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.