Winning Before You Go Out To Image
Part 1 – Equipment Set Up and Organized Storage
By Don Selle
Before I get too far into the details, this article deals with things that will sound obvious, like common sense, or what most people would do. Yes, they are practical and maybe obvious, but I can tell you that they take time and patience. Given the busy lives we lead, and that astrophotography equipment can be fairly complex to setup and get to work together, it’s easy to gloss over these steps only to find yourself “winging it” in the field.
Much of what is in this article comes from first had experience. When I first started astro-imaging, I traveled quite a bit for work, much of it international, and for extended periods of time. Balancing family, work and home commitments when I was in town left little “hobby time” and as a result my time in the field was less productive than it could have been. Finding the time to become systematic about your imaging, and then sticking to your routine, will result in fewer problems in the field, more time imaging and less frustration.
So, lets get started with the basics, setting up your equipment, and by this, I mean everything, including connecting everything up electronically and under control of the software you will use to run your system. Initially you can do this in your garage, or even indoors provided you won’t be inconveniencing other members of your household. At the early stages, you want to take your time and be as methodical as possible.
A typical imaging system requires many interconnecting cables. Power for your mount, camera, focus controller and dew heaters. Signal cables from mount, camera and focus controller to your computer. As you are setting up you should work on managing these cables so that they are routed neatly and so they will not bind or snag as your mount moves to all points in the sky. There are many inexpensive cable management accessories like Velcro cable ties, mesh cable organizers and adhesive backed cable clips that can be used to help here.
Cable management is very important. The last thing you want is to have a cable pull-out while flipping the mount. You will not only ruin your night of imaging, but you can also severely damage expensive equipment. (Yes, I have done this – please don’t repeat my mistake!)
If possible, you should try to arrange your equipment so that as many of the cables as possible stay on or around your OTA, and as few as possible lead off your system to power supplies or computer. Ideally you want only a single power lead and a USB cable coming off your imaging system.
Nowadays many are using integrated accessories which include power, USB hubs, dew and focus controllers and even computers in a single enclosure which attach to a rail on top of your OTA. These are very convenient but also a bit pricey, but you can roll your own. Since I had the dew and focus controllers already, I added a power distribution strip and mounted everything with Velcro on a piece of nicely painted sheet metal that bolts on to my mounting rings. There was even room to add a mini pc, all for about half the cost of buying a custom accessory.
Now that you have all of your equipment set up, make sure that you take the time to
- Update all of your system software on your computer
- Update all of your astronomy software including drivers for all of your equipment
- Plug everything in, connect your mount camera autoguider and focuser to your imaging software
Generally with either equipment changes, there are always some problems. Because there are so many different equipment manufacturers and software developers, keeping everything in synch is always problematic. I can’t tell you how many times over the years that I have had to chase down software issues to get everything working when only one part of the equipment or software in my imaging system changed. Better to chase these things down at home. And remember, as one HAS wag has told me many times, “its always the drivers!”.
Once you have set everything up, you should take even longer to break it down and get everything put into organized storage and transport boxes. I group my storage by equipment system. Make sure you have all of the adapters, cables, cable management items you need plus a few spares in the appropriate box. Make sure you take some spare batteries too.
The objective is to have a few specific boxes that you load in the car along with your mount and tripod or portable pier, each time you go out to image. If you are confident that everything you need for the mount is in one box, cameras in another, computer etc. you will not need to dig around to be sure you have it all. And most importantly, you will not end up in the field, part way through setting up, when you realize you left something important at home.
Mount counterweights are a special problem. They are big and heavy, and there really aren’t too many good ways to store them. I was at the site one time when an imager showed up an hour before dusk and realized he left his counterweights at home (no it was not me). Imaging session done before it got started.
As a result of this incident, I started storing my counterweights in the vehicle I drove out when I would image. They were in a box in the cargo area. In order to load everything, I would need to move them underneath the rear seats so the mount and tripod would fit.
They say you should always practice like you intend to play. This applies to astro-imaging as well. Once you have everything organized the way you think will work best, set it all up again at home, as if you were in the field. You might even want to load it all in your vehicle first so loading and unloading are part of the practice.
You can pick a mid-weeknight, even if it will be cloudy, when the moon is prominent in the sky, but where rain is not forecast. Start unloading about an hour before sunset, and make sure you are able to get everything up, connected to power and your computer before the end of civil twilight, since this is when you would begin taking flats and polar aligning if you were in the field.
If you have the equipment for it, you may want to do a bit of narrow band work from home. A win-win proposition for sure.
One last thing. Once you are practiced and have everything working smoothly as you like it, use your system for a while and enjoy it before you go changing things! Upgrading equipment always sounds good but can take time before you get everything working stably again.
We get few enough good nights out under clear dark skies. Hopefully with a bit of forethought and practice, you can make the most of them!