Star-Crossed Mars Expedition
We left home Saturday morning (
We began experiencing some sort of engine
half way to the site. The engine chugged,
lost power and finally died at milepost 304 on the grade up to
We let it set for about 10 minutes then tried to
again. It started then died an agonizing
death. We were considering options. I finally called our local friendly Mobil
station back in
We got to the observing site about – Just ahead of a rather heavy thunderstorm that hit about 30 minutes after we parked. It prevented me from unloading the telescope and supporting gear. Rainstorm abated about . A herd of cows approached to watch me unload the telescope while they munched what little grass they could find.
It continued to be very cloudy so doing any astronomy was out of the question. I covered the scope with a tarp. It rained off and on all night long.
On Sunday morning, I continued setting up the telescope. I also rebooted my laptop computer which I had, up to that time, been putting in “hibernation”. After reboot, almost nothing worked. I could not “run” Regedit. I could not run Explorer to examine files. It gave every symptom of a severe virus. I was able to use FileSync to look at files. I was able to start up in safe mode with DOS and do some real looking around and trying various things. Somehow began to suspect ZoneAlarm. Rebooted, killed ZoneAlarm and everything began working. Cost me several hours. I still don’t know what it is doing because it worked OK at home when I was on the network with the wireless network card. That was the problem though and it was not a virus.
Sunday afternoon I experimented with the new 9 dB gain cell phone antenna I bought so I could call back to work. I could not establish a connection even though there was an indication of a “roam” network. Finally walked out into big open field to see if I could find a place where it would work. Found a place amazingly. I marked it with some small logs so I could find it again. It seems to be only 10 feet in diameter or so according to tests I did. I came back to the motor home and climbed the ladder to put the antenna on top of it to see if that would work. It did not. I also unscrewed the tiny antenna on the cell phone because I wondered if that would help. Put the tiny antenna in my pocket and walked all over the field to see if I could locate any other communication “hot” zones closer to the motor home. I did not. However I did discover a hole in my pocket – after the tiny antenna had fallen through it – somewhere within the 5 acre area I had been walking in. I looked for it for a couple of hours. Then it started raining and I had to quit. I really hate losing stuff. I will look for it again.
There were three other occupied campsites within a quarter mile of us. They all left Sunday. We are now totally alone out here. A few cars go by on the road. We see one about every four or five hours.
The herd of cows came back in the evening after everyone else had left and they gathered around the motor home. They were extremely curious and we watched them and they watched us for about 40 minutes. I walked out to see if I could touch one but I could only get within about 50 feet.
Later Sunday evening, with Mars just barely visible between clouds, I finally got around to establishing communication with the telescope. I could not make it work. I worked on the problem from about until .
At about we heard coyotes screaming their greetings to each other.
Monday, I got up at 0600 and began working on the telescope communication problem. I had had problems before with the ATEN USB to Serial cable installation. Fortunately, I brought along a floppy disk with the latest driver downloads. Before reinstalling, I decided to duplicate some of the information onto the floppy. This somehow totally wiped the floppy. I considered alternate plans. Maybe Susan could drive to town, buy some other flavor of USB to Serial cable and I could stay here with the scope – in the rain… I was able, however, after much searching, to locate the ATEN drivers on my hard drive. Many reinstallations and many reboots and running my telescope control program in debug mode with the compiler system finally showed that the driver was working but the telescope would not communicate. The ATEN USB to Serial cable had a red light on but I didn’t know if that was good or bad. They didn’t document it in their documentation. Finally discovered that the telephone cable to 9-pin serial adapter that I was using was wired differently than the one I had forgotten that I had put in the laptop case months ago. The one in the case was clearly marked “LX-200” indicating that it was specifically for my telescope. I had wired it myself several months ago. I did not realize that it was essentially non-standard… When I used it, the red light went out and the telescope began communicating. It was about then.
We ran the generator for several hours to drive the battery charger to try to restore the charge in the “house battery”. The hydrometer readings did not make me happy. I cannot seem to reliably recharge a deep-cycle battery in any reasonable amount of time no matter what I try. I think the ones I buy are essentially defective from sitting on the shelf before somebody buys them… Probably need a small self-contained generator.
It rained again from about until . I walked through the mud to the cell phone “hot zone” and called Mike Waters at the office to see how things were going. Everything seemed to be ok there. At my end, I began hearing thunder again and standing out in an open field with my three-foot cell phone antenna cum lightning rod did not seem to be a good idea so I terminated the call.
On Monday night, it was pretty cloudy until about . I was able to get a few AVI image files of Mars between clouds. Well actually, through clouds. There were high semi-thin clouds that did not help anything but you have to get whatever you can. The ToUcam camera is doing a fine job.
Tuesday morning started out promising. There was sunshine with just a few clouds. As the day progressed, the clouds got thicker – and thicker – and thicker…
I walked out 100 yards with the cell phone and the 9dB gain antenna out to the place I had marked where the cell phone would work. I called Victor and talked briefly with Victor and Fay. Then I called Danny and talked with him. Everything seems to be going reasonably well at work - except for “Charley” and his never-ending USB to Serial cable adapter problems. Danny says he has that under control.
At about it began raining. I quickly covered up the telescope which had been drying in the sun. Then it rained harder – and harder – and harder. Susan and I took some pictures of the storm and I made some video clips of the storm. There was extremely heavy rain for an hour. Then about the rain subsided but the sky remained dismally overcast. Susan and I watched a movie on the computer via DVD. Then at I noticed that the sky had stars. In fact, there were no clouds at all! I uncovered the telescope, plugged in the power and started trying to communicate with the telescope and camera from within the motor home.
Wednesday evening during the uncovering of the scope, I noticed that the ToUcam camera was on because its red “recording” light was on. It should not have been on. I recalled that while using the computer earlier, I had gotten a surprise USB device installation message which I had wondered about. I am using three 15 foot USB repeater cables in series to talk from the computer within the motor home to the ToUcam camera. An hours worth of investigation revealed that the two outside cables were both failing. This was a real surprise and something I did not need just when the sky was finally clear after four days of truly bad sky for astronomy. I then moved the laptop PC outside onto a small table and connected the cables. I was then able to shoot images of mars. I set up Microsoft Outlook to notify me via the Calendar every half hour so I could make a 1000 frame AVI movie of Mars. I was able to take 1000 frames every half hour from 1030 through 0400.
During a couple of the shots, the telescope developed a mind of its own and changed its position as though it had received a command to point elsewhere. I am assuming that this was because of the extremely heavy dew that was drenching everything. I have been using the “Dew Zapper”, a 25 watt resistive strip that goes around the front of the scope to heat the corrector plate. It works extremely well but draws 2 amps from the battery… I had to run the generator since the batteries were getting low. I have placed two deep cycle batteries in parallel using jumper cables and this is what has been driving the equipment.
At 0400, it suddenly clouded over completely. This occurred within about 5 minutes. I covered the scope and went to bed.
I got up at 0900 Thursday morning.
There was bright sunshine. The
radio says it will not last through the
day. More thunderstorms are
expected. It is as I am writing this paragraph. There appear to be clouds over
I have the failing USB cables out drying in the sun in case the problem is moisture-related. I am hoping they will recover but somehow I doubt it… After a few hours, the cables still do not work.
Hydrometer readings taken on the batteries just now indicated that they are not in good shape. We have been running the generator this morning to charge them up. The charge is currently delivering 8 amps to the batteries. It probably will take 10 to 20 hours to get them charged up to maximum. It looks like I may need a small portable generator purely for running the telescope and its related equipment if we continue to do astronomy in the field.
Fortunately the motor home’s built-in generator operates for a long time on very little fuel. It gets its fuel from the main tank. According to the motor home manual, it will quit when there is less than a quarter tank of gas left. However it does use some of the main tank fuel and this is worrisome…
Yep, the sunshine didn’t last. At 1230, a few drops fell. We can hear even the smallest drops on our motor home roof when we are inside. I quickly covered the telescope. The rain increased in intensity. There was hail mixed in with the rain. Largest pellet I saw was 3/8 inch. I took some video of the hail bouncing off the ground and hope that it will show up in the video.
On Friday, I took the one good 15 foot USB extender cable and strung it through the nearest window instead of the usual wing window on the passenger door. I used duct tape to tape it up and over the walkway. It reaches the camera cable with a little to spare so I can now again set up inside the motor home.
There was no rain on Friday until about and then just a tiny bit. Again at about it rained a little more but just a little.
So it is on Friday now. Sky is brilliant and clear. I am inside the motor home controlling the telescope and the camera from the laptop computer that is sitting on the table. I’ve already taken a couple of AVI files of Mars – 1000 frames each. The seeing at the moment is not too good since Mars is currently low in the sky. I have Microsoft Outlook set to notify me every half hour so I will again take 1000 frames every half hour. My eventual goal is to create a movie of a complete rotation of Mars. Earlier work provided about 20 frames spaced 30 minutes apart so that would be about 10 hours or almost ½ a Mars rotation.
At , I noticed the image of Mars get dimmer. I checked for dew on the corrector plate. Yep, there is dew forming on the corrector plate. I should have plugged in the dew zapper. I was trying to save battery power. I should not have bothered since the battery was showing yellow instead of green and I fired up the generator around . I should have plugged in the dew zapper when I started the generator. I need to run the generator for a couple of hours to try to restore a little charge in the batteries. Clearly, I am going to miss the image. The telescope will probably be dew-free in time for the image though. Well actually, it is about 80% dew-free. I will take the shot anyway. There will be a slight loss of resolution but the atmosphere unsteadiness is currently the main contributing factor to image fuzziness…
I shot images every half hour. The last image was taken at 0400. The seeing for Mars by that time had deteriorated significantly since Mars was then low in the sky.
On Saturday, it did not rain for the first time. I played some banjo while awaiting darkness. In the evening, a small crowd of kids (perhaps 10 or more?) and about four adults gathered around and I let them look at the moon and at Mars. I also brought the laptop outside and plugged everything in so they could see real-time images being produced by the ToUcam webcam. It produces far more detail than one can see visually by looking through the eyepiece. I also showed them parts of my web pages which I keep on the laptop as well as on the PC at home for backup purposes. Took more early evening Mars images and called it a night at about .
On Sunday morning (
So we drove out on the dirt road that is the
So, we got on the road again.
We stopped at Mund’s Park to fill up with
gas. It looked like everything would go
well. Then just after
When we got home, the first thing Susan wanted to do of course was to turn on her computer and download her E-Mail. We had both shut everything down carefully before we left for the trip. We powered down all power strips. Everything was shut down normally and totally off. However, when we returned and she powered everything up, her computer did nothing. It just sat there. I was really tired but I took her computer apart to see what was wrong. It looked like a power supply problem since nothing was happening at all. I checked the power switch by measuring the resistance when it was on and off and it appeared to be working perfectly. I got on the internet to find information on troubleshooting power supplies. Found some good information showing which pins to short on the 20-pin connector to see if the fan would run. It would not so the power supply definitely appeared to be the problem. At on Monday, I went to Fry’s Electronics and bought a new power supply. Installed it and everything came up and is running. Susan downloaded her Email and appears to be happily answering tons of Email that had accumulated while we were gone.
I checked my Email and found congratulatory messages about the fact that my earlier Mars movie had been posted on the Astronomy Picture of the Day NASA web site! This was a surprise. It was posted on 23 September 2003. Here is the URL: http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap030826.html