Sunday, June 30, 2013

Imaging automation program

I checked on the ccd-newastro Yahoo! mailing list if there is a program that can take flats at dusk or dawn automatically and was pointed to three programs:
  1. ACP
  2. CCDAutopilot
  3. CCDCommander
They all integrate with TheSkyX! CCDCommander i$99,  CCDAutopilot is $295 (I need the professional version for full TheSkyX support), and ACP is $695 (the cheapest version!)

Unfortunately, CCDCommander does not support focusing and camera control in TheSkyX, so I started with CCDAutopilot.

After some issues with getting a license file, I could install it. When I started it for the first time, it wanted to know how to connect to the different modules (telescope, camera...) I wanted to use TheSkyX for everything, but somehow that didn't work. After I asked on the excellent CCDWare mailing list, I found out that I'd have to start TheSkyX with administration permissions (so that it can run as a server process). Now, CCDAutoPilot connected without any problems.

... but now we suddenly have clouds and even rain! In late June in California!

Last night, I took some images of NGC 6205. At the end of the session, I wanted to use CCDAP for taking flats at dawn. When I tried to connect my equipment, I got a couple of error messages again. Turns out that you can have TheSkyX started, but it can't be connected to Telescope, camera...
After I connected it, it took me several attempts to plate solve - weird. Well, I forgot to turn off PHD - and it kept messing around with alignment...
I then set everything up to take flats at dawn. I used the button "Flat Frames Now" - and CCDAP told me
08:29:01 Waiting for dawn...
08:29:01 Sun Altitude: -15.2, is below set value of -8.0
I figured that it would wait until dawn and then start.

... next morning: no flats - still the exact same message. Turns out that you can use "Flat Frames Now" only to take flats right now. And because it wasn't part of a normal session, it didn't update the sun's altitude.

So, I'll try it again - now at dusk. For flats, I don't need to plate solve to know the exact location.

At dusk, the same situation happened again. CCDAP was "counting down" to Sun Altitude: 21.5, but then it stayed there and didn't update - and hence didn't take any flats. I setup my skope for dawn flats - and now it worked! CCDAP started shortly after 5am. First taking luminance flats. Adjusting the exposure time from initially ~30 seconds further and further down. Dithering between frames to avoid sky artifacts. Then switching to the red filter, taking flats. But then it was already so bright, that it had to expose shorter then 3 seconds. CCDAP stopped red, tried blue and green - but those required shorter then 3 sec exposure too. And finally took Ha flats without problems. So, big lesson learned: Only take 5 (not 20) flat frames to fit in all filters! But now I have to deal with stars in my flats...

But overall it felt like magic (and WAY less effort then doing all this manually).

Unfortunately, when I tried to do this the next evening, it didn't work again - CCDAP got stuck just 10 mins before it should start. This seems to be a problem with TheSkyX - CCDAP queries TheSkyX for that information and somehow it got stuck.

One of the biggest challenges to use CCDAP fully is that I'd have to use TheSkyX autoguiding - despite my best efforts, I could never make it work, but still use PHD... But one step at a time.