I found this helpful to create when I was starting out. I found myself missing steps, and having to go backwards time and again. I don’t need checklist every time I go out anymore, but creating something similar yourself will definitely save you some time when your just getting going. It will also help you work out the most efficient way to get through your setup. Here are the steps, in order, that I perform every time I setup for an imaging session. This would be considered a top-level workflow, as each of these steps have steps underneath them. Click on the linked steps to see more detail about each step.
- Point Mount and Tripod North
- Level mount
- Perform Polar Alignment with Polar Scope
- Mount counterweight, then scope
- Connect all cables to scope and PC
- Insert imaging camera
- Balance the Rig
- Turn on Mount and program date and time
- Start Stellarium Scope, Stellarium, BackyardEOS and PHD2
- Slew to south near meridian using the handset
- Perform AZ drift alignment with PHD2
- Slew to east, as low as possible with the handset
- Perform ALT drift alignment with PHD2
- Use Stellarium to slew to target
- Focus DSLR with Bahtinov mask
- Launch Astrotortilla and connect scope and BackyardEOS
- Take image with Astrotortilla and let it plate solve and reslew
- Set imaging session and take lights
- Take darks
- Take flats and bias
After you run through your workflow a few times, you won’t need this, but it’s good to keep around on those nights when nothing seems to be working.
This is easy enough if Polaris is right there for you. The object isn’t to be perfectly aligned yet, but to be within a couple degrees. If it’s still light out, or your view of Polaris is obscured, use a phone or tablet compass app that has a True North option and set your altitude to your location. you’ll be too far off using Magnetic North.
If you’re not level, you won’t guide properly. I just use a cheap bubble level that I think was free with a TV wall mount. If you want to be super precise here, you can by using a bulls-eye level on the tripod, but very close is close enough in this case. I usually level the tripod before placing the mount. If your mount is so warped that it’s not level on a level tripod, you have other issues to deal with!
Polar Scope Alignment
I keep this quick and rough. Unless your mount is stationary on a pier, moving it in and out of the house will cause the polar scope to lose collimation. I’m not any more precise that throwing Polaris near the middle. The fine tuning is handled during the Drift Alignment, and time is better spent on the Drift Alignment that with the polar scope. The exception to this is if you’re just using the mount’s tracking rather than active guiding with a guide camera.
Counterweight, then Scope
This one seems very trivial, and it is, until you mount your scope without the counterweight on and you forgot to tighten your RA clutch. Mount the counterweight(s) first to keep the balance below the center of gravity. It won’t be so trivial when your scope crashes into a tripod leg.
Connecting cables feels pretty straight forward, with two quick hits. One: always connect to the same USB port on the PC to avoid having to change configurations. Plugging your mount into a different port will change the COM port in Windows and you’ll have to adjust. Two: Cold weather is brutal on cables. I was out two nights ago and the temperature was -4F. Even the insulation of expensive cables gets very brittle at those temperatures. I do two things to ensure I’m not buying new cables every time out. First, I bring the cables from out of the house and connect them while they’re still warm, and second, I don’t wrap them up outside. I disconnect them outside and carry them inside to warm up for at least 20 minutes before I wrap them up neatly.
Inserting Your Camera
Not rocket science here either. Just check that your filters are in so you don’t have to remove and refocus, and that you balance the scope after putting in the camera.
Balance RA and DEC
The better your balance, the more accurate your guiding will be. Be sure that everything is attached before you balance.
Perform AZ/ALT Drift Alignment
Drift alignment is what takes the guess work out of whatever polar alignment method you’re using. The precision provided from drift aligning will let an inexpensive mount perform like a champ!
Use Stellarium to Slew to your Target and Focus
The order of these two are definitely not a hard and fast rule. If I’m shooting a target that doesn’t have any bright stars, I will go to a star first, focus, then hit the target. I use a Bahtinov mask, and I highly encourage the use of a focusing aide. You might be surprised at how much better your focus could be.
Launch Astrotortilla and Plate Solve
If you’re target is out of the frame, or not centered in the frame, use Astrotortilla to get it centered for you. Click here for more information on this incredibly useful and FREE piece of software.
Imaging Lights, Darks, Flats, and BIAS
Allow as much time as possible to get as many lights in as possible – then you absolutely need to get your calibration frames. Without darks, flats, and BIAS frames, you are wasting your time. You don’t have to take BAIS frames every time out and can build a library for them fairly quickly. Building a dark library is much more complicated because you’re bringing exposure time and sensor temperature into the mix. Flats are quick and easy, but must be done for each session with the camera exactly at the same angle and focus point as the lights.