A Battery Caddy for the AM5

The ZWO AM5 telescope mount is a great piece of kit… It integrates very well with software allowing easy computer control, just click and go. The mount tracks wonderfully allowing excellent astrophotos. It is small, does not require a counterweight for smaller ‘scopes, and precise polar alignment is a breeze.

A 3D printed battery caddy on the side of a ZWO AM5 telescope mount
A 3D printed battery caddy on the side of a ZWO AM5 telescope mount

The mount is not without issues… Without a camera integrated into the system the GOTO accuracy is awful, using the mount as a visual mount is frustrating. You really need to have at least a guide camera and the ASI Air computer connected to allow to plate solving and automatic correction of the position at the end of each slew to a new target.

Another issue is that the mount has no concept of cord wrap. It will happily spin around and around as you wander across the sky. In equatorial mode this is not an issue, in alt-azimuth mode this runs the risk of damaging your equipment if you do not notice the power cord getting wrapped up on the mount in the dark.

Yes, I did that.

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Hodgepodge: The Mishmash Mount

I have previously published a description of Hodgepodge, the mish-mash mount I used for the solar eclipse. While I wrote about the mount, and posted some photos, I did not really cover the construction. Now for some details…

Hodgepodge and the Eclipse
Hodgepodge set up at Grant’s Spring to photograph a total solar eclipse

A few months back I rebuilt the drive unit of an old Celestron mount, installing a drive corrector into the base unit in the process. I have used this sidereal drive for time lapse, but it can also be used to mount a telescope again. Better yet, with a few minutes reconfiguration, it can do either.

With the solar eclipse looming on the calendar I realized I needed a tracking mount to allow photography. Tracking would allow me to keep the Sun and Moon in the field without wasting precious seconds framing the image during the eclipse. It would also enable longer exposures without motion blurring the image.

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Old School Drive Corrector

Telescope clock drives from the 1980’s or earlier often used AC synchronous motors. These commonly available AC motors are used to power timeclocks, record player turntables, and telescopes, anyplace a motor needed to run at a very accurate speed.

Sidereal Drive Platform
A Celestron telescope drive configured as a sidereal rate tracking camera platform

The speed of a synchronous motor is set by the frequency of the powerline, in North America and many other places this is 60Hz. As the frequency must be synchronized for every power station on the grid the frequency is quite accurate, a feature exploited by clockmakers and telescope builders. Once found everywhere these motors are less common, but are still around.

Drive Correctors

It was the common use of these motors in telescope drives that led to the invention of the drive corrector, a device that was once a required piece of kit for serious amateur astronomers. Drive correctors like this were needed when operating from a battery at some remote location, generating AC from a 12Vdc car battery.

You also needed a drive corrector for guiding while doing astrophotography. The corrector could speed up or slow down the telescope drive a bit to correct the telescope drive speed and stay on target, something not possible with the fixed 60Hz of the mains supply. Thus the term drive corrector.

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The 1999 Losmandy Catalog

I have a pile of material that was donated to the observatory. While some of the gear will be used for outreach, a fair amount of the pile is not usable for this.  With JoAnne reminding me about the stack in her warehouse it is time for me to sort it out and dispose of it.  Among the pile was an entire crate of books… Astronomy textbooks, star charts, observing guides, and more.

A Driveway Telescope
The Losmandy G11 mount setup in the driveway for an evening of astrophotography

This pile of books included a full set of the classic Burnham’s Celestial Handbook, both volumes of Uranometria, and other treasures. After determining the observatory had no need for these I brought them to the last astronomy club meeting and gave them away. It was nice to see these books go to those who would appreciate them.

At the bottom of the pile was something that caught my eye, several old catalogs and manuals. These were just fun to read through. There are both Losmandy and Takahashi catalogs from 1998 and 1999, as well as a manual for a Takahashi FS Series refractor.

1999 Losmandy Catalog

The 1999 Losmandy catalog was particularly interesting. My old Losmandy G11 is a workhorse mount, one that has seen many adventures with me. The manual includes a price list, showing that it once sold for $3400, quite a bit more than the $1400 I paid for mine used in about the same era. Interestingly Losmandy still sells this mount and most of same accessories found in this catalog.

As I read I realized that this catalog may also be good to scan and post so that others may find this catalog a useful resource. I hope to scan and post some of the other items in the stack that might be good to save.

Refurbishing a TeleVue Renaissance Mount

I have already posted about the restoration of an orange tube C8. That was only part of the story, the telescope is paired with a TeleVue Renaissance mount that was in the same poor condition as the optical tube. The mount required the same treatment, a complete tear down and restoration to reverse the ravages that tropical humidity had wrought upon the metal parts.

RA and Declination Axis
The RA and declination axis removed from the mount for further disassembly and restoration

Corrosion was the issue. While the mount was mostly functional, it was looking horrible. The aluminum under the paint was corroding into a fine white powder. Most of the screws were quite rusted along with the counterweight shaft where the chrome was flaking away and the rust spreading. If allowed to continue the mount would soon be the piece of junk it looked like. There was something wrong with the clutches as well, they do not lock firmly and needed to be inspected.

The mount was sold by TeleVue in the 1980’s paired with their APO refractors. The mount is actually a re-labled unit manufactured by the Japanese firm Carton Optics as the model Super Nova or RSM2000. Well regarded by amateur astronomers you can find postings of well used and beloved mounts still in use thirty years later. Examining the mount I find I agree with those who like it. There is much to love in the solid smooth motion, this looks to be worth the effort of restoration.

Thus I set about the task of stripping down the mount into component pieces… Of the rusted hardware only one screw required drilling out, the hex drive head stripping when I tried to remove it. Fortunately I again had the proper tools, a set of easy outs to remove the remains of the screw after I had drilled the head off. I was able to remove the screw without any damage to the aluminum castings.

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SBIG ST-i Camera Mount

The SBIG ST-i is a useful little camera, I have enjoyed using mine. I usually use the camera for autoguiding, but it can also be used for basic astrophotography and even some science. In preparation for using the ST-i with a group of students I had need to make a couple additional mounts. After I go to the effort of designing a simple solution to my problem I may as well share the solution.

SBIG STi Mount
A simple mount for an SBIG STi camera for use in a piggyback setup
The ST-i camera is designed to slip into a standard telescope focuser in place of an eyepiece, as it is the same diameter at 1.25″. The camera can also be used in a “piggyback” style, mounted atop a telescope and fitted with a standard c-mount lens. Using a lens the camera will have a much larger field of view. The front of the camera is threaded for c-type 1″ threads to accomodate this. The SBIG guiding kit provides such a lens and a ring style mount. If you do not have the kit, or already have a suitable c-mount lens you still need a suitable mount.

ST-i camera mount mechanical drawing

I have included the mechanical drawing for the mount in the link above. I machined this from a block of aluminum. There is no reason it could not be made of wood or plastic to allow fabrication with whatever equipment is available. For wood you may need to make the block a little longer and use inserts for the threading. Plastic could be done pretty much as drawn.

The version I made was milled from a solid chunk of aluminum, but a good version could be easily cut from wood and assembled with brass inserts. The design could also be 3D printed without much loss in mechanical robustness.

To mount a c-mount lens you will need the adapter ring sold by SBIG to convert the 1.25″ filter thread found on the camera to the 1″ c-mount thread. Still, at $40 this ring is a lot less than the $350 guiding kit. Good c-mount lenses can be found from many sources for less than $100. You will need a focal length between 75 and 150mm for a nice image scale and as wide an f/ratio as you can find. The kit includes a 100mm f/2.8 lens which I find is quite useful in guiding my Televue 76mm or the AT6RC.

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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