DIY Autoguider: Home-Built Autoguider Project

About a year ago (November 2011), I started constructing a home-built autoguider, a setup astrophotographers use in imaging galaxies, nebula, and many other deep-space stuff. The setup is no different from what is used by observatories world wide, except that this one was built entirely from scratch. Feel free to browse the details of the project here.

A home-built autoguider setup showing the key components: (1) imaging telescope, (2) imaging camera, (3) guidescope, (4) guide camera, (5) tracking mount, and (6) a computer.

DIY Autoguider (Part 4: Autoguiding and Polar Alignment)

This part of the DIY guide focuses on the actual guiding operation and the drift-alignment method for precise polar alignment. We begin by first assembling the telescope along with the guidescope. We also attach the imaging and the guiding cameras and connect all the necessary cables leading to and from the computer.

Screenshot during actual guiding operation

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DIY Autoguider (Part 3: Wiring Diagrams)

Now that we have already devised a simple contraption that allows a computer to convert guiding commands into light pulses, our next task is to devise a way for a telescope mount to “read” these pulses and translate it into actual east-west movement. This part of the DIY guide will describe the wiring diagrams that will enable any computer to talk to any type of telescope mount (i.e., with or without an autoguider port).

Wiring diagram of a DIY autoguider

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DIY Autoguider (Part 2: Setting-up the Guiding Software)

Guiding commands from the computer are sent through a port called ‘LPT1‘, or the parallel port (or sometimes called printer port). It is a kind of interface that allows a simple way for a computer to communicate with other devices.  We will try to convert these ‘commands‘ into a form that can be easily interpreted by your telescope mount. The simplest way to do that is to convert the commands into light pulses using Light-Emitting Diodes (or LEDs). These light pulses in turn will be used to drive what is called a ‘light activated switch‘ that we will connect directly to the autoguider port or hand controller. In this DIY guide, we will focus first on how a computer (with the use of the guiding software called GuideMaster) can generate light pulses, by connecting LEDs to the computer’s parallel port.

The parallel port is mounted on a socket called DB25F(F stands for ‘female socket’) or DB25M(M stands for ‘male socket’). It has 25 pins (1 to 13 top row, 14 to 25 bottom row). For this project, we are only interested in pins 4, 5, and 25 (other pins will be utilized however in future upgrades). Shown below is a photo of my laptop’s parallel port.

A female parallel port (DB25F). Note the location of pins 4,5, and 25 (see arrows).

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DIY Autoguider (Part 1: Introduction)

Very long exposures requiring precise tracking needed for imaging deep-sky objects may now be achieved through an advanced imaging technique called autoguiding. This article provides a brief introduction and how one could construct a do-it-yourself guider that delivers equally satisfying results for a fraction of the cost of ultra expensive commercially available counterpart.

Guided Imaging

Guided imaging simply involves active monitoring of the telescope’s tracking accuracy by observing a reference object (any bright star) and making the necessary adjustments to nudge the telescope to the east or to the west so that the reference object remains stationary for the whole duration of an exposure. The simplest example is a setup involving an imaging telescope with (equipped with a finderscope) on a tracking mount. After the object to be imaged has been properly framed and focused, the imager adjusts the finderscope and centers its cross hair to the brightest star in its field. This bright star now serves as the reference object called the guide star and the finderscope now performs the task of a guidescope. The idea is that, for as long as the guidescope’s crosshair is centered on the guidestar, the imager knows that the telescope is tracking properly. To achieve better sensitivity to drift, more powerful dedicated guidescopes may be used.

Image 1. My first autoguider setup (2010): guidescope (left) mounted side by side with 6-inch imaging scope (right).

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DIY Cable Release

Anyone familiar with basic camera settings like shutter speed, ISO, and aperture (f/ratio) is more than capable of capturing decent astrophotos like constellations, meteors, planetary and lunar alignments, Iridium flares, ISS flybys, star trails, and even the Milky Way. In most cases, only a DSLR-on-a-tripod setup is required. In some instances, however, an additional accessory called a cable release becomes a necessity, and without it, it is simply impossible to take advantage of the most useful feature of a DSLR camera: the bulb setting. This article explains why such an accessory is important and how you can build one (for Canon DSLRs) that performs technically the same function, equally as reliable, but costs just a fraction of the commercially available counterpart (and the best part is, you actually built it yourself!).

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© Anthony Urbano (Manila, Philippines)

Stepper Motor Controller with Autoguider

Autoguider November 2015

UPDATE (February 2016): I have recently built an Arduino-based stepper motor controller. For inquiries, kindly leave a comment below or send an email to eteny@nightskyinfocus.com

This stepper motor controller is an improvement of my previous tracker designs. The operation of the micro-controller is explained below:

1. Autoguider port – an RS232 port connects a controller to a computer’s parallel port for receiving guiding signals
2. Power supply – an internal auto-voltage regulator allows the controller to draw power from any 6 to 12 V power source
3. Autoguider RA+/RA- calibration – adjusts the pulses per second of RA plus and RA minus during guiding
4. Stepper Motor Port – an RS232 port connects the controller to the mount’s stepper motor
5. Audio feedback – tracking rate (pulses per second) can be analyzed through an audio port by connecting it to an oscilloscope (or through the computer’s sound card if a computer is used to emulate an oscilloscope)
6. Power on/off – turns on and off the device
7. Step rate indicator – provides a visual feedback of the current step rate
8. Step indicator – indicates which of the 4 coils of the stepper is energized
9. RA plus button – momentarily increases step rate to a predefined value, nudging the telescope to the west
10. RA plus indicator – lights up to indicate that the step rate is momentarily increased
11. RA minus button – momentarily decreases step rate to a predefined value, nudging the telescope to the east
12. RA minus indicator – lights up to indicate that the step rate is momentarily decreased
13. Mode – selects operation between Automatic and Manual mode
14. Manual override – when Manual mode is selected, step rate can be manually adjusted from 1 – 100 hertz (beats per second)
15. Speed selector – when Automatic mode is selected, step rate can be set from any of the 9 pre-defined step rates; for this controller, 1 is assigned to sidereal, 2 for solar, and 4 for lunar step rate, respectively
16. Sidereal calibration – adjusts tracking rate to accurately track stars, galaxies, and nebulas
17. Solar calibration – adjusts tracking rate to accurately track the Sun
18. Lunar calibration– adjusts the tracking rate to accurately track the moon

Related articles:
DIY Autoguider (Part 1: Introduction)
DIY Autoguider (Part 2: Setting-up the Guiding Software)
DIY Autoguider (Part 3: Wiring Diagrams)
DIY Autoguider (Part 4: Autoguiding and Polar Alignment)

For tutorials on how to get started with astrophotography, click here.
For DIY astronomy projects useful for astrophotography, click here.
To subscribe to this site, click here.

© Anthony Urbano (Manila, Philippines)