By Stirling Edgewood
Chapter 5: Target Praxis
“Target not acquired.” The message glowed on his computer screen.
He paused, puzzled. He tapped more keys, then an image popped up. It showed a few dim points of light, indicating background stars, but not the red disk he expected to dominate the image.
He rapidly clicked more buttons, and the targeting coordinates popped up on the screen. He opened an electronic celestial observation positioning calculator, punched in the date, time, and geographic location of the telescope, and compared the resulting coordinates to his targeting dataset. They matched. He punched another button, and a 3-D model of the stars and their locations glowed on screen. He hit another button to set them in motion, watching them move gracefully across his screen while a small blue ball representing his planet circled its home star. A line ran from his planet to the star that was the focus of his research, with targeting coordinates scrolling beneath the line as the angles changed. He stopped it at the moment of the observation, the one showing nothing but background stars. The coordinates matched.
“The calculator must be buggy. I’ll to do it by hand,” he said. He opened up an electronic reference manual, pulled out the standard position information and proper motion data, put the equations into a spreadsheet, and ran the calculations for the coordinates. They matched.
“Somebody seriously screwed up the star charts,” he concluded. “Maybe if I take a look at past observations I can recalculate the proper motion and figure out where to point the telescope.”
He searched for the files and queued them up. He started with the earliest available one, copied the coordinates, and for grins, decided to look at the image. A red circle glowed neatly from the center of it. He flipped to the latest one, taken about a year before his disastrous half-star embarrassment and copied those coordinates too. Then he pulled up the image. It looked odd. It was still a red disk on a black background, but it seemed wrong somehow. He flipped back to the earlier image. Then to the newer image. The circle had shifted. The disk in the newer image was lower, and to the right. But he knew the coordinates were calculated to place the star in the exact center of the image.
He pulled up the 50 or so remaining observations between the newest and oldest, taken over a period of years, and flipped through them chronologically. The first 20 looked identical. Then, with each click to a new image, the target shifted gradually toward the right hand corner. He started over from the beginning, feeling puzzled. “Why would the images shift partway through?” he asked. “The early images are on target, which suggests the star charts are correct. But the later ones are off, and getting worse over time.” He paused and thought a bit. “Must be a targeting issue with the telescope,” he concluded. “Stars can’t change direction,” he asserted. “At least, not in any observable way over the course of a few years. Well, I need to adjust the calculation of the proper motion if I want to get accurate coordinates for an observation.”
He pulled up a program used to analyze newly discovered celestial objects and fed in the images. The computer automatically scanned the images, calculated the center of the disk in each, pulled the dates into a database, and ran a curve fit to estimate the proper motion. He punched in the date and time of his observation, and got the coordinates. “I wonder if anyone else might have been looking at this patch of sky recently?” He mused.
“Request: Most recent results for distinct coordinates.” He punched into his computer.
“Coordinates?” came the response.
He fed in the coordinates, but not for where the star chart showed it should be, but rather, the coordinates for where his new calculation estimated it would be.
“Observation conducted 2014589373. Download?”
“That’s within a week of my observation time,” he said hopefully.
He hit the “Yes” button. The computer began to whirr.
“I require a status update on the progress toward observational goals,” came an unpleasant voice from alarmingly close by. He jumped, then looked up to see a round, bulbous face floating over the partition of his work space. In his concentration, he had failed to notice her approach.
“Um, we seem to be experiencing continued issues with data acquisition,” he explained.
“Your performance on this task to date has been substandard,” she said angrily. “I was considering alternative staff for this task, but decided to allow you to rectify past shortcomings. However, this persistent inability to achieve personal objectives has reached a critical juncture. I believe this stems from an inability to communicate in a timely fashion and calls for a formal personnel consultation…” She droned on, but he had tuned her out. The computer had beeped at him, “Download complete.” He looked at the message, wondering what would be in the download. Deciding he had nothing to lose, he plunged forward.
“Actually,” he interrupted her, “the data are in, the observation was a complete success, meeting or exceeding all strategic goals.”
She stared at him dubiously for a moment.
“Show me,” she demanded.
He turned the screen toward her, but a little too far, and it was at an angle where he could not see it. He reached out to pull it back into his view, but she grabbed it firmly. “Show me now,” she commanded.
Nervously, he punched a button to bring up the image. He held his breath. A look of disappointment crossed her face.
“This observation appears to be,” she began, pausing momentarily, then adding, “adequate.”
Not sure what that meant, he sat motionless.
“However, I expect a thorough QA/QC, with a full report on any discrepancies.”
He exhaled with a sigh of relief.
“And this image is crooked. Your targeting is deviating from optimum and must be improved. My expectation is that the follow-up observations next week will be perfectly centered,” she warned.
As she bobbed out of the area, she added, “At least you got the whole star this time.” He turned the screen around and smiled at the off-center, yet still complete, round, red circle that glowed there.