Automation Phase 1 - Software

Timeline of Activities

29th September 2017

I have been lax in keeping these pages up to date because of work and other commitments, however, I have not been totally idle!

The MHP is now in place, but I had some issues with getting the device to work with custom scripts - I kept getting issues with VBScript errors, despite a complete refresh of the PC.

In the end, I wrote my own driver for the unit and built a simple command-line interface to enable me to switch the power outlets, set the dew power and operate the focuser. I now have some start-up and shut-down scripts that turn everything on (or off) and even fire up the necessary applications!

The next little software project will be to write a small app that reads the dew point from my environment sensor and sets the dew heater power accordingly. I also need to rewrite the MHP app to add a GUI, and tidy up a couple of foibles in the way it works!


6th February 2017

Well, there has been a change at TANO since October. After much deliberation, I decided to change the RC and ED80 for a shiny new Skywatcher Esprit 100 ED. This was driven by a couple of factors:

  • Faster f/5 focal ratio - less time to catch photons
  • Triplet lens - higher quality optics
  • No need for collimation

The ED80 had to go mainly to assist in funding - very sad to see it go as it has been a absolute star and rock solid when it comes to imaging. Hopefully it's new owner will get just as much enjoyment from it

The RC has relocated to the sunnier climes of Portugal, and again, I sincerely hope it will be enjoyed as much I did

So, what about software I hear you ask....? Well.... things have gotten a little more complicated because I have now acquired a Mount Hub Pro - it's one of the older versions with no USB ports, but it meant a re-think on what was going to be powered from what...

Originally, all of the devices were going to be switched from the VM110 card, but this would have meant buying a complete focuser package - stepper motor and controller - and having no control over the dew heater power output - it would either be on or off. The MHP means that I now have more power outputs so I can be more flexible, and it has dew controllers and a focus controller built-in.

The updated thinking is now, the VM110 will drive:

  • The MHP
  • The AAG Cloud Watcher
  • The roof open / close
  • LED red and white lights

While the MHP drives:

  • The mount
  • The camera
  • The USB Hub
  • Flat Flap power
  • Flat Flap EL power
  • Dew Strap
  • Auto-Focuser

The Flat Flap is an automated device that will sit on the dew shield and allow automated flats by means of a EL panel that flips in front of the 'scope when needed. When not taking flats, it then serves as a dust cover!

In order to achieve all of this, I needed to upgrade the simple windows application I wrote for the Velleman cards (see here) to an ASCOM driver. Since getting the cards, I have also written a basic ASCOM driver for the roof to open or close (one switch required - the direction of travel determined by magnetic switches in the circuit). I will then need to construct a hub driver for the Switch and Roof drivers so that the client applications can interact successfully.

Writing ASCOM drivers is not especially difficult - the templates they provide are *very* useful, but it's more about learning Visual Studio than the ASCOM stuff - but I'm getting there!!

19th October 2016

Work on the observatory has been slow in the last few weeks due to work commitments, but I have done a few more things since mid-September.....

I have now installed the new Baader SteelTrack Focuser and SteelDrive Motor on my RC. This took some doing because of various issues...

  • The draw tube is bigger than the original and so does not slide into the aperture in the RC back-plate. This means an extension tube is a must
  • Because of this, focus is not achievable with the optional M48 adapter because there is not enough inward focus travel
  • The universal adapter does not quite mate with the TS tilt adjustment plate - the focuser freely rotates even when the collar is fully tightened. To overcome, I had to pack some stiff plastic pieces into the cavities inside the adapter. It works fine when attached to the M90 extension tube. If you attach the tilt plate to the back-plate on the RC, you then cannot access the collimation screws, so I mount the extension tube first, then the tilt plate, then the focuser

Now it's in, it's wonderful. Very similar to the original one, but just looks uber-sexy!!

I also accurately measured the focuser travel over 1000, 5000, 10000 and 20000 steps. I took an average of these and determined that 2.14 microns was the movement per step. This will feed into Maxim for the auto-focus routine.

And I finally finished the last bit of configuration of CCD Commander, TheSky and Pinpoint so now everything works together. I can now focus on building the actions and sub-actions in CCD Commander

Part of the set up has been to measure the focus offsets of the various filters. The idea is use one filter to focus with, and then the software will simply move the required offset for the particular filter. I currently use a Baader IR Pass as my Luminence filter, but this has a very different focus position to the other filters in the CCD set. So, I will obtain the UV/IR filter and install that instead, and then re-affirm the focus positions

I am very close now to having the software elements all working together as one, all controlled by CCD Commander. That will be a big step forward for my imaging and I can then focus on the getting the roof sorted and the power in place

15th September 2016

All the astronomical software has now been reloaded and all the hardware has been installed and drivers updated. I also ran Windows Update at several points to ensure any further patches were applied.

CCD Commander, Maxim, Pinpoint, EQASCOM, ANSVR and TheSky6 have all been configured - with the exception of ensuring they are all set to use JNOW - because I forgot! I'll do this tomorrow evening

SGPro and PHD are installed and configured, the equipment profiles have been imported and the catalogs for plate solving have been configured. I now need to get the calibration done in PHD and do some test guiding to get the parameters tweaked

I also wrote a simple batch file to start EQASCOM, the AAG, Maxim, CCD Commander and TheSky - one click and they all fire up!

Also to do is to take the dark frames for the guide camera in Maxim - another task for tomorrow. Work will then likely cease as I need to get ready for the Autumn Equinox Star Party at Kelling Heath - looking forward to a week away with good friends and hopefully clear skies!

13th September 2016

The PC has now been refreshed with the operating system, and is fully patched with all the windows updates. All the system drivers have been installed and updated and the machine is now ready for the astro-software and hardware to be installed

11th September 2016

After repeated attempts, Windows update is still failing, so I have decided to just do a clean installation. I have backed up the various profiles from SGP, PHD, EQASCOM and ANSVR, CCD Commander and TheSky and have created a new slipstream bootable USB disk with a clean install of Windows 7. I have also downloaded two large patch roll-ups from Microsoft - this should speed up the patching for Windows Update

The methodology I will adopt once the OS is installed will be to a) install an application b) run the application once (to create registry keys, register DLLs and the like) and c) Windows Update. This should ensure that all components needed by each application (e.g. .Net) is installed and updated accordingly.

Once all the applications are re-installed, I will then take an 'image' of the C drive in case I have to recover again at some point in the future. I will also relocate many of the User folders to a second hard-disk (e.g. Documents, Pictures, etc.) as this will aid future recovery and backups

10th September 2016

I already have the following software on the observatory computer:

  • CCD Commander - Control and Orchestration, using MaximDL
  • Sequence Generator Pro - Stand-alone image acquisition
  • MaximDL - CCD and telescope control, guiding, acquisition
  • The Sky 6 Professional - Planetarium
  • Pinpoint - Plate Solving
  • ANSVR - Plate Solving, blind solving
  • PHD2 - Guiding
  • ASCOM - Standards frameworks
  • EQASCOM - Mount control
  • And the AAG Cloudwatcher software for the weather monitor device

I have been primarily using SGP for the last few months, but level of automation this project requires will mean I need to revert to CCD Commander and Maxim, however, I will retain SGP for use in the field at star parties or other external events.

So, first task is to ensure that all versions are up to date, along with the operating system (Windows 7) and any patches or fixes. Like many people, I do not have auto-update enabled as I don't want Windows to suddenly reboot during an imaging run - yes, this has happened to myself and others!

And we hit the first problem.... It seems something has corrupted down the line somewhere and Windows Update keeps failing to install updates. Additionally, I get some odd VB Script errors when trying to do a basic start-up of the AAG Cloudweatcher device. Not good!