Intro - Motivation
Here is a description of a setup that I have kept pretty much constant since 2015. This can serve as an HOW-TO to replicate such a setup for those interested.
I will go into some detail describing the HW and SW components, and how they are connected and work together.
If anybody should have any questions, please feel free to contact me, using the "contact me" form on this page
The main concept behind the way this setup is built, is that it should allow the user to set it up at the beginning of the night, perfom the necessary (polar) alignment steps, program the "imaging run" for the night, and then feel free to go to bed without worrying about periodic re-focusing, setting up and monitoring guiding performance, performing meridian flipping at the right time, and re-framing the target as needed.
All of this is enabled by a suite of software components all working together and driven by a single automation package, in my case Starkeeper Voyager, authored by SW engineer and astrophotographer Leonardo Orazi.
Of course, unattended operation requires that the HW components are all working well together and the interconnects are neatly organized so as not to get in the way of multiples slews and the flipping of the meridian.
The "command center" to automate the whole thing is a software package written and actively maintained by Leonardo Orazi, a SW engineer and renowned amateur astrophotographer.
Voyager connects to the individual components described above, and after being setup, it allows to execute "imaging runs" or "programs".
ASCOM Driver for the AP-GTO mount
The HW setup is built of a few components around the telescope, in my case a 4" refractor from SVQ. The basic idea is that anything that moves must be motorized to be actuated by software, and therefore automated.
Controlling (nearly) everything through software is a Mini-PC. I use a MINIX NEO Z83-4, which I bought for less that $180 on amazon.com in 2017.
There are a few compelling features: firstly, it runs directly from 12V, which means it requires to voltage transformers when powered directly from batteries. Also it only draws 1A or so of current, which makes it extremely efficient. Secondly, it has 4 USB ports, which is enough to connect everything, therefore voiding the requirement for additional USB hubs. Thirdly, it's lightweight which always help, since this baby rides on top of the telescope.
This PC is "headless", which means it runs with no display, keyboard and mouse. To allow interaction and control, it is setup to automatically connect to a Wi-Fi router and to connect to other PCs (or in my specific case, an iPad) through this Wi-Fi network.
I use a QSI583 CCD (based around the KAF8300 chip) with an integrated 5-slot FilterWheel. It's a workhorse, it's been very reliable since I have bought it in 2012. There a few suitable alternatives from other vendors (FLI, Moravian), but I don't know of any that offer the same compact package. The fact that the filterwheel is integrated in the body has many advantages, among which is the fact that the entire assembly only requires one USB cable and one power cable (12v).
QSI no longer offers the 583 that I use, but it does offer the '683', which costs around $4000 -$6000 when equipped with a 5- or even better 8-slot filterwheel.
I use a SVX Lodestar guidecamera, which only requires a USB connection (it's powered through the USB cable).
As of October 2017, the Lodestar X2 camera is the replacement for the lodestar, and it retails for around 450 GBP.
Of course, this is the heart of any astrophotography setup. I use an Astro-Physics Mach 1of 2012 vintage. The controller box is called AP-GTO (v3) and it's controlled through its ASCOM driver. The controller itself connects to the PC via serial RS-232, which gets converted to USB using an off the shelf USB/232 converter, and like everything else in the system it is powered using 12V DC.
As of October 2017, a Mach 1 GTO equipped with all the necessary parts (which inexplicably Astro-physics does not bundle!) like counterweights, controller, tripod or pier - costs around $8,000
I'm surprised how many astrophotographers still image without a motorized focuser. Yet, without it, it would be impossible to run any meaningful automation. Also, it is arguably easier to achieve more precise and repeatable focusing performance using a motor than the steadier of hands. So, my scope is equipped with a motorized focuser from Starlight Instruments (it's a FeatherTouch 3" focuser with an HSM motor and a BOSS II focusing control box.
I also occasionally use a dew heater, mostly in the winter months, and only in some specific locations where I know humidity can be problematic. My dew heater controller is a basic set-and-forget type of controller that does not allow any automation. So it's not connected to the PC and it's not software controlled. it's just hooked up to 12V DC to run through the night.
This is a very fancy 12V power strip from PowerWerx. Every single outlet is individually fused, so I pick fuses that make sense for whatever I'm connecting, and it allows me to run, through the mount, a single 12V cable from the RIG Runner itself to the battery sitting at the bottom of the mount. Very clean, very quick to setup. It costs ~100 on powerwerx.com