Monday, April 14, 2008

Real (long) Time

It's Monday, I have a headache and I don't feel much like working, so I thought I'd finally post something on my blog. Usually what happens is if I think about writing something I decide that working on the program is a better use of my time. That's why you haven't heard from me much in the last few months.

Before I get to the fun stuff, let me say that "it" has happened again. At every point in the process of developing SkyTools 3 I have run into the very same problem, and even I, head deeply buried in the sand, am beginning to see a trend. I have been operating under a very basic misconception. I know this may sound ludicrous to some of you but I naively thought that SkyTools 3 would be easier than SkyTools 2. My reasoning went something like this: ignoring the database updates, which I know is always an enormous job, most of the actual programming was already in place. To add a new feature or extend functionality would be simple. But that is not the case. Instead, as the program becomes ever larger and more complex, just about anything I do to it becomes more difficult, requiring ever more time and testing. It has become rather clear that the methods I had used up to now, which had served me well, are no longer viable. I have begun to rethink everything with one goal: to release an upgrade every two years. Wish me luck.

Looking at the calendar I can see it is already April and I haven't got the Pro version testing up and running yet. The main reason is that, once again, I have greatly underestimated how much there was to be done. Not to mention all the distractions, like spending several hectic days and late nights last week moving my web site to a more reliable host. And even the testing is proceeding much more slowly than our original Real Time testing did. For instance, I released a bunch of new Real Time features last Friday with the expectation that at least some testers would try them out over the weekend. But so far I have heard nothing. I don't know if it's weather, if the testers have lost interest, or what. Regardless, it is a bit disheartening. I'll have to move on. And when bug reports finally do come in I'll have to go back and figure out what I did, where the code is, remind myself how it all works, and in the process leave what I have started in the meantime half finished. Then I'll have a similar problem when I go back to what I was working on.

But as always, there is a pretty big pot for at the end of this rainbow for SkyTools users. My knack for overreaching means that there are many new features, several of which were unplanned. Here are some of the highlights:

Offset Tracking: telescopes that support this capability can be set to follow slow moving objects. This can be done by entering the R.A. and Dec. rates manually, or by letting SkyTools to it automatically; just target a Comet or Asteroid and the telescope should automatically track its motion. I can't wait to hear from someone how it actually works in the field!

Mount Alignment tool: I have developed a simple, but I think very useful, tool to align your telescope mount via the drift alignment method. SkyTools will pick an appropriate star for you, target your telescope if connected, and display a finder chart. The best part is that the eyepiece view of the chart splits the sky into north and south zones that are labeled by the direction in which you should move your mount. It takes all the guess work and confusion out of the process. I am really happy with it, but again, I'm anxiously awaiting to hear what the testers think.

Native Argo Navis support: in addition to directly supporting the Argo Navis in Pushto mode now you can download SkyTools observing lists to the unit for use in the field. Comet and asteroid orbital elements are automatically uploaded and you will be able to give each list of objects its own identification to help organize your observing.

I have also added support for Pier flipping and selecting basic tracking rates.

Finally, in the process of making charts for finding the exact location of each pole for polar alignment, I realized that SkyTools was somewhat deficient when it came to targeting the poles. So I added a new "object" classification called Reference Points, which includes the Celestial Poles, Galactic poles, galactic center and Zenith. These reference points can be chart targets, added to observing lists, and appear labeled on the charts.

As you can clearly see, I got carried away again.