Troubles with failed alignment?

I was practicing for a RECON campaign the other evening.  Everything was up and running and my first alignment of the night was a quick success.  At that point I sent the telescope off to the first RECON field of the night.  After getting there I needed to change the camera setting to a senseup of x128.  When I touched the camera housing I felt the tiniest of a static electricity spark leap from my finger to the camera.  That’s very unusual but it was a really dry day.

Here’s the thing: at the instant I felt the spark the sound of the telescope drive motors changed pitch and volume by a little bit.  Of course, the telescope is tracking and it makes its quiet humming sound as it works.  An abrupt change like that got my spidey-senses tingling but there didn’t seem to be any major problems except I saw the telescope was no longer tracking perfectly.  I was seeing a very slow but inexorable drift of the field on the camera image.  Not good, but I still wasn’t sure there was much of a problem.  But, better safe than sorry.  I decided to redo the pointing.

Well, redoing the pointing wasn’t helping at all.  I tried three times in a row, changing stars each time and by the end I knew that something was very wrong.  I’m at least one of those attempts should have worked.  Rather than try, try again without changing anything, I decided I would start all over again.  That means turning off the power to the telescope and letting it sit a minute.  After I turned it back on I was quickly able to get a good alignment and quickly found the RECON campaign field.  So what happened?

I think the static spark caused the GPS information (time or position) to be corrupted.  My theory is that this information is loaded at the very start and isn’t updated again.  After the spark, either a bad position or time meant the computer was doomed to failure since the stars would never appear to be in the right place.  That would also make tracking and pointing all wrong.  The odd thing is that the telescope, camera, and computer all thought everything was fine.

This experience is worth sharing as an example of one way things can go wrong and how to recover.  The key, as always, is to 1) know your equipment and that means practice, and 2) pay attention to your equipment and what it’s telling you when in use.  I never would have thought a static spark could do this but that myth has now been dispelled.  I wonder how many of you have been inadvertently bitten by this failure mode.  I suspect this will only happen when it is very, very dry out and even then will still be rare.  In my case, the relative humidity was below 10% and I only got that one little spark the entire night.  I sure am glad it wasn’t just before an actual campaign event!

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