first computer that I officially upgraded was my laptop. It does boot a bit more quickly and runs a bit faster. Overall I'm happy with it. Multi-monitor support has been improved and I like the new Task Manager. But for many there may not be any compelling reason to upgrade right away. This is the future of the PC, and only Windows 8 will give us access to the new software designed for the new interface. It's sort of like having a new toy added to the old OS. But some will see it as a useless appendage that only gets in their way. There are also the inevitable problems and annoyances that come with any major change to your computer. In the end, the most compelling reason to upgrade an existing desktop/laptop in the next few months is that the $40 upgrade may only be available until the end of January.

Personally, I would certainly go ahead and purchase any new computer with Windows 8 pre-installed.

Regardless, I urge even the most tech savvy to review the basics of the Windows 8 interface before trying to use it. This will make the transition go a lot more smoothly.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Going to NEAF

It's been a while since my last post here. Despite the slow economy SkyTools 3 is still going very strong and I couldn't be more pleased. I am in the final stages of the release of a major update to version 3.1, which adds some minor new features, fixes some annoyances, and makes the program even more stable than it already was.

Yesterday I received my copy of the April 2010 Sky & Telescope, which (finally!) has a review. It was well worth the wait because they did a very nice job on it. In the past they sent a copy out for review to someone who was not familiar with the program and they didn't always get it. Their review for SkyTools 2 was titled, "A 20th Century Log Book." No-seriously! I didn't know about the review before hand and happened to pick up a copy of the magazine. I read past the first paragraph before it slowly dawned on me--with a sick feeling in my stomach--that it was a review of my software. That, and they didn't give it much space. To add insult to injury, the very next issue had a comprehensive review of Megastar (a competitor) written by someone who uses the software regularly--someone who got it. To make matters worse it was a relatively minor upgrade to Megastar whereas I had pushed forward with all these cutting-edge features for SkyTools. Let's just say my blood pressure got a little up over the whole thing. Thankfully this time the review did a wonderful job of describing what SkyTools is.

Mrs. Skyhound and I are going to attend NEAF this year. We only made it out once before, I think in 2001, so it has been a long time. We are really looking forward to seeing everyone. If you attend, please come by and chat.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Personal Computer Revolution

I was recently asked what my programming philosophy was and it got me thinking. In a nutshell, my philosophy is that, when at its best, the personal computer represents a revolution in how we do things rather than a mere evolution.

A lot of programmers of my generation fell into a trap. They adapted existing paradigms to the personal computer rather than rethink the idea to fit the new paradigm that the computer represented. For me the classic example is Monopoly. Monopoly is a simulation of the world of high finance created for the board game paradigm. Programmers set out to adapt the board game for play on the computer, but to me that was missing the whole point. Why have the computer simulate a simulation designed for another technology? It seemed to me that what you really wanted to do was to rethink a simulation of the world of high finance in terms of the computer paradigm.

My favorite example of this is TiVo. When it became clear that the VCR could be replaced by a basic computer and hard drive, someone needed to create a software interface. Most programmers set out to recreate the familiar VCR, only on a computer. But the programmers who created TiVo took a different approach. They started over from scratch, re-imagining TV as if the VCR had never existed. They asked themselves, "In my wildest dreams what would I want a computer/TV to be able to do?" And in so doing they fundamentally changed the way we watch TV.

I really admire what they did with TiVo. My philosophy has always included a willingness to start over from scratch--to think big--to re-imagine how an existing task can be done on a personal computer. For me this is what makes computers exciting.

This is why SkyTools can't be easily pigeon-holed as a "planner" or "planetarium" or "star charting" program. It's for the same reason TiVo isn't a mere "VCR" program. The "planner" has its roots in the early days of computing when you logged into a large mainframe on a remote terminal and printed out your data on wide sheets of paper that you picked up at the computer center. The Planetarium is a projector that recreates the sky on the ceiling. It is used primarily to educate people about the sky and its motions. And of course a paper star chart is like a road map of the sky.

While there are similarities, SkyTools is more than a representation of these things on a computer. No, it's a suite of software tools designed to help people observe at the telescope. That's why I call it Observing Software.