Saturday, March 24, 2018

M82--The Cigar Galaxy

When galaxies interact gravitationally, one of the consequences can be a burst of star formation. One such "star burst galaxy," is M82. M82 is five times brighter than our galaxy, with a center that is a hundred times brighter than that of our galaxy. Like Bode's Galaxy, M82 was also discovered by Johann Bode. The Hubble Space Telescope discovered almost 200 starbirth regions in M82's core, each with an average of around 200,000 solar masses.

This image was taken with the same platform as that used to image M81. This is a stack of 34 x 20s images.

M 81 -- Bode's Galaxy

Discovered by Johann Bode in 1774, Bode's Galaxy is the largest galaxy in the so-called M81 Group in Ursa Major (a group of 34 galaxies). The galaxy has a strong gravitational interaction with M82, the Cigar Galaxy (see the next post).

This image was captured with an 8 inch f/3.9 Newtonian and a Mallincam DS 2.3+ imager. This is a stack of 93 x 20-second integrations. Stacking was in DeepSky Stacker and the image was adjusted in Photoshop.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

M1--The Crab Nebula

In 1054, Chinese astronomers observed a bright supernova (what they called, a "guest" star). The nebula was first observed in 1731 by John Bevis, and became the first object to be associated with a supernova. In 1840, Astronomer William Parsons observed the object with a 36 inch telescope. To Parsons, the object looked like a Crab--hence the name we popularly call this object today.

The Crab is one of my favorite objects in the sky, and, as I had not imaged it since 2016, I decided it was time to take another look at an old friend.

The nebula is "energized" by the Crab Pulsar--the neutron star remnant of the supernova that created the nebula. The pulsar is around 30 km in diameter and spins at 30.2 revolutions per second. In an incredible achievement, an amateur with a webcam and a small scope built a "chopper" that enabled him to image the pulsar's energy rippling through the nebula. Here is the link:

My own image shows clearly the filamentary structure of the image:

The image was captured with an 8 inch, f/3.9 astrograph and imaged with a Mallincam DS 2.3+ imager. This is a stack of 40 x 20s integrations.

Here's a slightly more processed image to bring out contrast:

and finally, here's an inverted image, processed to show the filamentary structure in a little more detail:

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Platform Automation--Some Further Thoughts

I've been using the automated platform described in the previous four posts for a while. Here are some further thoughts from this experience (with many thanks also to other users of this platform who have send me comments):

Hardware: the modest W5 I use is perfect for my purpose (automating a driveway scope). However, if I were to add extra functionality (a filter wheel and focuser, for example), I would suggest a "beefier" stick (with an i3 or i5, rather than an atom-based processor) with more RAM. In addition, these higher end sticks come with Windows 10 Pro (rather than Windows 10 Home), which supports Windows Remote Desktop, eliminating the need for TeamViewer. Performance of the system is also very dependent on network performance, so it's important to ensure that your router is no so far from the stick that network speed is compromised. For most users, this issue will not be a problem, but, if you experience latency or lag in operation, the quality of your network connection is the first place to look.

Image Quality (TeamViewer) and resolution: TeamViewer has an image quality optimization tab:

To optimize image quality, click on the tab furthest to the right in the Quality box (shown above). The tab next to it allows you to optimize connection speed at the expense of image quality. In practice, with a good connection, you will always want to optimize image quality. In addition, I have found it to be advantageous to set the resolution of the remote desktop (that of the stick), to be the same as that on the "home" system that I use to connect to the stick via TeamViewer.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Wow--Full automation of an astronomical imaging platform for less than $120! -- Part 4

Putting it all together

With all the software installed, it's time to put things together.

Take the compute stick out to the scope:

Step 1: Wire up the hardware. Connect the telescope mount to the compute stick with the RS232 cable and the Serial to USB converter (I used the USB 2 port for this connection). Then connect the imager to the compute stick (I used the USB 3 port for this connection)

Step 2: Power up the mount and the compute stick

On the main computer:

Step 1:  Start up TeamViewer. You'll see the name of the remote computer (enter it, if you don't) and press the Connect button. After several seconds, the login box will appear. Type in the password you set up for the stick's TeamViewer installation. After connection is established, the remote desktop will load. You can now control the stick from your main computer.

Step 2: Start the ASCOM driver for your mount. The following window appears:

Press OK, and the driver will connect to your mount:

Step 3: Start your planetarium software
(In my case, Sky Tools 3--you can find instructions online for these tasks for your chosen software). 

In ST3, select the Live View tab. 

Move to the Telescope  button and select "configure" from the drop down menu. Select the driver you installed for your mount from the list that appears.

Click on the Telescope button again and select Connect from the drop down menu. ST3 will connect to the scope.

Congratulations!  You can now control your scope from your main computer! 

Step 3: Start you imager software
(In my case, Mallincam Sky). Connect to the imager, and you're in complete control.

At this point, I would go out and align my mount using the polar scope. For many of you, your scope may already be aligned, so you can (of course) skip this step. Because I align every session, I also do a single-star synch to complete the process. I also focus manually. For both of these steps, I take the main computer out to the scope (still mirroring the stick desktop) and perform these tasks. 

Step 4: Start remote imaging!  Go back to the comfort of your house and select an object in ST3. click Slew To, and scope will move to it and the object will appear in the imager. You can use the manual keys on your mount driver to center it, and you can then Synch it using the synch button on the ST3 interface.

The full system:

Wow--Full automation of an astronomical imaging platform for less than $120! -- Part 3

This is the desktop of the remote compute stick out at the scope, displayed and controlled by the computer in my living room. Click on image for a larger view.
The image above shows the fully-functioning system. The top, red window is the ASCOM driver for iOptron talking to the mount. Below it is the Star Tools 3 window. ST3 is connected to the scope via the ASCOM driver, and controls GOTOs and synchs. In this version, the 8 inch, f/3.9 Newt is pointing to the Orion Nebula. The nebula image is captured and displayed via the Mallincam Sky software and the Mallincam imager. Note that I also have SharpCap Pro on the remote computer. I use it with my ASI 120MM imager.

All these programs load and perform very well--even though the compute stick has only 2G of memory. Performance via TeamViewer is excellent, with very low latency.  Given the limited storage of 32G, I would recommend buying a micro SD card (128G is the max for this stick). Even if you do, I would also recommend that you permanently delete the downloads for your software after you have installed it, and also to run a disk clean operation and delete old versions of windows and system files. You will free up a lot of storage

Installation of the various pieces of software is straightforward and simple--I don't need to go into too much detail. Connect the stick to a monitor, add a USB mouse and keyboard and power it up. If it's a new stick, set up Windows first and then download the software packages.

The ASCOM drivers can cause some problems--see the next paragraph.

One note of caution: During installation, the ASCOM platform will tell you that it needs version 3.5 of the .NET framework to function (it will also probably ask for some C++ packages to be installed, but more on that later--don;t worry about it at this time). The ASCOM platform will not install until it sees this package is present. DO NOT DOWNLOAD .NET 3.5 as you can corrupt your installation.  You already have .NET 3.5 on your Windows machine, it is just not activated. To activate .NET 3.5, type "Turn Windows features off and on." You'll see .NET 3.5 at the top of the list in the window that appears. Check the box next to it to turn it on, then start the ASCOM installer again. It will, again, at some point stop and tell you it needs a couple of C++ libraries. Notice that you can click on an option that will allow the ASCOM installer to download and install them for you. Select this option.

When the ASCOM installer is finished, install the ASCOM Driver for your telescope mount and your imager, planetarium software, and, if needed, the remote control software such as TeamViewer (to say nothing of additional packages like focusers, filter wheels, etc., but I might suggest a "heftier" compute stick in such an instance, with at least 4G of memory--but they are significantly more costly ($300 to $400).

If you're using TeamViewer, you'll need to follow the instructions carefully. Set up the stick installation to allow remote control (the second radio button), and the main computer as a basic installation (the top radio button). When you have installed the software on the stick, start teamviewer and note the name assigned to the computer.  Then click on Extras>Options. The following screen will appear:

Add a personal password that is easy to remember. This step will ensure that TeamViewer will require the same password every time you start it up. If you don't do this, the password will change every time you start the program and you won't be able to log in remotely.

Finally, make sure you check the option to have TeamViewer start when Windows starts:

One last thing. You'll need to set up the stick so it logs into windows automatically when it starts. There are many online articles on how to do this, so I won't cover it here. It's easy to do and takes seconds.

One last tip: Make desktop shortcuts for all the software you intend to use on the stick. This step is not necessary (you could add them to the Task Bar, for example), but it makes finding and launching programs a little faster. You could also add them to the Start group, so they start when the compute stick boots, but I prefer not to do this as the stick starts faster if it does not have to also start up several applications.

Power down the stick. The next time we power it up, it will be out at the scope!

In Part 4, we'll tie the system together and get it working!

Monday, January 29, 2018

Wow--Full automation of an astronomical imaging platform for less than $120! -- Part 2

My first image captured and stacked with the fully-automated system. Conditions were poor and I was imaging through haze and clouds!

The Goal: The goal of this project is to create a fully-automated imaging platform in which all components and processes can be fully controlled from a "remote" location. In my case, I want to sit in the comfort of my living room and control my driveway scope, but it could just as easily be a scope in a remote observatory building where a computer controls dome/roof functions in addition to the scope/imager. We will accomplish this goal by loading all the software necessary to control the scope and imager on a "remote" compute stick that "lives" with the scope, and loading software to control that remote compute stick from the "main" computer in our living room or other preferred location. We will be able to see the compute stick desktop on our main computer, and to launch programs and use it as if it was sitting right in front of us, instead of at the remote location.

In addition to the hardware described in Part 1, you'll need appropriate hardware and several packages of software to support your automation project.


  • A computer controllable, ASCOM-compliant mount (most GOTO mounts meet this requirement. In my case, I have 3 mounts I use regularly that meet this requirement--and LX-200 and two iOptron mounts: the ZEQ 25 and the Smart EQ Pro
  • A "main" computer (desktop, laptop, or netbook) that runs at least Windows 7. I use Windows 10. This is the computer you will use to talk to the scope controller computer
  • A "compute stick" that also runs Windows (in this case Windows 10 Home edition). Please see Part 1 for the specifications of the stick I use. I would make sure that the stick supports this specification. 2 USB ports (at least one at 3.0) are optimal, although you could use a powered USB hub if the stick only has one
  • A serial cable designed to talk to your mount. Most manufacturers make these cables, but it's also very easy to make one, and you can find wiring diagrams for your mount online. It took me 30 seconds to make one for the iOptron mount using a 4-wire phone cable and a serial port with a modular plug with "push on" wires.
  • A USB to serial converter so that the serial cable can talk to your compute stick
  •  Your imager and its USB imaging cable
  • Other hardware you may wish to use--for example, a focuser.

The good news is that you can build your system with completely free software, if you wish! Here's what you need:
  • Planetarium software that will enable you to "drive" your scope to objects in the sky. Stellarium is an example of a free package. I use Sky Tools 3 Pro, but there are a number of packages you can use, such as Cartes du Ciel (also free at the time of writing)
  • ASCOM platform software. Some planetarium software can drive certain mounts "natively." That is, they have all the necessary drivers to talk to your telescope via the serial control cable. Many mounts do not, but they can talk to the planetarium software via an ASCOM (AStronomy Common Object Model) driver. ASCOM allows mounts, focusers, cameras, etc. to talk to each other. You will need to download the standard ASCOM platform from the ASCOM site ( if your mount is not natively supported by the planetarium software
  • ASCOM driver for your mount. You'll find this on you mount manufacturer's website. This software talks to the ASCOM platform, which enables the mount to connect with and communicate with the planetarium software (and other devices, such as autoguiders, if needed). Make sure you download the software specific to your mount model. many manufacturers maintain a number of ASCOM drivers, each tailored to a specific model they sell
  • Driver software for the USB to serial converter. You can find the latest version on the manufacturer's website. Some USB to serial converters are better than other, so I would suggest doing a little research. Check your mount's manufacturer website as they may have specific recommendations
  • Software that will enable you to control the compute stick from your remote, main computer. There are a number of free packages you can use for this purpose. This software runs on the compute stick and on the main computer. Windows Remote Control is a very good package, and it is bundled with Windows. However, it is not bundled with the Win10 Home edition that runs on my compute stick. There are workarounds, but I decided to use TeamViewer instead, which is free for personal use and has many useful features
  • Your imager's driver and imaging software.  Windows-based.
  • Software to control any additional hardware (such as a focuser, etc.)
To download the software, connect your stick to the HDMI port on a monitor and add a USB mouse and keyboard. If you're using the same network to download your software as you will be using to drive your scope, make sure that you set the automatic logon option. If it's not, be sure to log in to the scope control network you plan to use and set it so the stick logs in automatically on startup. Remember, you will be running the stick at the scope in "headless" mode. The stick needs to log in to windows, log on to the network, and start TeamViewer automatically, with no intervention from you.

In Part 3, I'll talk about installation and setup.

Wow--Full automation of an astronomical imaging platform for less than $120! -- Part 1

As we shiver through this cold Indiana winter, I have longed more and more for the comfort of my warm living room as I fought my driveway scope with numb fingers.

The answer to my prayers came in the form of a very inexpensive, fully-featured, tiny USB computer--the Intel W5. As small as a Roku stick, it boasts a full Win10 (Home) installation and quad core, Atom processor (1.5 - 1.9 GHz). It can stream 4K video beautifully, too. Memory-wise, it's a little on the small side--2G of RAM and 32G of storage (expandable by another 128G via a mini SSD card). In addition, it supports 2 USB ports (1 USB 3 and 1 USB 2) and 4K HDMI. Connectivity is handled by 802.11 b/g/n (2.4GHz) wi-fi and Bluetooth.

Here are the ZEQ 25 and 8 inch f/3.9 Newt, ready for an imaging session. The tiny compute stick is resting on the scope dolly.
The most amazing part, is that you can get it for less than $120.

This little stick, operating in "headless" mode (i.e., no monitor or keyboard attached) forms the core of a system which automates my ZEQ 25 mount and imaging system, allowing me to control the scope and the imager from anywhere I can access my home network. In fact, there's nothing to stop this system working fully remote from a distant location hundreds, or even thousands of miles away, with very few changes. As a bonus, the same program set will also work with my SmartEQ Pro, so I can simply connect it up to that mount and enjoy the same level of automation.

It took me about 2 hours to install the software I needed (all free!) and set it up. The result is very pleasing--latency is low across my network and the scope is well-behaved as it slews across the sky. The only problem I have is that it does not have the USB power required to use some of my larger, single cable imagers. I tried, but they crash the computer due to their power requirements. However, a simple and inexpensive powered USB hub will solve that issue. For large cameras with separate power cables, and for smaller imagers, it works just fine.

In Part 2, I'll run down the list of hardware and software you'll need if you want to do this, and in Part 3, I'll talk about some of the software installation concerns. In Part 4, we'll get all the components working together. But don't worry--the job might seem complicated, but it's not. Everything came together for me very quickly and with few complications and I can now enjoy astroimaging in the warm! On top of that, it's a great project for a cold and snowy day or cloudy evening.

Isn't technology wonderful?

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Jupiter-Mars Conjunction 1-6-2018

We had balmy -15F temperatures with -24F wind chills here in Indiana this morning, so setting up a scope for this event was something I didn't even attempt (there are reports of scope cables actually SNAPPING in this cold--certainly the power cords in my garage seem to be frozen stiff). I did stick my head out of the door, though, and snapped this picture with my phone. I was amazed at how visible the event was in a sky that was fairly bright (I slept in after a late night; if my son had not woken me to get a ride to work, I would have missed it all together, so thank you, Scott!).

In the image, Jupiter and Mars are less than 0.2 degrees apart (about 18 arcminutes). The conjunction officially occurs tomorrow, January 7, but it's likely to be cloudy, so today's image is probably the only one I'll be able to get. Jupiter is the larger, whiter object (mag. -1.8), while Mars, much fainter (mag. 1.4), is to its right. The last time the planets were this close in the sky was about 20 years ago, and the next opportunity to see them this close will be 33 years from now, so it's a twice in a lifetime even for most people.

Cropped Image 

Widefield View

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Messier 42--my Last Image of 2017

It seems almost obligatory at this time of year to post images of M42. The big problem in most images is that it is difficult to prevent the core (the Trapezium Stars) from "blowing out" if you want to capture the fainter and more subtle aspects of the nebulosity. Of course, post processing can correct this problem and many astroimagers capture data at different integration times which they combine with packages such as Photoshop and Pixelinsight.

The image below is a stack of integrations captured so that the Trapezium stars were not completely blown out--a series of 15 x 2-second (!) integrations captured with a Mallincam DSm and 125mm MAK with the Mallincam MFR-II-x focal reducer (about f/7.5). The image is the last one I took in 2017, and also the last one I took with the ZEQ25 before it went in for repair.

I processed the image in Photoshop, but I did nothing special to process the core. The result is quite pleasing, preserving some core detail while showing some of the fainter nebulosity. The strange 'Z' - shaped artifacts on the left size of the image are trails left by geostationary satellites.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The iOptron ZEQ25 Mount: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly--An Owner's Review

The ZEQ25 doing its stuff on a cold night--imaging the Orion Nebula with an 8 inch f/4 astrograph. Note the lovely Christmas rug :)
As an astronomer, I made the unwise choice of buying a home surrounded by dense woodland. As a result, my main scope, a 14 inch Meade ACF, is located at my observatory, about 2 miles away. While that’s much more convenient than my old dark sky site, which was 8 miles away, there are times (especially in winter) when I just want to set up an imaging run and return to the warmth of my living room. I also wanted to have a portable imaging system I could take with me on trips to other dark sky locations.

I do have a reasonable slice of sky available through the treetops if I stand in my driveway, so I decided that a small, easily set up and aligned GEM was “just the ticket” as the basis for a grab n’ go/driveway setup.

My first iOptron mount was the Smart EQ Pro. This little, 11-pound mount was a great performer with my Orion ST-80, 125mm Mak and PST-DS. Gotos were “bang on” accurate, and the scope even managed to keep objects on the imaging chip after a meridian flip! The polar scope ensured good alignment, but it was not the most convenient thing to use, requiring a 90 degree axis declination rotation to access the scope, as well as the unlocking and rotation of the RA axis in order to properly align the polar reticle.

When I decided to upgrade my portable imaging capabilities, adding 2 Mallincam scopes—an 8 inch f/4 newt and a 6 inch Ritchey-Chretien—I also needed a new mount to handle the heavier OTAs. As I had had great success with the EQ Pro, I decided to got with another, inexpensive iOptron product—the ZEQ25, which I picked up from Amazon for around $800.

My first impressions were that this was a significantly more massive mount than the EQ Pro, and with the innovative “Z” design, it was unlike any mount I had ever owned.

Setup and assembly were easy. The polar scope was much easier to use than that on the EQPro as it did not require any axis rotation or reticle alignment. I also discovered a really useful iOS/Android app shows exactly how to position the pole star in the reticle for accurate polar alignment. Using this app, I was able to align the scope in 2 minutes with a accuracy that showed no field drift even after several hours of unguided imaging. The tracking and goto performance of the mount was truly excellent—periodic error appeared to be decent—well within the +/- 10 arcseconds claimed by iOptron, and probably closer to 3-5 arcseconds, though I did not precisely measure it. I was surprised and delighted by the mount’s performance.

The Bad: The ZEQ25 supports PEC training, BUT—it can’t be saved, so the mount has to be retrained every time you use it. For most users, this is unlikely to be an issue, especially as PEC is not too bad on this mount. If it is important for your application, I’d suggest an autoguider, which should pretty much solve the problem. In addition, the 32-channel GPS took several minutes (5-10) to lock onto satellites, but this is a minor inconvenience that can be mitigated by powering up the mount before adding the scope and aligning, By the time you’re finished with these tasks, the GPS usually has a lock.

However, any mount is a compromise, and there was one aspect of this mount I found downright ugly.

The mount uses a spring-loaded, meshing system on both axes to minimize backlash. This is a design used in much more expensive mounts. There’s a small, locking “bar” on each axis, and a chrome knob that adjusts the mesh tension. The manual is vague on the settings for mesh tension, but it varies from scope to scope and iOptron advises that worm wear is minimized if you use the lowest tension you can to support tracking.

Here’s where the ugly comes in: if you set the tension too low (especially in RA), the scope may slip back as the mount slews. The result is “camming”—and permanent damage to the worm and ring gear. This damage is not covered by warranty and fixing it can cost several hundred dollars. The user is caught in a “devil and the deep blue sea” scenario: too little tension and you can “cam” the worm; too much, and you risk excessive wear and neither condition is covered under warranty. In my opinion, the manual needs to be “beefed up” to tell users how to avoid this potential damage.
I would advise the following:
  1. Do not move the mount with the axes locked and the gears meshed. At the end of each observing session, with the mount in the zero position, remove the scope and back off the mesh tension by 7 or 8 turns (but do not fully unscrew the knob). Release the axis locking bar. Gently move the axis to ensure it moves smoothly before moving the mount.
  2. When setting up, add the counterweights to the unlocked mount. Add the scope and (this is very important) ensure that it is well-balanced. An unbalanced scope can put strain on the gears and can result in slippage and worm damage.
  3. Screw down the mesh tension knobs all the way. The degree of “backoff” depends on the weight of the scope, but in practice, I’ve found around 2 turns works.
  4. Lock the axis with the locking bar. Very, (and I emphasize, “very”)  gently “rock” the scope to make sure the mount is fully locked. If there is excessive “play” when the mount is locked, contact iOptron or take a look at the excellent ZEQ25 “tuning” videos on YouTube.
Finally, there’s one more “ugly.” The dovetail mounting saddle has a design flaw. On the “knob side,” the adjustment can allow a dovetail to appear to lock when it actually not locked. This problem may have been fixed on newer versions of the mount, but I am not sure on this point. It is important that you visually inspect the dovetail to make sure it is both properly aligned and fully locked. Failure to do so can result in your scope unceremoniously falling out of the dovetail as it slews (especially if the OTA is parallel to the ground).
Here's a picture of the front of the saddle:

Here’s my crude sketch of the problem:

The issue is that the two “lips” on the saddle permit unsafe seating of the dovetail. A dovetail secured like this will feel perfectly tight, but if the scope slews parallel to the ground, it will fall out of the saddle. The way to check is to look at the sides of the dovetail from the front to ensure if is seated properly. This step is essential, in my opinion, if you do not modify the mount as follows.

The solution is to use a file to file off the 90-degree angle for the full length of the lips to a 45-degree angle. If you make this easy mod, the dovetail will always slide to it seats and locks in place properly.

Please see this website for a good description of the problem and the fix:

Conclusion:  Obviously, for $800, you're not going to get an observatory-class mount. What you do get is a mount that performs very well for scopes up to about 8 inches, with accurate gotos and superb tracking. But beware the "uglies" with this mount. A small miscalculation in tension settings could land you with a significant repair bill.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Lunar imaging with the Mallincam SkyRaider Solar System 3C

Mallincam's SkyRaider SLP is a passively-cooled, 3 megapixel CMOS color camera designed for imaging the sun and other solar system objects. It is a solid, well-built camera that uses the standard (and excellent) Mallincam Sky software. I had the opportunity to put it though its paces a couple of nights ago and found it to be a very useful addition to my collection of imagers. 

I ran the camera in monochrome mode for lunar imaging. I would estimate the frame rate to be 30-50 FPS--not as fast as I would like, but this was running at full resolution on a USB 2.0 connector.

Here's an image of the Alpine Valley area of the moon from a stack of about 300 frames, stacked and processed in Registax:

The image was taken with a 125mm MAK.

Of course, the capture is not as sharp as it would be with a dedicated monochrome imager, but the results, in terms of detail and tonality, are pretty decent (especially as seeing was definitely sub-par).

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Ghostly Companion

Mirach's Ghost is an 11th magnitude galaxy located 7 arc-minutes from the bright (2nd Magnitude) star Mirach. This lenticular galaxy was discovered by William Herschel in 1784. It's proximity in the sky to Mirach makes imaging challenging. In this image you can see it as a fuzzy blob at around the 2 o'clock position. The faint "donut" further to the right is due to internal reflections in the optical train. This image was taken with an ASI 120MM camera on a 6 inch RC scope with .5x focal reduction. It is a stack of 5 x 17-second integrations made in very windy conditions.