Over the past few weeks it has been creeping into my consciousness that static electricity might be disrupting my telescope.  Not only does Windows 8.1 make its sad little USB disconnect chime every time I get near the computer, but the mount starts acting up.  It stops tracking during the middle of an exposure and the mount software even crashes, as does Maxim DL.  I was pulling my hair out.

Yesterday in a desperate attempt to get control of this problem I researched static electricity problem solutions.  I looked at anti-static mats, fabrics, meshes, straps, and booties.  None of those ideas were immediately accessible to me.  One writer suggested that those methods won't even work that well if a static spark does occur, since a spark is composed of high frequency spectral energy and any kind of wire will have a high impedance at those frequencies, and it is likely that the energy will jump through air to the nearest convenient conductor (like my mount or my camera) rather than take the wire to ground.

Finally I came across something I could try right away: fabric softener.  Hey, even the Dollar stores in Quartzsite sell that stuff.  I just mixed some with water in a spray bottle and started spraying all fabric surfaces, including the tent floor and the carpet under my desk / table.  I also got some of the sheets you throw in the dryer, thinking those might be good wipes for the equipment.

When I started up the observatory last night, I took the extra time to spray all the tent walls and floor with this mixture, and to wipe down all the equipment.  (It needed it, as there was quite a dust accumulation.)  I wound up using a paper towel sprayed with the water / softener mix, since the sheets seemed to be leaving particles of some sort behind.  It took maybe a half hour to get everything clean.

As expected, there were some hiccups getting all the equipment up and running.  Try as I might I could not get the camera to connect in Maxim.  I began wondering if I had zapped its electronics, but decided to do a complete power cycle on everything.  I pulled the plugs on the mount and power supply and turned the computer off so everything was down to zero.  Then I powered everything up and booted Windows.  After a few unplug and plug cycles, everything was online, including the camera!

I went for broke and started up all the software: both observing planners, my focuser program, Maxim DL, MaxPoint, the mount software, and my planetarium program.  All of it seemed happy and connected just fine.  The mount was even reading the GPS time, after weeks of complaining about not being able to do that.  (A few days earlier, I had figured out how to switch this feature on in the program.)

I loaded my pointing file for the western half of the sky and indexed on Alpha Peg, then Sigma Peg, and then over to Auriga where my first target would be, NGC 1960.  Everything seemed to be working smoothly.  I started a series of exposures at 40 seconds and just sat back and watched it go.  Every time I got up to check something, I carried a damp rag with fabric softener with me and touched the tripod, floor, desk, chair, etc. before touching any equipment.

The data just kept coming in, one filter after another, and soon it was time to look for another object.  That was easy because I had a few candidates loaded in Deep Sky Planner, so just a click and slew and I was on to the next cluster.  This time I tried a 70 second exposure, the longest one yet, and was surprised at how circular the star images were.  They were maybe a little elongated, but not bad.  All the images were good and there were no tracking issues.  The mount software just kept running smoothly in the background.

Finally, after a couple more targets, this time through AstroPlanner, I was getting tired.  It was only 11:00 PM, and the Moon wasn't due to rise until 2:30 AM, but I had been up since about 5:00 AM that morning and even sitting at the computer was more than I wanted to do.  So I decided to power everything down, this time in the right order, rather than as damage control in a crash landing.  I made sure to save all the settings in my mount software and all my observations in my planning programs, and buttoned up the observatory for the night before midnight.

A few surprises: Little did I know that two of the clusters I was imaging were M36 and M38 in Auriga.  I was just seeing their NGC numbers in the planning software, but I knew they were special once I got my first images, because they were so rich.  There must have been hundreds of stars in my images.  During the afternoon I had downloaded data from the AAVSO Photometric All Sky Survey (APASS) and noticed that NGC 1960 had over 800 stars in the downloaded file.  Now I have to figure out how to handle all of that data.  I certainly cannot do that by picking them one at a time, like Maxim and even AIP4Win wants me to do.

Negative results on the static experiment would be encouraging, but to really nail it I would have to deliberately induce static by violating the anti-static regimen.  Well, I did that accidentally by pulling on a sweater and then sitting down without touching the floor and table first.  Sure enough, Windows complained.  Luckily none of the equipment dropped out, but just the same that was a warning.

So I am happy with the way the night went, even though there were a few good hours left in it by the time I quit.  I am optimistic that I can recreate this "golden" session by attention to details and careful procedure.  Slowly my confidence in my tools and in my abilities is returning.

Even though the Moon was almost full and the sky was pretty washed out, it was worth getting up at 1:00 AM to open up my observatory.  The air was calm and temperatures in the 40's, so it was pleasant even without gloves on, although a coat was definitely in order.  It is so pretty at night in the desert.  There were a few late night travelers on Highway 95 about a mile to the west, but other than them it was pretty quiet.

My observatory started up without too much trouble.  Windows won't recognize all the USB devices if they are plugged in before it boots, so the external USB hub with the game controller, camera, mount, and focuser waited until after the boot for plugin.  Even at that, Maxim didn't recognize the camera nor FocusMax the focuser.  It took an unplug / plug event to force Windows to recognize those devices, and then the programs began to see them. That coud be kind of a hassle.

After setting the park position and indexing the mount to its internal encoder home position, it was easy to synchronize the pointing model onto a fairly bright star.  Then it was time to find some stars for some data collection.  I decided it would be fun to test the system on some variable stars, so I used my Deep Sky Planner software to select some variables from the NSV catalog that would be visible from my location during my observing window.

What I quickly discovered is that it is challenging getting a sufficient number of reference and check stars in the same frame as the variable.  Also, the variables I chose didn't seem to be supported by the AAVSO plotting software.  It would plot the variable and the surrounding stars, but with no magnitudes on any of them.  One variable, 46 Vir, finally did have a photometric observation associated with it, but there were no tagged magnitudes on reference stars.  I am not sure if any of their reported magnitudes will do me any good with the Sloan filters, anyway.

Finally I decided to go after some open clusters.  My plan is to get magnitudes in the three Sloan filter bands that I have and measure instrumental magnitudes for all the brighter stars in the cluster in each filter.  Then I should be able to make color index plots, perhaps with g'-r' on one axis, and r'-i' on the other axis.  That should show some sort of pattern for the cluster stars, and maybe a different pattern for random field stars.  All of this will be completely unmoored from any real magnitudes, unless I can get some Sloan magnitudes for those stars to ground them in some sort of standard system.

At around 6:00 AM I was on my third cluster, thinking I would let it work on collecting data while I fixed my breakfast.  I cam back to check on it about 20 minutes later to find that the mount software had crashed, sending the scope zigzagging across the sky until it contacted the pier and jammed.  Evidently the motors were left in some intermediate state from tracking when the program crashed.  I had to pull the power plug on the drive to stop it.  I don't think it hurt anything, since it must have been a soft contact, and besides, there are no gears to strip. 

Still, it bothers me that Windows will just crash programs for no particular reason.  Maybe it dropped a USB connection.  It keeps playing its sad little chime whenever I sit down in front of the computer.  Is it sensitive to static electricity?  There might be plenty of that around, since it is so dry out here.  I am thinking about upgrading to Windows 10, since 8.1 might have some bugs in it with regard to USB connections.  Then again, Windows 10 might have those same bugs plus a load of new ones.

A chilling thought occurred to me this morning: without the mount software my telescope is completely non-functional.  It won't even guide with a hand paddle.  I am completely at the mercy of the software developers in Austria.  If their company goes tits up, then it might be bye-bye mount control program.  I wish there was a way I could program my own mount control system.

Here is something else I have been up to.  My assignment in the Designing Sound class for this week was pretty interesting.  We were to take some effects patches from a Guitar Effects website, < http://mcaf.ee/85qmlj > and recreate them from the keyboard (no copying or using the included pd file) and then create some sounds to input into the effects and record the output.

So I am sort of getting my feet wet in Pure Data at last.  I have been reading chapters in the textbook about the various objects and how to create abstractions.  Pretty soon we will be using our Pure Data patches to create original compositions.  That should be fun, but sort of challenging.

Now I am wishing I brought my midi keyboard.  Just kidding -- the dust would have trashed it.  Actually, it would be fun to pick up a small plucking instrument, like a ukulele.  It could be neat to play that in the desert darkness.  It is really quiet out here in the middle of the night.  Everything except the coyotes is asleep, or at least quiet, while I am working with my telescope.  Even my telescope is utterly silent.  Plucking an instrument while I wait for the telescope to collect the data would add a lot of atmosphere to the observatory.

I discovered that I was outsmarting myself with the green laser pointer that is built into the ASA DDM60 mount's RA axis.  I thought it was directly aligned with the axis and was trying to estimate the distance away from the pole that Polaris was, and pointing the laser beam into that empty space where the celestial pole should be.  Then, last night, I discovered that the laser actually describes a circle in the sky when you rotate the RA axis.  Thinking that the laser was out of alignment, I was contemplating taking the cover plate off and attempting to "realign" the laser with the RA axis.

Before doing that, I searched for some advice on the issue, and finally came up with this statement from ASA in their FAQ forum: "If you turn your RA-axis, the laser will describe a circle on the sky. If you try to place the polar star on that place where Polaris should be actually in relation to the pole you have finalized a raw polar alignment." 

So all this time I have been pointing off Polaris where I thought the pole should be, when in reality I should have been pointing directly at Polaris, with the RA mount oriented in such a way to put the center of the circle on the pole.  Now I just have to figure out how to position the RA axis to get Polaris tangent to the circle at the right place. 

Maybe if I imagine a line from Polaris to Kochab in Draco, and place the counterweight coincident with that line, that will orient the RA axis properly, at least to one side of the circle or the other.  I should be able to tell which side is correct by just turning the RA axis and watching the laser describe its circle.

My only other thought is that I should slew the telescope to Polaris, and then move the mount (the tripod for azimuth or the altitude adjustment on the pier) to center the laser on Polaris. 

My confusion arose due to the fact that the manual for the mount states that the laser is aligned with the RA axis, and they actually recommend pointing the laser at the empty point in space 0.73 degrees away from Polaris.  Yow!  Which one do I believe?  Obviously, my laser in the DDM60 mount is describing a circle in the sky, so I guess the FAQ answer trumps the manual.

This morning went pretty well.  I started my observatory at about 1 AM  and managed to get the mount drift aligned to within about 3 and 7 arc minutes of the pole, in altitude and azimuth, respectively.  That was a milestone for me, as I have never done a drift alignment before.  It was relatively quick with my camera configured as a guide camera, since I could see the star drift one pixel at a time and make adjustments on the mount in real time.
 
I also got the automatic focusing software working, so that takes a lot of the tedium out of prepping an image.  I decided to go after an open cluster so I could characterize the stars in the frame by their color indexes, and I chose NGC6633 as a good one that was fairly high in altitude and gave me reasonable signal at a 10 second exposure through my Sloan g', r', and i' fiters.  I set it up in an automatic script that exposed all the light and dark frames while I sat back in my chair and watched.  Then when it started getting light at around 6:45 AM I took a series of flat frames and flat darks, since I had changed the focus on the image train.
 
Of course, that makes it sound way too easy.  It wasn't.  Getting to that point was a chore, since I had to make a new pointing file with 13 observations, and then my mount control software crashed right when I started the data capture.  I was thinking about bagging it for the morning, since it was already 5:30 AM, but decided to see just how hard it would be to recover.  I had to close down a few programs and restart the mount program, set its park position and encoder offsets, and then re-sync the pointing model on a star.  By 5:45 I was shooting my data frames so I guess that wasn't too bad.

Dark skies and transparency make all the difference.  That is why I am thinking that camping in Nevada might be better.  I know it will be darker there, and from what I remember of my trip through there three years ago it was spectacular, so it must have been transparent too.  The local astronomers at Tonopah claim it is a good location for observing.  I think it would be good camping and possibly okay Internet north of Tonopah.  It is probably darker east on Highway 6, but the cell phone coverage gets pretty iffy out there.

I would actually prefer finding the best spot for visual observing.  The Quartzsite location is moderately dark, but there are light domes from nearby towns all around on the horizon.  It might be possible to get further back in the hills to get away from the town lights, but there is nothing that can be done about the others.  Also, the seeing is pretty terrible here, with stars visibly twinkling from naked eye viewing.  One nice thing about the campsite is that there is little dust.  Most of it has been blown away by the wind, leaving only the rocks behind.  The ground looks like a parking lot, pretty much everywhere except the washes, where trees and shrubbery still have a foothold.

Last night was the pits for me.  I got started setting up my telescope late, since I had been visiting with the neighbor for perhaps an hour around supper time, and it seems like everything I did was wrong. 

I started out by aligning the finder scope with the optical tube, and then discovered I had the OTA mounted upside down (since it has rails on both sides) when I put the scope into the zenith position to start the indexing process.  The finder scope was close to hitting the tripod.  I had to remove the OTA and flip it. 

Then after indexing and balancing the system, which by the way involves comparing the current load to drive the mount each direction in RA and DEC (pretty neat), I took the first test shot of the zenith with the camera.  It was horribly out of focus, and I realized I needed the two inch spacer rather than the one inch, so I had to disassemble the camera / focuser part and put the proper spacer in place, which of course affected my balance on both axes.

Windows kept dropping my USB connections, so I had a struggle with getting the camera online in the first place, and then I had to keep plugging in my GPS receiver to satisfy the mount software, which wanted the GPS time.  (My USB hub had been acting flakey, so I was juggling USB devices on the three ports on my laptop.) 

When I finally got the mount to track so I could start the calibration process, all my directions on my gamepad joystick were weird.  I finally realized that I must have mounted the camera upside down.  Everything was backwards, since I had pitched the tent with its orientation determined by the smooth spot, not the north - south axis.  I kept bonking into the counterweights because everything was in a different place:  my computer, the tripod, my power connections, etc.

Finally, it was getting on toward midnight and I was still struggling with getting the first star indexed in the calibration process, when the drive kept reporting positioning errors and dropping the RA tracking.  That made it impossible to move the telescope and keep the star centered.  The mount had been acting bizarre all night, with sudden unexplained 180 degree flips in RA, and this was just the icing on the cake.

I realized that by luck I had done everything right in the Ajo / Why setup, and by bad luck had done everything wrong on this setup.  It was a great learning experience, but frustrating.  Plus I was so tired that I was actually stumbling around in my observatory, having to concentrate to keep my balance. 

I had been up since 4 AM that morning, since I had a headache the night before and wanted to get up to do some early morning naked-eye observing anyway.  Plus, you know how it is with late night thoughts, I was telling myself how timid I had been by backing out of the motor home deal, and that this was a payback, maybe from Dad's ghost, telling me that I had made a big mistake.

I am not sure how much longer I will stick around Quartzsite.  I have several days of grading to do, but after that I might head on to California.  There are some people there that I would like to visit, like Errol and Mitzi, Joel, Kirk the contractor in Ojai, and Michaele.  Then I thought it would be easy to head into Nevada.  It might still be a little chilly at night there, but maybe with long underwear and socks I will be able to keep warm at night in my sleeping bag.

I am just kind of feeling my way along now, and much of my previous plans has changed due to talking with people that have tried camping in some of the places I have mentioned.  Much of what I had planned isn't coming to pass, largely due to a lack of time.  Traveling and maintaining a camp eats into my daytime hours, and the incessant clear weather keeps me up late more evenings than my system can easily handle. 

My adventures have been a mix of pleasant and unpleasant, with periods of calm and peaceful surroundings.  Many of my old habits are falling away, and I feel that this experience is changing me.