Sunday, June 26, 2016


After the highs and lows of last week, it was time to start the investigation into whether or not we can get the Paramount back into operation.  During the week we had done a lot of reading and research - slightly worryingly SoftwareBisque - the manufacturer of the mount had informed us that it would be unusual for a firmware glitch to cause failure of the serial communication.

Testing the serial line
We started by checking the serial connection - we had borrowed a serial tester from Tim Natusch - and connected it inline.  We had hoped to see DSR (Data Set Ready) and CTS (Clear To Send) lights - indicating that the mount was ready to communicate.  We didn't - however this didn't upset us too much as many devices don't bother with these connections and use a basic "3-wire" protocol (Rx,Tx,GND).

Next step was the SoftwareBisque MKSER utility - still no internet at the dome, but we brought it along on a USB stick.  Quite typically (remember Murphy - he's never far away) - trying to run the software gave us a "DLL Not Found" error.

As Tony, Jonathan and I "fondly" recalled stories of "DLL Hell", I tethered my Macbook to my phone and set about finding the offending DLL files and transferred them to the Dome PC.

Once up and running (and after I'd worked out how to switch the active COM port in the utility) I quickly discovered the mount in fact DID seem to be communicating - though only the DEC board, not the RA.  After a restart of the mount, we could see that both boards were communicating, and we could even initiate a "home" in both axes through the software.

This was indeed excellent news - as it meant that the basic underlying serial communication to the control boards was working, and the control boards were able to drive their respective mount axes.  As a test, I disconnected MKSER (whilst it was working) and started up TS6.  TS6 failed to connect - and then I discovered that the MKSER utility was now unable to communicate too.  A restart of the mount brought it up again, and I also proved that TSX caused the same issue as well.
Inside the Paramount GT-1100S

Since I also had a copy of the firmware for the mount, we had decided that reloading the firmware was a sensible option.  From the research we had done we knew we had to set a DIP switch on the control boards to PGM (Program). Whilst I was doing the tests above, Tony set to the mount with a hex key or two to removed the side plate covering the mount innards.

After carefully levering off the side of the mount it was easy to see the three internal boards and all the cabling.  We were quite encouraged that there didn't seem to be too much dust, dirt or insect activity in there.  It wasn't immediately obvious though where the programming switch would be - and the boards were certainly not all that easy to get to.

Now where is this DIP switch?
 Eventually though we did locate the correct switch which was on the right-hand board, mad a little harder to see clearly due to the OTA being on that side of the mount in its home position (as you can see in the photo of me peering in there with a torch)

The sporadic rain showers of the day didn't really help as we couldn't really have the dome shutter open most of the time to help with getting some light on the subject - good job we had plenty of torches!

DIP switch located, we set it into PGM mode, told the software where to find the file and hit the "download" button to reprogram (and hopefully re-initialise) the RA board.

Those of you playing along will immediately realise that good old Murph' wasn't gonna let us off that easy.

"Error 1008"

Hmm.  Let's check the firmware.  We were uploading 1.1.45 (same as the previous version).
"Version 1.0.2"

Bugger.  What now!? Back to the laptop and the SB support forums - it turns out that whilst the version of MKSER we have specifically says it supports the GT-1100S - it doesn't actually support uploading to the MKS3000 and an older version is needed.  Naturally that version is not available for download.

Long story short (well short-er!) - without the earlier version of MKSER, we're stuck -I've emailed and forum posted to SB to try and get a copy, and Grant C is going to check his old hard drives from back then to see if he might have a copy from 2002 when the firmware was last updated.

Scariest part was realising that with the mount in a state without the correct firmware loaded on one of the boards, we had to power off (and disconnect).  I was a little worried we might not get connected again.  Biting the bullet we powered off, reset the controller to RUN and powered back on.

RA Board didn't connect.

Mount would not joystick or home in RA.

Rather than panic (or cry - either of which would have been perfectly reasonable at this point!) I powered off and switched back to PGM.  Communication established again to the RA board (but still reporting 1.0.2).  Looks like we *really* need that older MKSER.

With nothing further we could really do with the mount at this stage, we replaced the cover (can't have the spiders finding a new place to set up home) and powered down.  Hopefully we can get the software soon.

Keeping the cables under control.
With no more mount stuff to do I decided to check a fault that Jonathan had reported with our new dehumidifier - it had stopped going and was showing an error. Turns out the "error" was "tF" and it meant "tank full" and indeed the water tank was full - meaning the permanent drain wasn't draining. Turns out that as well as a screw fitting cap, there was a rubber bung I'd failed to remove as well!

Finally, Jonathan had purchased a couple of surge protected power boards the week before.  Since we'd had a few power outages and electrical storms over the past couple of weeks, it seemed like the sensible thing to do would be to make sure that a power surge didn't end up as the next drama down on the list.

I took the opportunity to tidy the cables around the pier a little more by mounting the new power board and all the associated power supplies on a board bolted to the pier.  Much tidier and off the floor, this arrangement will also mean that the equipment will be a little more protected in the event we get a leak in the dome. As a bonus, the new boards have also got USB charger sockets - must add microUSB and lightning charger leads to the list to so that we can keep our phones topped up whilst working out there.


Monday, June 20, 2016

Murphy Strikes Back

Anyone who has heard me talking about Kumeu Observatory recently will be familiar with the concept of how Murphy's law operates at full strength in Astronomy - and in particular - with our work out at Kumeu.

After a really positive and productive evening a few nights previous, Jonathan, Tony and I spent an initially productive and hopeful time out at Kumeu during the day on Sunday which ended with a new major issue for us to address.

On the productive side, we manage to install the new dehumidifier that we had purchased.  The model we bought is compact and wall mounted so it keeps out of the way.  We managed to find a perfect location for it inside the dome in a position that allowed us to pass the drain hose through the wall (after a quick trip to Mitre10 for drill bits and silicone) and directly into a drainpipe.  The dehumidifier is set to target a particular humidity level (so it's not running all the time) - we've set this to 70% for now and we'll adjust as necessary to keep it dry without consuming too much power.

We set about more investigations of the Zone of Death issue - First step was an update of TheSkyX (TSX) to the latest version (which made no difference) - so we carried on - particularly wanting to confirm or deny the possibility of the previously broken cables being the source of the error (the hypothesis was that at certain mount positions we may be extending the cables for one of the encoders).  With the covers off we could see a few important points,

  1. No movement of the mount seemed to be overextending any cables
  2. Tracing the set of cables that got damaged, it as clear that all the cores on the multicore ribbon cable/connector (except 4) were used for the "passthrough" cabling (power, serial and parallel connectors), and not for any mount control.  The 4 cores that were in use were for the home position sensor (working fine) and the motor, encoders etc were on seperate cables that were not damaged.
  3. For the future, it was noted that most of the cable bundle was completely unused - so if we ever do have to pull the mount apart in future, we should probably remove it all and replace with modern power and USB
Confident that a physical cable issue was almost certainly not the cause of the ZoD we set about running more tests.
  • The ZoD covers an area around the South/SouthEast in the sky
  • We could always slew accurately to any location within the ZoD without issue
  • Once in the ZoD, we can use the joystick and accurately navigate the scope around the ZoD and the mount continues to accurately track position back to the computer.
  • If we joystick out of the ZoD, we can slew to a new position (in or out of the ZoD) no problem
  • If we try to slew from the computer at all (even a 1 arcsecond "jog") we see the following
    • Mount does a slow move in RA - much more than it should
    • at the end of this, the reported position back to the computer is send back - radically different to what it should be, this puts the mount completely out of sync
    • The mount then "continues" the slew into an incorrect position 
  • From here, the mount will now slew anywhere in the sky - apparently "accurately" but completely out of sync (so not the same part of the sky the computer thinks it should be) - including into and out of the ZoD
  • The new incorrect position appears to be largely out in RA and out to a lesser degree in DEC
This behaviour led us to think that, as we were starting to consider the other night, that software might be an issue - Either TheSkyX (still, even though we had updated it) or the firmware on the mount itself.

Then we had (what we though was) a major breakthrough - we tried TheSky6.  And it worked. No ZoD issues at all !!!.  When we switched back to TSX the ZoD returned.  We were very hopeful that the whole thing was just a software glitch on the PC.  We set about completely removing and reinstalling TSX from scratch.

When we had done this, very hopefully, we tried again.  This time, the behaviour was not quite the same - there was no longer any random slews from within the ZoD.  Yay.!!!!  However, there was actually no slewing AT ALL once we entered the ZoD - Boooooo!!!   We could still joystick (and issue move commands from TSX) but no slewing to a target. 

Clearly something in the communication between TSX and the mount had to be at fault.but what? and what was different in the reinstalled version that made the behaviour different?

Checking through the mount configuration in the "BisqueTCS" panel, the only obvious thing was that the mount was apparently reporting that the "Hemisphere Setup" was set to "not configured".  Knowing we'd previously selected "Southern" (of course) when we initially set up TSX for this mount, I clicked this option.  The mount disconnected (as expected) and then the TSX software froze up and then crashed.  After reloading the mount was connecting ok, but seemed not to be quite functioning correctly - for some reason the joystick was only allowing the mount to slew in DEC. 

Thinking the hemisphere setup routine had not completed, I tried again (though selecting Northern Hemisphere to ensure it changed).  This worked properly - the mount disconnected, then connected again and it seemed to clear the issue up.  Of course I then needed to ensure we went back to "southern hemisphere" mode, so I again selected this option. 

The mount disconnected, and reconnected - but would not respond correctly to a "home" command, giving an error that the motors we currently operational.  We restarted everything - but this time the mount would not reconnect to serial control. The mysterious issue where the mount would not joystick in RA was also back.  The mount did respond to a "home" command (double click of the joystick) though - proving both axes were still controlable. 

After another full power off restart of everything (this is my IT support background kicking in) we learned that sometimes, after a power cycle and the initial "home" command, the mount would start and the RA would work and the DEC not from the joystick.  Sometimes it was the other way round.  Sometimes both both work.  Unfortunately serial communication doesn't seem to be working at all now.......   We tested the serial port, and switched ports with the Optec TCF to make sure the PC hadn't locked out the COM port for some reason. No Joy. 

Frustrated and annoyed we shut everything down and went home.  Next steps is to attempt to recover from this situation.  There is a utility that permits a lower level communication with the internal control board that we can try - possibly to reload the firmware.  There are also, I believe, further options for programming the control board (the MKS3000) directly - so we've not lost all hope!

That said, we really are starting to tire of Murphy's Law of Astronomy - it seems that just as we are getting some serious leaps forwards-  we get our biggest setbacks.... 


Friday, June 17, 2016

A Productive Night

Last night Steve Hennerley and myself meet up at Kumeu Observatory, it ended up being a very productive night, we did some tests on the "Zone of Death" and our current theory is that it's not a hardware issue but has something to do with the Sky X, Steve noted that our version of the Sky X was out of date so maybe by reinstalling the latest version of the Sky we might be able to resolve the issue, the evidence for the Sky X being the problem has been mounting with the Sky X randomly losing synchronisation and the home position, also slewing through the "Zone of Death" with the joystick has no adverse affect and there has been some weird flipping of the way the Sky X displays the sky when zooming in on a targets lately as well.

One of the first things we did was calculate the focal length of the telescope, Grant Christie had suggested we fill in all the configurations in MaxIm DL so that they will get picked up by the fits header after I had sent him some test microlensing images the other day, so after a bit of calculating we entered the focal length and aperture of the telescope and the latitude and longitude of the Kumeu Observatory site, the only thing we didn't enter was the % of the central obstruction, Steve said he would bring out his digital calipers next time so we can measure it accurately.

With the sky being so clear last night we decided to have a go at collimating the telescope, the telescopes collimation has degraded recently probably from all the times we have had to take the OTA off the mount, so it was good to see that it was not the "astronomical seeing" that was causing the bad focus results I've been getting recently, after spending a bit of time getting the collimation refined using the open star cluster method and then some single semi bright stars, Steve noted that we had got the collimation as good as we could using the methods that we had at our disposal but that we could improve the collimation even more using a program like CCD Inspector, we would have downloaded it and installed it on the night but the internet is still not working out at Kumeu Observatory so that's another issue that still needs to be resolved, after doing as good a job as possible refining the collimation we could see a definite improvement in the auto focus results.

The next thing we got onto was getting the Pin Point Astrometry to work in MaxIm DL, after Steve got that working I was delighted to see that we can now use the "point telescope here" function in MaxIm DL, this is a really helpful option when wanting to center an object in an image in MaxIm DL so you don't have to waste time jogging the telescope.

After that we got onto trying to get the internal Auto-guider of the SBIG ST-10 XME to work, after a bit of investigating Steve managed to get the Auto-guider working, this is a huge step forward for us because we are now not limited to 100 - 200 second exposures, after Steve went home around 2:30 am I took some test images, the stars looked nice and round in both 5 minute and 10 minute exposures, needless to say I was very happy with the results.

All this fantastic progress was tempered by the discovery that we have mold growing on the inside of the corrector plate as well as on the primary mirror so we are going to have to take apart the OTA to be able to clean the telescope up, Steve suggested we might even want to try get the primary mirror re-aluminized while we have the OTA apart, we could even look to flock the interior of the optical tube seeing as we will have access to the interior of the tube, the outside of the corrector plate also needs a good clean as well.

We did notice a fair bit of condensation in the dome over the night so we plan to get out to Kumeu over the weekend and get the recently purchased dehumidifier installed to deal with this problem, I have also purchased two surge protectors so we can protect all the equipment from any electrical faults as well, as we have had a fair amount of power cuts out at the observatory over the past few months as well.

Also when I was shutting down the dome at 5 am, I put the telescope back to the home position to find that the Sky X had again lost it's home position, the telescope was in the home position but as far as the Sky X was concerned the home position was up near the zenith! I have no idea why the Sky X is randomly losing it's synchronisation but this is further evidence that perhaps we do have a problem with the software, it might be solved by simply updating the Sky X to the latest version or maybe we will have to reinstall the drivers I'm not sure, so even though we still have a few issues to work through I went home very satisfied that we had made some fantastic progress.

Ten minute auto-guided test exposure of the Eagle Nebula, the brighter stars all showed signs of bleeding as you would expect from such a long exposure but I was really happy to see the stars stay so spherical over such a long time. ^

Posted by Jonathan Green

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

1st Attempt at Microlensing

Last night after the Auckland Astronomical Society meeting I headed out to Kumeu with the coordinates of a current microlensing event thanks to Grant Christie and Tim Natusch, over at Stardome the sky looked good so I was looking forward to having a go at finding the star field and taking some images using the Kumeu equipment, after traversing the road works that had shut down the North Western Motorway I finally arrived at Kumeu to find the weather was nowhere near as good as it was back in the city, after waiting out a bout of heavy cloud I opened up the dome and attempted to get good focus, all my focus attempts were giving me results of very poor seeing (FWHM of 5.6) so after a few attempts I figured that the seeing might actually just be bad which was later confirmed by seeing very bad scintillation overhead, by this time another bout of heavy clouds arrived and this time brought significant rain so I was forced to close up the dome, instead of packing it in I decided to at least enter the microlensing coordinates into my chart elements so at the next opportunity I would be ready to point at the correct star field, while waiting for the sky to clear I also set about capturing new calibration files seeing as the camera can now stay consistently down at a temperature of -20, the sky did clear but by the time I had opened the dome and slewed to the field took a couple of test exposures the sky had clouded up again and started to rain again, so frustrated I was forced to close up the dome again and went back to capturing calibration images, this was the pattern of the night mainly clouds and rain with the odd sucker hole that quickly closed up before anything useful could be done, I should have just stuck to taking calibration images for the rest of the night as it ended up being a waste of time trying to get work done in the few gaps the clouds provided, I think if the conditions had been better I would have been on target and capable of capturing some useful images, so it was a great learning exercise and at least we now have some new Dark and Bias frames for calibration, by 4 am I closed the dome up and headed home, I had no way to check the weather reports as the internet was still not working but I think I made the correct call as it was still raining when I got back to my house in Coatesville.

In the foreground you have Jennie McCormick's old dome with Kumeu Observatory in the background, overhead rain clouds kept me on my toes all night, I don't think I've ever opened and closed the dome as much as I did last night so that was good practice for being able to close the dome quickly when rain showers passed by. ^

Posted by Jonathan Green.

Monday, June 6, 2016

New Cooling Fan Installed.

After having the cooling fan of the SBIG ST-10 die last Wednesday, I took the camera off the OTA on Friday night and took it into Stardome for Tony Burns to take a look at, after running some tests Tony could see that thankfully it was just the fan that needed replacing, Tony Burns found a replacement fan at Jaycar on Saturday afternoon and installed the new fan as well as putting some loose parts back together on the camera. On Sunday afternoon I dropped by Tony's to pick up the camera and that night I re-installed the camera on the OTA, after turning on the camera I was delighted to see it get down to -20 quickly and stay at -20 consistently with power consumption hovering around the 50-60% mark, this is fantastic as I can now set about collecting a new set of dark and Bias frames at -20 for calibration, the seeing was not fantastic on the night with a FWHM of 4.3 being the best I could manage on the night! after getting as good a focus as I could get, I set about doing a re-calibration of the best T-Point model that I had taken a while back, after capturing 17 re-calibration sample points, the pointing was back to being either on the crosshairs or within a few arc seconds of every target.

As well as bad astronomical seeing there was also quite a bit of high cloud around as well, you could easily see the fog filter effect on the brighter stars with the naked eye, even though it was not the greatest conditions for imaging I set about capturing some targets, I imaged Comet 9P Tempel as well as 116P Wild then moved on to taking some images of galaxies and nebulae, the clouds became thicker around 4 am in the morning so I closed up the dome and headed home for some much needed sleep.

Sombrero Galaxy 60 x 60 second exposures of luminance stacked. ^

Part of the Trifid Nebula captured with 60 x 20 second exposures in the Red filter stacked. ^

Posted by Jonathan Green

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Problem with the cooling fan of the SBIG ST10-XME

After a very wet day the sky finally cleared up after dusk so I went out to Kumeu to take back the Optec TCF unit that had been recently upgraded to be re-installed and tested, the first thing I noticed was that the cooling fan of the SBIG ST10-XME CCD camera was no longer working, at first I thought the camera was dead as it was not making any sound (the fan is quite noisy) but after having a look with the hand torch I could see that the camera was on and it was just the fan that wasn't moving, it would occasionally do a turn or two but only slowly and intermittently, there has been at least two power cuts out at Kumeu since I've got back from the RASNZ conference so I'm not sure if that was the cause or if it's just that the fan needed replacing after not being used for years, certainly the cooling of the camera has been an issue as I have reported in previous posts, with the camera not being able to get down to -20 over Summer or Autumn.

Seeing as I had the dome open already I took some images with the camera to just confirm that it's still working and thankfully everything seems fine except for the fan, not wanting to try cool the camera down without the fan I just tested the TCF with the camera at ambient temperature, the upgrade of the TCF seems to be working fine, although I didn't get great focus thanks to passing clouds and what looked like some bad seeing (the stars seemed to be scintillating a lot which is a sure sign things aren't steady up there) but at least the auto focus worked fine so hopefully the upgrade will see an improvement in the performance of the TCF from now on, I will have to ask Grant and Steve's advice on how to proceed with the camera's fan, hopefully it just needs a new fan but I can't rule out that it may be an internal electrical fault, I think it would be wise to install some form of power surge protection in the near future to just safe guard the equipment, I hope we can get this sorted quickly and that it won't cause too much of a delay in our progress out at the observatory.

Posted by Jonathan Green

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Optec Temperature Compensating Focuser Upgrade

The weather has been rubbish in Auckland of late, stormy conditions have kept me from opening up the dome since getting back from the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand conference, so we haven't had much to report for a while, last night I took in the Kumeu observatories Optec Temperature Compensating Focuser (TCF) for a ROM chip upgrade at Stardome Observatory, Grant Christie had sourced us a new ROM chip and Tony Burns preformed the upgrade, hopefully if the sky clears up tonight I'll be able to test out the upgraded TCF, we have also bought a new dehumidifier for the observatory to help protect the equipment from corrosion so hopefully we will have that installed and operational soon as well.

Tony Burns installing the new ROM chip. ^

Tony Burns checking his handiwork. ^

Posted by Jonathan Green.

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