Let’s talk about the “black” screen of death. Not the blue screen that perhaps some of you PC users are familiar with. No, the black screen is perhaps a little more unsettling as it means you have lost communication with your remote computer and perhaps your equipment is now running exposed to the elements with no way of intervening! I use the Team Viewer application which is free and I think pretty robust. It has been very solid over the last couple of years anyway. They do have down times for maintenance which they inform you of ahead of time and very rare unanticipated downtimes which they are very quick to address. I have seen only one of these which lasted about 3-4 hours. Once you set your remote computers up and you open the Team Viewer application the computers typically appear with a small blue screen icon. That is a good thing! That means your computers are good to go and when you double click on the blue icon you go right to your remote computer screen for whichever computer you are using. When the computer icon is black that means something is wrong. On the Team Viewer screen you can see how long the computer(s) have been inaccessible. This can be helpful in diagnosing the problem. The following are the typical reasons:
1) All computers are black- this means that you could be in the middle of an internet reboot especially if the down time has been short, say less than 10-15 minutes. In that case once the internet is rebooted, the computers will come back online. You just need to wait “patiently”. Alternatively the downtime could be much longer, say a couple of hours or more. This is likely due to an extended power outage, one that has gone beyond the life of whatever backup battery you have hooked up to the computers. In that case you have to wait until power comes back on. Hopefully there is not an imaging session in progress! It is also possible that some event occurred to disrupt power at the observatory such as a lightning strike.
2) One computer is black- this means that something is wrong with that particular PC. You can try to cycle power to it to see if it will reboot but usually there is a major hardware issue. If you only have 1 remote computer you can check to see if your network is still operating by trying to access one of your monitoring cameras for example. These are typically not PC driven and can be checked from a mobile device app. In my experience on the 2 occasions this has happened the reason was a computer system board or “motherboard” failure. This occurred on both the Pier 2 laptop and Pier 1 desktop within about 6 weeks of each other! Now it is possible there could be something quirky with the Teamview app on the remote computer. This does happen to the “station” laptop (see above image) which is not involved with any of the observatory equipment but communicates with the main back up battery . This battery provides backup to the router specifically. I haven’t figured out exactly why this occurs periodically but I think it may be occurring when the laptop restarts after system updates. Something to sort out going forward but not a show stopper if that computer goes offline because I know how to fix that.
The “black screen of death” is only one of the many potential pitfalls in this battle we call “remote imaging”. Since this past Spring I have had to address the following:
1) Failed roof control. We discussed this in earlier posts but this required changing the entire system.
2) Camera on Pier 2 malfunctioned. This occurred when during camera rotation a cable connecting the imager to the guider was inadvertently pulled out and shorted the camera circuit board. That was just a dumb but costly mistake when I had the cable tethered to the main cable
3) 2 motherboard failures in 6 weeks as discussed above.
4) Circuit board on the MX+ mount on Pier 2 malfunctioned and required replacement.
5) Both RA and Dec cam knobs had to be replaced on the Pier 2 mount (MEII) due to excessive wear.
Fortunately both the laptop motherboard and the MX+ circuitboard were under warranty, but still a fairly expensive 6 month duration of problem solving; not as much as it would have cost having a hosting site run your equipment (see below). I understand why people are moving away from “doing it all” with this remote imaging stuff. I get it. Managing the equipment side, data collection and data processing can be very frustrating. Between the hardware breakdowns, software glitches, and not to mention the weather not cooperating when your in the middle of finishing a project can be very frustrating. Despite having 2 imaging platforms and operating this for about 15 months now I have completed only 5 projects. Every week there is something else to fix. But despite all of this, when you get that moment when things are working and you get that “Wow” result, it makes it all totally worth it! I would say that people like myself are in the minority these days. Most people are either forming teams where 1 or more are handling the equipment side and one person is processing the data, or you have the situation where you bring your equipment to a dark sky “hosting” site such as a Deep Sky West etc. where you have a team of people managing your equipment and you just operate it remotely. This does cost quite a bit; a few hundred dollars per month typically. There is also the option of paying for data and using a remote site such as iTelescope or Chilescope or any one of the 100 or so of these sites in operation now. Finally I think most people who are doing astroimaging these days are using smaller setups they can travel with to dark sky sites and doing everything on site. Everyone will have their reasons for doing what they do. It’s all good. For myself, I feel lucky I can operate equipment from a dark site that I don’t have to set up every night I’m using it , I can operate it from another location and don’t have to stay up with it all night and have 2 platforms I can use potentially simultaneously. If I want to travel to a dark site with smaller stuff I can do that too at some point. So if you are like me and are thinking of “going remote” remember you have to get used to expecting the unexpected and like a Hall of Fame football coach once told his Superbowl winning QB: “you can’t be afraid to go down in flames”. Be sure to check out the “Going remote” page and of course thanks for reading!