Monday, 3 April 2017

What Controls The Hardware? - The Software Behind It All

What Controls The Hardware? - The Software Behind It All

During my journey of dipping my toe into the dark arts of Astrophotography, I have pulled information from all different places in an effort to try to get everything working.  Some of it has been trial and error and some of it has been taken from different forums and manufacturers.  This post will bring what I've learnt and what I used into a central list to try to help anyone who might find themselves in a similar scenario.

My Hardware

Celestron AVX Mount
Altair Starwave 80 ED-R Refractor with Focal Reducer
Altair Starwave 50mm Guidescope
Altair GPCAM Mono for guiding
Canon EOS 1100d DSLR - unmodified
HP Laptop running Windows 10 64 bit OS

The Control Software

This is a list of the software and drivers that I downloaded and installed in this order.  There was a bit of trial and error involved, and where needs be, I've noted any significant options or settings that I needed to apply.

Already Installed

  • Stellarium Planetarium Software.
    • Plug in added to allow Stellarium to talk to the AVX mount and slew to the required targets.
    • Laptop is connected to the hand controller of the AVX machine via the supplied COM cable.  I don't have a COM port on my laptop, so bought a COM to USB converter cable which does the trick.
  • Backyard EOS for Canon DSLR Cameras.
    • DSLR connects via 5 meter USB cable to the laptop.

Additional Installations

  • BEFORE attaching the Altair GPCAM Mono to the laptop, download the Windows drivers from the Altair website, along with the ASCOM drivers.
  • Install the GPCAM Mono Windows drivers and then plug in the USB lead to connect the camera.
  • Unzip the ASCOM driver for the GPCAM.
    • Locate the altaircam.dll file and copy it.
  • Download PHD2 from the Altair website.  This is specifically configured to include support for the GPCAM Mono.
    • PHD2 is a 32 bit application, but it will install and run on a 64 bit environment.
    • Install PHD2 for Windows.
    • After installation, look at the Program Files file path to locate the pre-installed altaircam.dll file.  Overwrite this file with the one copied from the ASCOM driver,
    • PHD2 will now detect the GPCAM Mono.
  • Download and install the ASCOM Platform 6.2 from ascom-standards.org
    • From what I can work out, this bundle contains the required drivers to support guiding.
  • Download and install Celestron Mount ASCOM Drivers from ascom-standards.org
    • These are the additional files required to get the laptop to talk to the AVX Mount.
  • Make the following connections:
    • Connect the mount's hand controller to the laptop using the COM cable and COM to USB converter, to the laptop.
    • Make sure the GPCAM USB cable is connected.  Note: I have tried a longer USB cable to connect the laptop to the GPCAM, but the connection isn't reliable.  Using the shorter supplied USB cable gives a much more reliable connection.
    • Connect the GPCAM to the Guiding port on the AVX mount using the supplied ST4 cable that come with the GPCAM.
  • Launch PHD2 and start the New Profile Wizzard.  
    • In the list, you should find Altair Astro Camera ASCOM Driver.  Click Detect and Next.
    • PHD2 should find the mount (assuming it is connected).  Celestron Telescope Driver (ASCOM)

Problem 1

    • It was at this point that I came up against my first problem.  An ASCOM driver problem during connection:  (ASCOM Utilities) The PortName cannot be empty.  Parameter name:PortName
    • To get around this, in PHD2, I clicked on the Mount Setup button and stipulated the COM port being used to communicate with the hand controller.  As mentioned, this was actually a USB port as I had used the USB to COM port adapter.
  • In the PHD2 Equipment Profile Options, I used the following:
      • Camera: Altair Astro Camera ASCOM Driver
      • Mount: On Camera
      • Aux Mount: Celestron Telescope Driver
  • Download and Install SharpCap 2.9 software initially for it's Polar Alignment abilities.

Problem 2

Once I set all the equipment up and had everything talking to each other, I did a dry run of trying to get everything to work together,  Backyard EOS continued to work as it had done originally.  I could see the GPCAM using the SharpCap software.  I could also talk to the mount and GPCAM via PHD2.  I was also issue slewing commands from the laptop to nudge the mount around.
However, I came across my second issue when I tried to connect Stellarium to the mount with the intention of being able to select a target in the program, and have the mount slew to the target,  It became apparent that I could not slew the telescope from Stellarium and have PHD2 guiding operating at the same time.  While I could get around the problem by making sure the target was acquired before opening PHD2, it wouldn't be ideal.  After reading up, I found that others had encountered the same issue.  The suggested fix was to download and install another small piece of software called StellariumScope.  It's designed to work with Stellarium, but allow commands to be sent to the mount by both PHD2 and Stellarium.  Unfortunately, I couldn't get it to work.
I started looking for alternatives and then remembered another piece of planetarium software called Cartes du Ciel.  I uninstalled Stellarium and installed CdC, connected everything up and then was finally able to perform everything from the laptop that I needed to:
  • Use GPCAM from SharpCap
  • Connect to GPCAM from PHD2
  • Issue guiding commands from PHD2 to the mount via the ST4 port on the GPCAM
  • Select and slew the scope/mount to a target from CdC
  • Set up and run an imaging run from Backyard EOS and my DSLR while guiding too.
I hope this gives sufficient information to people on how I got everything working.  I get the impression that there are many ways to skin this cat, but this is the method I used to achieve what I wanted, for the equipment that I have.
Thanks for reading!

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