This is the equipment I use to image from the mountain cabin under extremely dark skies. I use a small Borg 71FL refractor with a piggyback 50 mm miniBorg guidescope on an old Astro-Physics 400 GTO mount with a portable pier. The pier is shrouded with an TeleGizmo 365 cover and weighed down with hundreds of pounds of rock. Imaging is done with a QHY-12 one-shot color (Bayer matrix) cooled CCD, and guiding is done using a Starlight XPress Lodestar autoguider. Everything is controlled and data are collected using software on a MacBook Pro running Windows 7 in BootCamp.
It’s hard to get everything working together in the dark, especially in winter with frozen fingers! An important solution to this problem is that almost all the connections for both power and USB are pre-made in the nice warm cabin and packaged up in a plastic box (see pics near the bottom of the gallery). This box has one cable to plug into a giant battery, a big cable conduit to the scopes that carries all the power and data connections out, and two little connectors for the laptop. FInally, there is the Astro-Physics hand control for the mount. Sounds like a lot, but what’s inside the box is much more complicated!
Inside the box is a wiring harness that distributes the 12V juice from the battery to the telescope control box, focuser controller, QHY12 camera, and computer; a USB hub with connections to the laptop, the scope controller, the focuser controller, the imaging camera, and the auto guider; and a USB-serial converter to communicate with the telescope. Much easier to just leave all this wired up and compact inside the box, so that I just have three cables coming out of the box. I use cable conduit to keep all those wires from getting tangled. It’s much easier to have the big fat conduit going up the pier in the dark, and then have just the ends of all those power and USB wires sticking out of the end by the cameras.
Focusing the imaging scope is done with a Microtouch Autofocuser made by Starizona. The motor is controlled by a box connected to the computer via USB, which is controlled in software via the ASCOM framework. The guide scope has a simple helical focuser, but rarely needs to be adjusted anyway.
When I get set up, I have to haul the 12V deep-cycle battery (about 80 pounds!), the control box, the laptop, and the scopes and cameras about 100 meters through the snow to the pier out in the meadow.
The mount is attached semi-permanently to the pier under a weatherproof shroud, and is accurately polar aligned. After removing the shroud and attaching the scope to the mount, I use the cable conduit to hook up the cameras and motors. Then I plug in the battery, attach the laptop, and fire up the software. I usually have to re-sync the mount to the stars, by centering a star on the CCD chip and setting it in MaxIm. This is a lot easier now that I’ve attached a simple red-dot finder to the end of the guide scope.
Usually, the computer will run the mount and cameras all night, and for most of that time I will sleep in the cozy cabin. The battery is sufficient to power everything for about 10 hours. If all goes well, I go out in the morning and all the raw data are sitting there on the laptop, ready to process. Then I just power down, unplug everything, cover the mount back up, and haul the equipment back inside.