NOAA satellites 15, 18, and 19 transmit weather images in APT format at 137 MHz which may be received using a DIY non-tracking circularly-polarized VHF antenna, an AirSpy Mini software-defined radio (SDR), and a decoder such as the NOAA-APT.
To watch a video of a signal received from a NOAA satellite, click here. To view all posts about amateur radio, click here.
This is an image of the Sun showing two prominent sunspots AR 3057 (upper right) and AR 3059 (lower left), imaged with a Vixen R114 reflector, ASI 533 MC camera, and a Baader ND 5 solar filter. Never observe or image the Sun without the proper solar filters.
For a complete list of astrophoto images, click here.
I’ve built an electronic automatic focuser (EAF) for my Tamron 80 to 210 mm telephoto (zoom) lens for automated and precise focusing. The focuser was built with a stepper motor, an A4988 stepper motor driver, an Arduino Uno, and a repurposed azimuth adjustment mechanism of an old Vixen mount.
Vixen’s alt-az mount azimuth lock mechanism happens to be wide enough to fit a telephoto lens. It allows fine movement using the fine adjustment knob attached to a stepper motor with 60:16 pulley and belt system. It features a clutch mechanism that allows for manual focusing. The lens and the camera are held in place with mounting rings from an old 80 mm Vixen refractor. An aluminum baseplate is used to mount together as a unit the lens, camera, focuser, finder scope, and guide scope. The controller for the focuser was housed in a project box. A dovetail bar connects the whole assembly to the telescope mount.
I have tested the focuser on several imaging runs now and it appears to be working fine, especially with wide-field targets such as the Lagoon and Veil Nebula. To watch a video showing the microfocuser in action, click here.
The ISD1820 is a sound recorder and playback module capable of storing 20-second audio recordings. It features the ability to initiate playback with a button press or a pulse, which is very useful in automated transmissions. The playback signal can be generated manually by tapping the playback button onto a radio’s PTT button, or by using a dedicated controller (such as a timer or an Arduino) for sending transmissions at regular intervals. To send the module’s audio signal to a radio transmitter such as a VHF radio on FM mode or an HF radio on SSB, connect the speaker out to the microphone line input of the radio. This module can be used to send repeated transmissions such as station IDs or for calling a CQ.
To watch a video showing the ISD1820 used as a station ID playback module (with my call sign in Morse Code), click here. To view all posts about amateur radio, click here.
The Coathanger asterism captured with an 80-210 mm Tamron telephoto lens set at 210 mm f/5.6, an ASI 533MC cooled astronomy camera, a UV-IR filter, with an ASI 174MM guide camera on a 30 mm f/4 guide scope. This is a very prominent asterism located between Altair and Vega, near the bright stars of Sagitta. The Coathanger is visible even in binoculars and probably the very first deep-sky object I have seen through a telescope.
I have installed a Kenko polar scope to a Vixen Great Polaris (GP) mount. I modified the polar scope’s coupler to fit the Vixen GP mount. Instead of the standard threaded coupling, I used three screws to attach the polar scope onto the mount. A separate set of centering screws allow alignment of the star map overlay with that of the actual stars in the sky.
A polar scopes is helpful in aligning the mount’s polar axis with that of the Earth’s axis of rotation, but it lacks the precision required for astrophotography. When imaging at longer focal lengths, I recommend not relying on a polar scope, but instead use the declination drift alignment method for polar alignment. It looks at two stars, one in the eastern or western horizon, and another in the celestial equator, allowing for better polar alignment even without the view of Polaris.
Buying a Telescope in the Philippines Acquiring a telescope for astrophotography may be very costly if it is to be purchased brand new, with prices usually costing (in the Philippines) more than 35,000 pesos (more than $700) for the telescope and mount only, cameras not included. For an aspiring astronomy enthusiast, a low-cost alternative would be to purchase one from a local surplus store. Such stores are popular in the Philippines, selling relatively low-cost second-hand telescopes in good condition, mostly imported from Japan. A few months ago, I purchased a Vixen Newtonian reflector (year 1990, model Vixen R114) with 114 mm diameter 900 mm focal length, on a non-motorized equatorial mount. This telescope was initially purchased by a fellow astro-enthusiast but was offered to me instead for 7,500 pesos ($150) when it was discovered that the telescope has to be repaired as it could not reach focus. I found out later that the optical elements were not properly installed. The telescope does not have a tracker, and thus, is not equipped for deep-sky astrophotography (such as for taking images of galaxies, nebula, and star clusters).
Importance of a Tracking Mount As the Earth rotates, the apparent position of sky objects changes. Pointing with a telescope would have been easy if sky objects are stationary. But the Sun, planets, stars, galaxies, and nebulae, they all move across the sky at a rate of about 15 deg per hour from east to west. To follow a moving target, the telescope uses motors and controllers that move the telescope at a very precise rate in order to keep an object centered. A tracking mechanism compensates for the Earth’s rotation by moving the telescope just right to negate the effects of Earth’s movement. This capability of a telescope to track is what makes it suitable for taking long-exposure images, a basic requirement in astrophotography.
Building a DIY Go-To Telescope Controller Telescopes on equatorial mounts without trackers may still follow objects manually by rotating the RA fine adjustment knob. To be useful in astrophotography, tracking must be done with precision. Telescopes with trackers are available, but are costly. An alternative would be to build a tracker using parts that can be purchased online or taken from old appliances (such as printers). There are various open-source projects on the internet about building trackers, one of which is a system called OnStep (which stands for On Cue, On Step). It allows not only tracking but also automated finding of objects in the sky. It can be installed on any telescope, even on a year 1990 model Vixen R114 that I have purchased.
In my particular OnStep build, I used an Arduino Mega 2560 as the main controller board as I am already familiar with it. I also used a pair of LV8729 stepper motor driver and an HC-05 Bluetooth module. For the motor drive mechanism, I used a pulley-and belt system.
I used a pair of 200-step-per-revolution stepper motors paired with 60-teeth and 16-teeth pulley and belt drive system to motorize the Vixen Great Polaris mount with 144:1 worm drive. In this configuration, the total steps are 200 steps * 60/16 reduction * 144/1 teeth worm drive = 108,000 steps per 360 degrees at full stepping. Actual testing showed that accurate tracking is possible at 1/64 microsteps (60 second unguided exposures at 900 mm focal length) . This brings the total steps per revolution to 6, 912, 000 per 360 degrees, or 19,200 per degree (you need to configure this in the OnStep code).
The OnStep telescope controller can be connected to an Android smartphone (using the app OnStep) via bluetooth connection or to a laptop computer via USB connection, running the software Nighttime Imaging N’ Astronomy (NINA) to enable automatic slewing to targets. It also connects with Stellarium to display real-time the telescope’s current position. It uses plate-solving (with ASTAP) to validate and refine its pointing accuracy.
During start-up, the telescope begins with the alignment process in which it will point to a star and ask you to validate that the correct star is shown on the screen or eyepiece. Once successful, the telescope will be capable of finding almost any sky target such as planets, galaxies, and nebulae. The telescope will have very accurate pointing and tracking if properly polar-aligned.
Attaching a Motor to the Focuser Precise focus is essential in capturing sharp images. Focusing is done by moving the draw tube that holds the eyepiece or camera. This is usually done by looking at the eyepiece or screen to assess focus while rotating the focuser knob. A motor may be attached to the focuser knob to automate this process. Precise focusing can be done by manually operating the controls and stopping when the view is sharp, or by using a software to check proper focus. The software will move the motor and stop at the position where there is good contrast and pinpoint stars. In the Vixen R114, I attached a motor on the focuser and use an Arduino Uno and an A4988 stepper motor driver to control it. The focuser is ASCOM compliant and works with astronomy software such as NINA for remote and automated focusing.
UsingLaser as Finder
The telescope comes with a 6 by 30 mm finder scope which is adequate for pointing at bright targets. To add to it, I also installed a laser pointer as a tool for locating objects. The laser pointer is mounted on a spare finder scope holder with collimation screws to enable alignment with the telescope. It has a toggle switch that allows the laser to be turned on and off. To find an object such as a galaxy or nebula, I turn the laser on and point the telescope to the target’s approximate location as indicated in a star map. I then use a pair of binoculars to spot the target. Since the laser allows me to know precisely where the telescope is pointed at, I could use it to guide the telescope to the target. Observe safety precautions when using laser pointers (also, laser pointers are usually not allowed in star parties!)
Installing a Polar Scope Most second-hand telescopes do not come with complete accessories. The mount the Vixen R114 came with (Vixen GP mount) does not have a polar finder scope. Polar finder scopes help in precise alignment of the equatorial mount’s RA axis with the Earth axis of rotation. I do happen to have a polar scope from a smaller mount that I no longer use. I transferred the polar scope from the other mount into the Vixen GP mount. The polar scope has three centering screws which is needed for calibrating the polar scope’s star map with the actual position of Polaris in the sky. I have tested the polar scope and it works well.
Preventing Collisions with a Pier Extension Automated telescopes must be able to point anywhere in the sky without the risk of collision between the telescope and the tripod legs. One solution to this is to elevate the telescope on to a pier. Pier extensions can be purchased, but I opted to build one since it is not difficult to do and I happen to have the parts needed. I used three L-bars to lift the tripod head. The pier extension allows unattended imaging without the risk of damage due to collision, to the mount or telescope.
Home-brewing Astronomical Equipment You will learn many things as you engage more with home-brewed projects. Do not be afraid to modify or improve your existing equipment. Building equipment does not necessarily mean low-cost though, it can sometimes be costly and there is always a risk of damage to equipment. Building DIY equipment, however, can be a worthwhile activity for astronomy enthusiasts. If you want to learn more about improvised astronomical equipment that you can build at home, you may check out my other home-brewed projects here.
I have a 1980 Tamron 80 mm to 210 mm telephoto (zoom) lens that I intend to use for astrophotography. I could not find a dedicated astro camera adapter for this particular lens so I just improvised one. I used epoxy to connect a Tamron to Canon EOS adapter and an M42 connector for my ASI 533 astro camera.
After several imaging sessions with the Lagoon and Veil Nebula, the DIY adapter appears to work.
Veil Nebula in the constellation Cygnus captured with an 80-210 mm Tamron telephoto lens set at 210 mm f/5.6, an ASI 533MC cooled astronomy camera, dual band H-alpha and O-III filter, with an ASI 174MM guide camera on a 30 mm f/4 guide scope. I used the StarNet++ to reduce the stars and highlight the nebula.
Lagoon M8 and Trifid Nebula M20 captured with an 80-210 mm Tamron telephoto lens set at 210 mm f/5.6, an ASI 533MC cooled astronomy camera, dual band H-alpha and O-III filter, with an ASI 174MM guide camera on a 30 mm f/4 guide scope. This photo was imaged and tracked using a DIY go-to telescope controller.
I’ve built an electronic automatic focuser (EAF) for my Vixen R114 reflector for automated and precise focusing. The focuser was built with a geared stepper motor, A4988 stepper motor driver, and an Arduino Uno.
The focuser is ASCOM compliant and works with astronomy software such as the Nighttime Imaging N Astronomy (NINA) for automated focusing during unattended imaging. To watch a video showing the focuser’s movement, click here.
Due to Earth’s rotation, objects in the sky appear to move from east to west. Taking a long-exposure photo of stars using a camera on a non-tracking mount will produce trails. To compensate for the Earth’s rotation, a tracker as simple as a geared stepper motor can be used. This tracker is controller by a simple Arduino-based stepper controller.
Any geared stepper motor with sufficient torque can be used as a drive mechanism. For this project, I used a stepper motor with a built-in 1:500 gearbox.
I simply attached an aluminum plate to the end shaft of the stepper. A ball head mount was then used to connect a DSLR to the plate. All the components can fit easily in a small camera bag. It is designed to carry only a very light payload such as a DSLR with a wide-field lens.
To test it further, I also tried it with a more demanding lens: 55 mm. Without tracking, stars appear as streaks, but with tracking, stars remain as fixed points.
Even with a 55 mm lens, the tracker is capable of accurate tracking up to 120 seconds, which should be accurate enough for Milky Way shots.
Calibrating the DIY Tracker
The tracker’s ‘tracking speed’ needs to match the actual movement of the sky. Calibrate your own tracker by making sure that the stepper does not rotate a bit too fast nor too slow. Align the tracker’s axis of rotation (or what is called the polar axis, which in this case, the stepper’s main shaft) with the north star Polaris (for observers in the southern hemisphere, point the tracker’s polar axis in the general direction of the Earth’s southern polar axis). Point the camera to any bright star. Turn the tracker on and start tracking the sky. Take a series of shots (with just enough exposure to capture the position of stars). By looking at the live view images or photos taken, you should be able to tell whether or not the tracker is moving too fast or too slow.
Before attempting this method, make sure that you have already calibrated the tracker, that is, you’ve managed to achieve a correct tracking rate. When pointed to a star in the east, minimize the north-south drift by adjusting the polar axis higher or lower (altitude adjustment). When pointed to a star in the celestial equator (near meridian), minimize the north-south drift by adjusting the polar axis to the left or to the right (azimuth adjustment). The east-west drift is corrected by adjusting the tracker’s speed.
Clock drives are simple tracking mechanism that move a telescope’s RA axis one rotation every one sidereal day (23 hours and 56 minutes) to effectively compensate for the Earth’s rotation. It allows precise tracking of planets, galaxies, nebula, and other sky targets.
An inexpensive Arduino Uno board and L293D-based stepper motor driver can be used to control a telescope. Attach a stepper motor on a telescope’s RA adjustment knob, then find the correct motor speed that will match the movement of the sky. Below is a sample sketch for a simple telescope clock drive controller.
//Simple clock drive controller by Anthony Urbano 06 September 2021. It uses an Arduino Uno and an L293D.
#include <AFMotor.h> //Go to SKETCH > INCLUDE LIBRARY > then lookup "Adafruit Motor Shield Library"
AF_Stepper motor1RA(24, 1); //Initializing motor's steps per one full rotation; Connect the motor to M1 port
motor1RA.setSpeed(100); //Change the value to speed up or slow down the tracker
motor1RA.step(1, FORWARD, DOUBLE); //Motor takes 1 step forward; to reverse direction, replace FORWARD with BACKWARD
With proper polar alignment, a simple clock drive is capable of imaging deep-sky objects, such as the Flame and Horsehead Nebula. This image was captured with a telescope at 565 mm focal length.
The Celestron Travel Scope 70 has a front lens diameter of 70 mm and a focal length of 400 mm. A telescope with these specifications works well for terrestrials observations, both for daytime and nighttime.
Due to its size, however, it has a very limited use for astronomical observation. Note that the telescope showed signs of chromatic aberration, like any other low cost telescopes.
A universal camera adapter allows any camera to be attached to a telescope or binoculars. This imaging method is called afocal imaging, in which a camera with its lens is mounted next to another image-forming optical system such as a telescope or a pair of binoculars. This adapter was built in 2008 and still in use today.
A T-ring is a metal adapter with one end that fits on a lens mount and with the other end that connects to a T-adapter. Each camera brand has it’s own T-ring design. The T-adapter connects any T-ring to a telescope.
The Canon EOS T-ring shown in this setup is produced by Celestron, while the T-adapter was fabricated in a machine shop. Some telescopes have threaded focusers that may accept a T-ring directly, thus, eliminating the need for a T-adapter.
Over the years, I have used various types of batteries, but the one I use most often is the deep-discharge lead-acid type. They are robust, low-cost, can be charged with almost any compatible power supply, and most importantly, can double as a vehicle jump-start kit when not being used in the field. I use four 12V 9Ah deep-discharge lead acid batteries connected in parallel, to power the laptop, and another 12V 9Ah battery for the telescope’s tracker. These batteries remain usable for 2 to 3 years.
A moderately-sized field battery has more than enough power to last an overnight imaging session.
I have built a DIY pier extension to allow my DIY go-to telescope to move without hitting the tripod legs. It consists of three 12-inch L-bars (which I later shortened to 7.5 inches, after measuring the minimum clearance required) that lift the tripod head. I repurposed a tripod head from an old and unused tripod to serve as the base where the L-bars and the tripod legs connect to. The pier extension allows unattended imaging without the risk of damage to the mount or telescope.
To watch a video of the telescope performing a successful meridian flip without hitting the tripod legs, click here.