Computers and Software

Mechanically, computers should be considered every bit as delicate as any optical component of your telescope. Take extra care of the LCD flat panel display of your laptop. These so-called active matrix screens are without a doubt, the majority of the value of your computer. Treat this screen with the same reverence reserved for your telescope's objective lens. Try to avoid sudden jars or bumps while handling it and when not in use, make certain it is stored inside a padded carrying bag designed for laptop computers.

From a software perspective, protect your data. Your acquired image files should always either be backed up or copied onto CD or some other non-erasable media. The first time you crash Windows and have to reformat your drive (therefore losing all the data on it) you will understand why I can't put enough emphasis on this point. A good way to protect yourself against operating system crashes is to pay regular visits to your system's Windows Update site. If you have ever worked in manufacturing, you understand the importance of making sure that your product is as perfect as it can be. In his post-astronaut memoir, Michael Collins points out that the Saturn V that launched him and his crewmates on the Apollo 11 mission had six million parts. With even 99.9% reliability, that meant that some six thousand failures could be expected. Each time a new version of Windows is released, it contains a mind-numbing average of 50,000 flaws! Most of these are relatively minor problems that deal with the operating systems interaction with certain third-party software. Microsoft addresses each issue as it arises and a corrective "patch" is posted on the Update site. Occasionally a large number of issues are corrected at once in a single large release called a service pack. A service pack will change your version number so be aware of any such changes. Other issues may involve security vulnerabilities that might allow someone on the Internet a chance to sabotage your computer. Windows also provides automatic access to updated drivers for your hardware. This can be critically important to you if you change or upgrade operating systems. If you convert a Windows machine to Linux or something else, your software drivers will not work with the new operating system. Even if you upgrade from one version of Windows to another, you will need new drivers. For example, I learned in upgrading from Windows Me to Windows XP that my video card driver does not get along with Windows XP. Keep your drivers up to date and keep Windows up to date.

Windows XP comes in two types of programs; the personal version intended for use on home PC's and the Professional version intended for use in the network environment. The Home version is oriented towards home users who run games, the Internet and many more basic functions. The Professional version is designed for heavy-duty networking where either workgroups or large servers are involved. Basically you will find three versions of Windows on the market for use on personal computers. If you've found a real dirt-cheap computer, you might find it is still running Windows 3.1. This is a 16-bit operating system that dominated the operating system market during the first half of the 1990s and made a multibil-lionaire out of Bill Gates. Many versions of CCD imaging software supplied with older generation cameras will still operate on Windows 3.1. The problem is that such a computer may not have nearly enough RAM to work with large image files or to upgrade to a later version of Windows. I would only suggest one thing if you purchase such a computer. Whoever owns it must be able to provide you with the original Windows floppy disks to reinstall the operating system. If something corrupts the operating system, you must be able to reinstall it and Microsoft will not be able to help you since support for Windows 3 versions ended many years ago.

In 1995, Microsoft introduced the first Windows 4 version, marketed as "Windows 95." This program (for you computer geeks, version 4.00.95) was the first of six in a product line that was built from 1995 to 2001. Always remember that whether you are running Windows 958, 95A, 95B (OSR 2), Windows 98, 98 SE, or Windows Me (millennium edition) they are all basically the same operating system. Each succeeding version simply takes all the patches that were made available to fix problems in the previous version and re-releases them in a single concise integrated software package. Succeeding versions also introduced some new functionality and updated drivers for new hardware as it is marketed. Because of the massive expansion of computer peripherals over the past seven years and the massive size of upgraded utilities such as Internet Explorer, the size of Windows itself has exploded. Windows 3.1 occupied less than 10 megabytes of hard disk space.Windows 95 was three times the size of Windows 3.1.Windows 98 was exponentially more massive and was the first Windows version not to be offered in a floppy disk version. Windows 98 ate up from 175 to 260 megabytes of disk space. Windows Me was the first operating system to consume a gigabyte (1,000mb) and Windows XP Home Edition is a whopping 1.5 gigabytes. If you have bought an old laptop with limited disk space, upgrading to a later version of Windows may not be practical. The minimum operating system you should consider for use is

8 Marketing names are different from program version numbers. For the record, Windows 95 Service Pack 1 is 4.00.95A, Windows 95 Service Pack 2 is 4.00.95B,Windows 98 is 4.10.1998,Windows 98 Second Edition is 4.10.2222, Windows Me is 4.90.3333.

Windows 95. That will at least run a 32-bit planetarium program and a CCD camera utility such as Pictor View. Also remember that Microsoft will not support any version of Windows that is more than three years old. Microsoft for example as of this writing has ended support for all versions of Windows older than XP and no longer provides security updates for anything older than Windows XP Service Pack 1.

Microsoft's flagship operating system today is the Windows XP (version 5.1.2600) product line that debuted in September 2001. For myself, I could not get my hands on it fast enough. The program is built around the system kernel designed for Windows NT and its follow-on,Windows 2000. By building a personal use system around the new kernel, Microsoft finally managed to rid its PC operating systems of their notorious instability. There have been drawbacks however. Some programs intended for use with Windows personal operating systems do not provide support for the Windows NT kernel and as such will not function with Windows XP. If you have a pet favorite image processing, camera control or planetarium program, make certain that it supports Windows XP before you upgrade your operating system. If the program you use predates Windows XP, check and see if it supports Windows 2000 or Windows NT. If it specifically does not support Windows NT or Windows 2000, then it probably will not work under Windows XP.

Your applications themselves require frequent updating. Make sure that whatever brand of planetarium software you buy, it is well supported by the manufacturer and offers frequent updates from a good website. A slick software program, particularly a planetarium program is worthless if it cannot be kept up to date. As new comets and asteroids are discovered, planetarium software quickly becomes obsolete. Even stars, generally considered to be eternally unchanging do in fact change from time to time. In recent years, the star Beta Scorpii has exhibited an unusual brightening. Usually the three stars that make up the Scorpion's head are of nearly uniform brightness. During the past three years, Beta Scorpii has increased in brightness by nearly half a magnitude from its normal magnitude 2.3. As much as I have enjoyed using RedShift in its various versions over the years, I will likely look at a different brand next time since RedShift does a very poor job of keeping its databases updated. Camera control programs are also often updated. Remember that it is quite normal for software programs to be released chock full of errors. In addition to correcting for their own mistakes, all programs must be continually revised to account for constant changes in the operating system environments. Remember that since the first Windows 95 appeared, there have been seven different Windows operating systems. Each time a new Windows appears, your applications must be upgraded to operate properly in the new system. Nearly every major camera control program regularly updates their software for these reasons as well as to introduce improvements and new functionality. Do not underestimate the value of improved or updated computer control. It can vastly extend the ability of hardware to perform beyond the standards for which it was originally designed. By the time Voyager 2 reached Neptune in 1989 more than twelve years after it was launched, its software had been rewritten so many times that it had become a spacecraft with capabilities far beyond what had been originally designed into it. That growth allowed Voyager 2 to overcome difficulties and problems that would have and probably should have crippled the mission. Improvements in the camera control software for my Pictor 216 XT allow for use of differing image formats, cooling and connection to more modern PCs. NASA has made available to Meade its "Drizzle" technology to allow long exposure to be taken using the Deep Sky Imager with an alt-azimuth mount without an expensive field dero-tater. Stay up to date and don't accept any program that cannot be kept so.

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