Why You Should Use Imaging Automation (Even if You Don't Have an Observatory)

July 22, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Although my location is grandly named the Quail Run Observatory, in fact all I have is a permanent pier, with my scope and camera under a TeleGizmos 365 cover. Someday I plan to build a roll-off roof observatory, but for now the cover works well. I can be up and running in about 5 minutes - all I do is uncover the scope, plug in a few cables to my laptop, and off I go.

I've been using Maxim DL for image acquisition for a few years now, and recently implemented FocusMax for automated focusing. I would choose a target, take some test images, make sure the target was centered, do a focus run, then use the Autosave Tab in Maxim to acquire my images. However, I never felt completely comfortable with this approach. The major problem was the pier flip - I use an AP900, and can track past the meridian, but it was always an effort to try and plan the flip. I'd either wait until I could get the scope looking West, and go from there, or else set an alarm to wake up me up to manage the flip at some inconvenient time. The other problem was target centering. I don't use a pointing model, and with my long focal length CDK 12.5, a small mis-alignment after the flip can result in the target being well off the image center. Then there was auto-focusing. Maxim's Autosave lets you add scripts to be run after each image set, but I found this approach to be too inflexible.

I've been attending the AIC conference for a few years, and have had the chance to talk with Bob Denny at DC3 Dreams about his ACP Observatory Control software. Although ACP represents an investment of time and money, it seemed to be the most complete solution around, and something that would serve me well into the future, as I add an actual observatory and other gear. In addition, Bob is well known for his great customer support and technical chops. There was a show special on an ACP and Scheduler bundle (more on Scheduler later) so I took the plunge and bought the package. It has taken me a while to get everything installed and configured, but it has significantly improved my imaging quality and efficiency, sometimes in unexpected ways.

I'm not going to go into ACP in detail - if you are interested, check it out at DC3 Dreams. What I would like to point out are some specific benefits from using imaging automation, even if you don't have an automated observatory.

  1. Consistency - This has been the single biggest improvement in my imaging since I implemented ACP. Each imaging session is started, run, and finished the same as the last. Target centering is the same, focusing is the same, guiding is the same, and so on. If something isn't quite right, I can tweak the settings and from then on the changes will be applied in each subsequent imaging session. Before, I would often do something slightly different, or in a different order, and it was very difficult to implement incremental improvements.
  2. Pier Flip - Managing the pier flip has always been a source of stress for me. Although the AP900 can track well past the meridian, and it's easy to advance or delay the flip based on the target, I was always worried that I would miss it, and that I'd get the dreaded pier crash. I have a fairly extended imaging train, and it's not always easy to predict what will work and what won't. On the other hand, I'd either delay the flip or just wait until the target cleared the meridian, because I'd need to do a target re-centering after the flip, and that was always a little fraught with undertainty. With ACP, I just let the software do the flip at the meridian, with no delays or advances. ACP tests to see if a flip will be needed before the end of the next image, and waits and flips if needed. ACP does all the plate solving, synching, and centering, so I don't even think about that anymore. I now sleep soundly, as I trust ACP to manage the scope and pier properly.
  3. Focus - As I mentioned above, I recently implemented FocusMax to manage my auto-focusing. FocusMax is a great free tool from Steve Brady, and is well integrated with ACP. The main advantage I've found with ACP is that ACP always selects an appropriate focus star, driving the mount to center it as needed. This means that FocusMax always gets a star of consistent magnitude and SNR, resulting in more consistent focus results.
  4. Remote Operation - ACP has a built-in Web Server and FTP server. In the past, I've used various remote desktop solutions to manage Maxim from inside my house. I have good WiFi to my pier, but using a remote desktop has always been a bit clunky, trying to manage multiple windows on my small MacBook Air screen. With ACP, I control everything from a standard web page, using the Chrome browser in my case. I can submit imaging plans, review progress, start and stop a plan, etc. I like this method of interaction so much that I use it even when I'm at the pier and have direct access to ACP. For now, remote means down the hill in my house, but ACP supports full remote operation. Once I have a roll-off roof, I'll be able to do imaging even when I'm traveling. The FTP server makes it very fast and easy to download images to my processing computer, an iMac.
  5. The Little Things - ACP manages a lot of other little things for me. There are a lot of directives that control Imaging Plans, giving complete flexibility if needed. ACP stops the mount tracking when there's a problem so I don't have to worry about a pier collision. ACP waits until it's dark enough to start imaging, and parks the scope and slowly warms the camera when it's done.

The next step in the automation process will be to start using ACP Scheduler. ACP Scheduler lets you develop a list of target requests and constraints, which it then dequeues and feeds to ACP at the optimum times. Optimum times are based on the target constraints, such as elevation, astronomical darkness, instrument limitations, etc. This capability will be most useful once I have a full observatory, but it will definitely optimize my imaging time.


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