The Celestron Cometron

I have only had three telescopes given to me this year. Telescopes in various states of disrepair. I usually fix them up, clean them up, and find a new home for them.

It was Julia who gave me this little bit of fun… A Celestron 62mm f/4.8 Cometron. A small refractor intended for low power viewing. Prefect for viewing comets or other wide field objects.

Celestron Cometron
A Celestron Cometron 62mm f/4.8 telescope.
These little refracting telescopes were sold in the 1980’s to capitalize on the comet Halley mania. Sold bearing the Celestron name, they were actually built by Vixen. They continued in production for many years as they proved relatively popular. The Cometron name has been used for a number of small telescopes over the years, but, as far as I know, this is the original.

The ‘scope I was given was in pretty good shape. Nothing broken or badly damaged. The optics dirty but free of coating damage or uncleanable grime. All that was require was disassembly and a good cleaning to remove dirt, spider webs, and a few cockroach egg cases.

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Autoguiding the iOptron ZEQ25 with an SBIG STi

A small, light telescope mount, a small refractor, and a modern autoguider. Seems like a perfect setup! There are a few issues…

The setup is pretty straightforward. A TeleVue 76mm riding atop the iOptron ZEQ25 mount. Atop the TV-76 is a red dot finder and an SBIG STi autoguider. The guider is attached with a bit of custom machining and uses the SBIG accessory kit, including a 100mm lens giving a 2.7 x 2.0 degree field of view. With such a wide field of view the guider also functions as a finder to aid in aligning and framing the photographic telescope.

iOptron ZEQ25 & TeleVue-76
The iOptron ZEQ25 set up for astrophotography with a TeleVue-76 and Canon 60D
The arrangement is controlled by a laptop, either an older 17″ laptop, finding a second life in the astrophoto rig. Or for a more portable, and less power hungry setup, a small netbook can be used. It may be desirable to set up the iPad for telescope control, removing this function from the laptop. If it were not for guiding the computer could be dispensed with completely. The SBIG STi requires a computer to operate.

Without guiding the performance is not satisfactory. Even with a modest focal length of 380mm there are objectionable guiding errors. The frame at right shows the errors seen during a four minute exposure. Based on my first impressions I would expect to need guiding on any exposure using more than 100mm and a few minutes exposure.

C/2011 L4 PanStarrs No Guiding
Comet C/2011 L4 PanStarrs, TV-76mm and ZEQ25 mount with no guiding during a 4 minute exposure
Everything connects fairly easily, a few more cables than I would like, but it is still marginally portable and not a huge chore to assemble. The challenge now is to verify the setup, configure all of the software, and to take a few photos to prove to myself that it all works properly.

A few steps here have not gone smoothly..

Configuration? There are a lot of setups to check. All of the correct software and drivers… Planetarium software, autoguiding software, camera control, ASCOM, all of the hardware drivers, etc., etc. After everything talks it is a matter of checking settings and tuning the setup with several parameters in the software and on the mount that need to be checked.

I am using PHD to do the guiding, a bit of kit I have used for a while. It works quite well with straightforward controls. It does have quite a few parameters that require checking to tune the control algorithms.

The iOptron controller has a setting for guiding speed in the menus. This is purported to be a fraction of sidereal speed by the manual, up to 100%, but the menu reads as if it is 100x on the controller. I suspect the manual is correct here, will need to test.

The first issue cropped up fairly quickly. I could get no motion from the mount while sending corrections with the STi. PHD was unable to calibrate, no motion. I attempted to use the manual controls in PHD with similar lack of motion. (See update below)

To troubleshoot I needed to make sure that the guide port on the ‘scope worked. I grabbed a Losmandy hand controller and connected it to the ZEQ25 guide port. This worked, the port was working properly and I could see what the guide speed setting on the controller really meant. It looks like 100x is 100% of siderial speed, or close enough.

USB to ST-4 Guiding Port
A copy of Gene Nolan’s USB to ST-4 guiding adapter
I have another device I could try, a USB to ST4 adapter designed by Gene Nolan. This is also supported by PHD Guide and ASCOM driver framework is always installed on my imaging computer. After some issues with finding the correct cable setup the USB to ST4 adapter worked just fine.

Parameter Value
RA Aggressiveness   100
RA Hysteresis 10
Max RA Duration 750ms
Search Region 15pix
Min Motion 0.1pix
Calibration Step 2000ms
Time Lapse 0ms
Dec Guide Mode Auto
Dec Algorithm Resist
Dec Slope Weight 5
Max Dec Duration 750ms
Star Mass Tolerance 0.5
Noise Reduction None

PHD Guiding Paramters for STi w/100mm lens and iOptron ZEQ25
At this point I can calibrate and guide with good results. I am out of USB ports on the laptop, and had to unplug the mouse, but at least it is working.

Some tuning of the parameters in PHD has started to result in very nice guiding graphs and some excellent test images. These could probably be refined a bit more, but they are working for now. The PHD help menu has a fairly good description of each of the parameters, there is also a great guide to PHD on the Rose City Astronomers website.

Guiding Test Image
Guiding Test: 240sec with a TV-76 and 60D on a ZEQ25 mount
A 100% crop of an image is included at the left, nothing exciting, just a section of starfield near Vega. What is nice about the images is the perfectly round stars. The image was taken at 384mm effective focal length. Will need to do this again with the AT6RC at 1096mm for a more stringent test.

It is really necessary to set the autoguide rate to 100% when using shorter focal lengths. Otherwise the mount does not move very far during each calibration step, as a result calibrations take a very long time and will sometimes fail.

Another observation. When guiding near the pole, shooting comet PanSTARRS at near +80° declination, I encountered very regular declination errors using PHD. Every couple minutes the dec error would deviate by about a pixel, alternating in each direction. Shutting off the declination correction worked pretty well, the mount was polar aligned accurately enough that there was very little declination drift.

I still have yet to understand just why the STi will not directly interface with the ZEQ25, something in the ratings of the photo-isolators used in the STi? The manual simply states these are good to 25mA and 25V, which seems generous for the task. It may be in the voltage levels, I did discover that the iOptron uses 3.3V on the guide port. Perhaps the STi will not pull down low enough for a valid low logic level? I built the USB to ST-4 adapter with MOSFET optocouplers, these can switch harder than standard photo transistors.

UPDATE– The interface issue was just a cabling problem. The same cable I use with my Losmandy G11 does not work, it is flipped from the pinout needed for the ZEQ25. With a corrected cable I now connect the STi directly to the guide port on the ZEQ… It works.

TeleVue-76 to STi Autoguider Mount

A rigid mount to adapt the TeleVue-76 to the SBIG STi autoguider? I need such a solution, I have both of these bits of kit that need to be wed together for the minimal astrophoto setup. As I am unlikely to find such a part commercially, I would have to make it myself.

Another couple hours in the machine shop were in order, another small pile of aluminum chips. This actually went pretty quickly, these are easy cuts to make. No tapping is required, the four holes are simply drilled through. The two hours included design and cleanup for a quick project.

STi to TV-76 Mount
The SBIG STi to TelevVue TV-76 mount
TeleVue Autoguider Mount
Mechanical drawing for a mount to attach an SBIG STi autoguider to a TeleVue refractor
I came up with the design on the fly. A piece of aluminum from the scrap bin and a couple quick measurements of the ‘scope and guider. I simply cut aluminum until it seemed about right. It was only after the fact that I produced a drawing of the finished item.

The TV-76 has a rather non-standard mounting point on top for accessories like this. A pair of #10-32 threaded holes, 0.75″ apart and located in a slot 0.625″ wide milled into the mounting ring. This seems simple enough. An adapter made for the TV-76 should work with any of the TeleVue refractors that use this mounting. Another concern is that the solution must also be very rigid, any flexure between the autoguider and the telescope will result in smeared stars.

The design assumes that you have the additional guiding kit sold by SBIG for the STi autoguider. This provides the mounting rings that clamp the camera body.

The hardware required will be two ¼-20 x 1½” socket head cap screws, and two #10-32 x 1″ socket head cap screws. A pair of plastic press on caps convert the #10 screws to knobs. All parts you can find in a neighborhood hardware store.

The mount is 1.5″ high to set the autoguider away from the main OTA, as to not encounter any vignetting. This also allows space to get fingers onto the mounting knobs. The dimensions are chosen so that standard screws protrude by just the right amount. I messed this up on the one I made, machining the center to far. As a result a few washers are needed for the screws that mate with the refractor. This is fixed in the mechanical drawing.

To co-boresight the TV-76 with the autoguider it was necessary to slip a 1/4″ washer between the mount and the rear ring as a shim. With that in place the same object is centered in both fields of view. The STi has a 2.7° x 2.2° field when used with the 100mm lens supplied in the SBIG accessory kit. With this wide field of view it also serves as a finder to locate and frame the photographic target.

It assembles nicely, a good start. The true test will be the quality of the images produced by the rig.

The iOptron ZEQ25

I had been looking to acquire another astrophoto toy. The desire is for a small, portable astrophoto setup. Yes, I am aware that the words “portable” and “astrophoto” do not really belong in the same sentence, all things are relative.

Thus I have decided on the new iOptron ZEQ25. It is a new design, with some radical differences from the more traditional German equatorial mounts.

The mount is pretty small, a mere 10 pounds of steel and aluminum. Compact enough to be packed into a suitcase for air travel. Performance sufficient to do wide field astrophotography with focal lengths up to 1000mm and a DLSR camera. Perfect for use with either my TV-76 or AT6RC. Unlike my old Losmady G-11 it features a modern GOTO system and can be run from the computer.

AT6RC atop an iOptron ZEQ25 mount, note the additional counterweight necessary
The chatter over at Cloudy Nights was promising. A few early production mounts were in the hands of some stateside amateurs, and they have been posting their impressions and images. I was particularly impressed by the measurements of periodic error with results around two arc seconds. This was a small mount that could very easily be a good astrophoto option.

I ordered the mount from the good folks at OPT. It was not yet listed in the website catalog, but a phone call confirmed they were expecting delivery of three mounts shortly. I put down my deposit. A week later I had confirmation that the mount had been received and was ready for shipment to Hawaiʻi as promised.

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Rewiring a Celestron NexStar Telescope

The original NexStar telescopes are great instruments. Ours has seen many uses, from dark skies to not so dark skies as it has been set up in the Arizona Desert, the summit of Mauna Kea, or various school yards and resorts for public viewing. It has been used as a visual instrument, a photographic ‘scope, even done a little real work.

For the most part the scope has worked well, and has been well maintained, even updated with the latest hand pad controller. But on occasion there is a problem… connection issues would crop up. The dreaded “No Response 16” or “No Response 17” errors would appear, indicating that the motor control board is not talking. This would result in having to power cycle and realign the telescope.

Lately the errors have become more problematic. The last straw was a public event I recently used the telescope for, setting up the telescope for Halloween. Continual errors plagued the evening, a constant struggle. While the scope usually tracked, I could not use GOTO as each alignment was quickly off by just enough to be useless.

Under the Hood
Under the hood of the NexStar showing the new cables

I have had the telescope apart too often in attempts to fix this, inspecting and re-seating the cables. This usually works, the problem will go away, for a while.

In general I like what I see inside the telescope. A well designed piece of kit with good components. Decades of taking gear apart have provided me so many examples of poor or good design. Inside the NexStar I just like what I see. The telescope is easy to get apart, just a few screws to remove each cover, exposing everything you might need to work on. The designers of this telescope obviously took pride in their work, it shows.

The exception to this is the wiring. There are a number of issues that can create trouble. Or rather there were a few issues, I just took care of that…

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Astrophotography with the EOS-M

In the few days I had the camera I was determined to acquire some astrophotography test shots with the EOS-M camera. Even if it meant getting up at 3am to have some dark sky after moonset. It would have been easier a few days before, but a Pacific storm system had provided several days of overcast with occasional rain. This particular morning was just about perfect, clear skies, decent seeing and no wind to bounce the telescope around.

Astrophoto Setup with the EOS-M
Astrophoto setup with AT6RC, SBIG STi autoguider and the EOS-M camera
For testing I used the same setup I often use with my Canon 20Da or 60D. An Astro-Tech 6″ (150mm) Ritchey–Chrétien telescope riding atop a Losmandy G11 mount. A 0.8x focal reducer has T-thread at the rear allowing a Canon EOS lens adapter. To attach the EOS-M I used the Canon M Mount to EOS Mount adapter. An SBIG STi autoguider completes the setup.

The result is an f/7 optical system with 1080mm focal length. This gives a field of view of about 72×48 arc-minutes (1.2 x 0.8 degrees) on the sky when using a camera with an APS-C sensor.

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Building a Sun Finder

Aiming a telescope at the Sun is deceptively difficult. You can not use a optical finder for risk of eye damage. Unit power finders, like a Telrad, are of little use as you can not see the projected image. Telrads can also be damaged by sunlight. In a pinch you can simply use the shadow of the telescope, positioning for a minimum shadow. This at least gets you close.

Sun Finder
A Sun Finder mounted to a TeleVue 76mm 'scope
The best solution is to build a finder designed just for the Sun… A Sun Finder.

There are many plans for Sun Finders posted to the web. Most use a shadow or projected point of light. The version I built is no exception, using a pinhole to project a point of light on a translucent screen. The trick is to make such a device simple and accurate.

With simple metal working capability a Sun Finder like this one can be made from sheet metal, or machined from solid aluminum. I chose the latter as I had the capability. This design uses a pinhole that projects a similarly sized dot of light at the rear of the finder. The front face or the finder, through which the pinhole is drilled, creates a shadowed area for in which the projected dot can be seen.

Sun Finder
A Sun Finder in use with the projected dot visible
A longer distance from the pinhole to the screen will increase the sensitivity in aiming. In practice I have found that at least three inches is sufficient for most telescopes while keeping the device compact. Experimentation with the design can be entertaining and educational. No need to stick strictly with this design, just borrow the basic ideas, a lot of variations will work.

This design is based on an aluminum extrusion, a 3″ x 1.5″ channel. This save a good deal of machine work in creating the finder. As much of the machining is done along the length, a number of finders can be made at the same time. I made six finders from a seven inch scrap of extrusion out of the shop scrap pile.

Sun Finder Plans
Plans for the Sun Finder
The screen is made from a small piece of 1/8″ thick acrylic. Common 0.1″ thick material will work as well. One side is frosted with sandpaper to create a translucent screen. Use of a clear screen allows the solar dot to be seen from front or behind while aiming the telescope. The screen is simply secured with a glue, preferably RTV. The frosted side should be mounted towards the pinhole.

To keep the device simple there is no adjustment in aiming. If the finder is mounted reasonably well, the dot of light will be on the screen. The first time out it is necessary to first get the Sun in the field of view. You can then mark the position of the projected dot with a permanent pen (Sharpie or similar). After that aiming is simply a matter of positioning the dot on the mark. If the mark is made on the smooth side of the acrylic screen it can be easily erased and re-marked if necessary.

Done, a simple and reliable Sun Finder to work with just about any small telescope.

USB to ST-4 Autoguiding Adapter

The rearrangement of my astrophoto setup proceeds. If somewhat frantically in the face of the upcoming Transit of Venus. Another device has joined the toolkit, a bit of hand-wired electronica that gets the job done.

USB to ST-4 Guiding Port
A copy of Gene Nolan's USB to ST-4 guiding adapter
This particular device will allow remotely guiding of the telescope during the seven hour long event. The computer sitting beside the telescope will be controlling both a camera and the mount. Also set up on the computer is a VNC server, so I can remotely view the screen from inside. With this arrangement I can keep an eye on the whole setup, including nudging the telescope as needed to keep the Sun centered in the image. Since the mount will only be roughly polar aligned, set up during the day, I expect to get a fair amount of drift during the event.

I did not design the device this time. This would have been completely within my capability, but why do so when someone else has already done the job? This is typical within the astronomy hobby, where many designs are shared for the benefit of everyone. In this case it is the USB to ST4 adapter designed by Gene Nolan.

All I had to do was follow the schematic and download the code into the microcontroller, the device worked first time. Gene does sell kits, but I wanted to do this quickly and had everything I needed on hand except the microcontroller and opto-isolators.

The only real problem that cropped up during construction was the wrong part received for the opto-isolators. The DigiKey description read DIP-8, so I ordered it, expecting to get something that fit into the DIP socket I had already wired onto the board. When the parts arrived I found that they were indeed DIP… lead-formed DIP packages meant to be surface mounted, with chopped off leads. I ended up soldering the devices to another DIP socket, using it as a header, which then plugged into the socket on the board. It looks funny, but it works.

It did take a couple hours of downloading and installing the drivers and other useful software packages to get everything working. This includes the very useful ASCOM driver framework, and PHD Guide. Both of which I plan to use beyond the upcoming Transit of Venus to do more astrophotography.

My wife may have been a little perturbed by the testing setup strung across the kitchen table, a laptop and the heavy Losmandy head, a Canon 60D camera, all connected by a snake pit of cables. But it worked, first time, that is always nice.

SBIG ST-i Autoguider

A box in shipping and receiving with my name on it. A much awaited box. The new SBIG ST-i autoguider!

For those who are uninitiated into the mysteries of astrophotography, an autoguider is the secret to taking hours of exposures without having the manually correct the telescope position constantly. For almost two centuries, from the first time a camera was attached to a telescope, through the invention of auto-guiders, guiding was a supremely tedious task. The photographer would spend hours on end, peering through an eyepiece watching a single star, if the position of the star started to drift, he would press a button to correct the position of the telescope during the exposure. This was necessary to achieve any sort of long exposure, as the telescope, no matter how precisely made, would drift a little during the night, leaving streaks in place of pinpoint stars.

I have done this, it is no fun at all.

Then came the autoguider. A small digital camera that could take a picture of the star, then check the image for drift in the star’s position and, if necessary, send a command to the telescope to correct the position automatically. The first commercially available autoguider appeared in 1989, the Santa Barbara Instrument Group model ST-4. This little device revolutionized astrophotography, allowing far longer exposures with much less effort and much better precision.

SBIG ST-i Autoguider
The SBIG ST-i with the optional accessory kit including mount and lens
It is an ST-4 I have been using to guide my photographs for over a decade. Any of the long exposure astrophotos seen here on DarkerView have used this venerable little device. I have had some issues with it as of late. Trouble acquiring stars, struggling with the cryptic displays to lock onto a star, the unit does require a great deal of experience and intuition to return good results. Modern autoguiders are so much easier to use with far better performance. I have been looking at the advertisements with envious eyes for some time now.

No more, I have broken down and purchased the new ST-i from SBIG.

The newest, latest and greatest, just released model.

Unpacking the box I am happy with what I see. Everything looks good.

It does seem like a small device for the $595, smaller than most of my eyepeices. Fit and finish looks good. A nice small package that will be easy to mount to any of my telescopes.

I setup the software and drivers on the laptop with no issues, simply following the provided instructions. The SBIG software for the camera , CCDOps ran first time, connecting to the camera and taking a frame. You can hear the soft click of the mechanical shutter in the camera. The bias frames look quite nice, a smooth field of salt and pepper noise with no gradients or other artifacts.

Attaching the lens from the accessory kit I take a few images of wood-grain on the kitchen cabinets across from the table I am working at. Another task will be to properly evaluate the imaging performance of the camera. It does have a decent CCD in it, the specifications indicate a proper 16-bit A/D system. A real photon transfer test will reveal if that system lives up to the specifications. A subject for another post!

Wrong Size
An improper fit of a button head screw into the mounting plate on the SBIG ST-i accesory kit
I did find one problem. Someone in engineering or purchasing screwed up when setting up the accessory kit. The screws meant to secure the rings to the mounting plate do not fit into the provided recessed holes. The head is notable larger than the machined recess. This leaves the head of the screw above the surface preventing proper mounting of the whole assembly.

A Better Fit
A proper fit after modification on the SBIG-ST-i mounting kit
Not to be deterred in setting up the camera I quickly set about a solution… I clamped the screw into the chuck of my cordless drill and removed the outer edge of the head with a file. A minute or two per screw reduced the head diameter enough to fit into the recesses. The remainder of the assembly went well. The mounting appears to be very solid, with little chance for flexure and the resulting image issues that can cause.

The package offers a nice solution, on paper at least. With the included 100mm lens the camera should provide a 165 x 123 arcminute field of view, or a 2.7 x 2.0 degree field of view. The literature promises sub-arcsecond guiding accuracy with this setup, with the ability to use 7th magnitude stars with one second exposures. These are claims that will have to be checked as well. I intend to do a proper job of verifying these numbers, I expect to get many years of service out of the guider. The new camera has quite an act to follow, replacing my classic ST-4!

I also hope to be able to guide on the Sun for the Transit of Venus. I will be trying the included software as well as Dave Solar System Recorder in the coming week. I wonder if either package will be able to guide on a large, non-stellar object like the Sun, perhaps with a shorter focal length lens.

This leaves only one real question… How well does it work? Unfortunately that will have to wait for another day. In true astronomical tradition, the receipt of new astro toys invariably occurs when the weather precludes their use. In other words… I have clouds!

A writeup of the operation of the new autoguider will be another post, when the skies provide me a chance to use it.

A GPS Observing Clock

Observing Clock
A hand made GPS clock for the observing table
For years, when observing, I found myself wanting a clock on my observing table when recording observations. I have used either a wrist watch or a cell phone, but looking at these was uncomfortable as these modern devices use bright backlit LCD displays, not a nice night-vision friendly red. The cell phone also has the additional problem of using up its battery quite quickly when out of range of a digital cell tower at some remote observing site. I needed a simple desk clock for my observing setup.

Accuracy was also a question, accurate time is always important when observing. Asteroid occultations, lunar and solar eclipses, iridium flares, twilight, jovian moon transits, the list of things where accurate time is useful is long in astronomy.

The Specs

Of course being a electrical engineer makes designing and building a clock a fairly trivial exercise. But why stop there? Why not build in a few extra features…

  • Use red 7-segment LED’s and build in some type of selectable dimming mechanism.
  • Why bother setting the clock each time you set it up? Make the clock self setting and very accurate.
  • Since the clock is accurate add a serial port to allow the clock to supply accurate time to a laptop when taking astrophotos.

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