After starting with scripting in November 2001, it became apparent that scripting wasn’t the way to go and a point-and-click method of automation was superior to text-based coding of scripts, plans and command lines. Over the past two years, a number of innovations for the CCD imaging community first appeared in the Sequencer and CCDAutoPilot products. Here is our family history of innovation:
Sequencer v 1.0 released. This is the first graphical user interface-based solution for the automation of image acquisition. No complex scripts required. A number of firsts:
|First and only automation interface supporting both Maxim and CCDSoft|
|Easy user specification of up to 8 light and 8 dark series.|
|Programmed telescope parking and cooler shutdown.|
|Preview and logging of all activities.|
|Easy abort of a running sequence.|
Sequencer v 1.8 released. Continuing the GUI theme, additional capability appearing for the first time anywhere:
|Programmable focus offsets as a function of the selected filter.|
Sequencer II released. A number of GUI-based major innovations were first introduced here:
|Dithering, guided and unguided, with and without the AO7 (CCDSoft only for AO7 automation)|
|Programmable Guide Exposure to change the guide exposure depending on the filter used.|
|Closed Shutter Filter Changes to prevent fogging with the SBIG CFW-8 filter wheel.|
Sequencer II v 2.3 released. Control application support further broadened.
|Added support for TheSky6 and ASCOM telescope control. All major telescope and camera control platforms supported.|
|Ability to run a user-supplied application at the end of a run|
|Supported professional keywords for IMAGETYP FITS keyword|
CCDAutoPilot released. This all new evolution continued the spirit of innovation to maximize the quality of automatically acquired CCD imaging data. In addition to the preceding features, there were new additions.
|Application independence continued with the ability to select your application on startup.|
|Better focus routines. All FocusMax focusing options supported under the GUI automation interface.|
|Save and load your specific profile for subsequent re-use.|
|Pause and Resume and run.|
CCDAutoPilot2 released. A complete rewrite resulted in exciting new features, again first available here in an easy-to-use graphical user interface – point and click access. While being the only automation program to provide application independence, some of the ground-breaking features are:
|Fully automate an evening’s session from dusk flats to dawn flats and all
the activities in between.
Automatic meridian flip for all imaging modes. These include guided (with and without AO7 support), unguided, external guide scope. Depending on your equipment capability, without guider recalibration.
|First to offer rotator control of the Optec Pyxis and RCOS Instrument Rotator|
|Automatic sky flat acquisition. Also works great with an artificial light source.|
|Go to a precise location based on RA/Dec or a previously obtained image.|
|Dark exposures now support filters.|
CCDAutoPilot2, multiple releases. A number of firsts this month include:
|Support Maxim for camera control, while still providing plate solve capability using other means in response to competitive actions. PinPoint LE is no longer required.|
|Provide an efficient dithering algorithm instead of the less desirable pseudo-random dithering for superior pattern noise rejection.|
|Sky Star focusing provides the ability to slew to a focus star identified by TheSky6, focus with FocusMax and return with high precision slewing. Unlike FocusMax's Acquire Star, PinPoint is not required.|
|CCDAutoPilot2, multiple releases|
|Automatic guide star delay. Exposure start waits until the guide star is within a user-specified error level, eliminating guess work by a manual delay.|
|Full dome support added for Automadome, ASCOM and direct control of Technical Innovation's Digital Dome Work|
|CCDAutoPilot2, multiple releases|
|Automatic Guide Star Recovery™ implemented for minimizing guider failure due to passing clouds or other transient events.|
|Improved flat acquisition allowing tracking on or off for sky flats, optional dithering and user-specified rotator action for precise flat acquisition. Automatic bias measurement incorporated for more accurate flats.|
After many months of work, version 3 is released. This represents the sixth generation of image acquisition software. Building on past generations, there are many groundbreaking innovations in this version, some of which are listed below. Version 3 has more than doubled the lines of code to 25,000 of object oriented programming for reliability and maintainability. Over 1200 automated sessions, ranging in duration from a few minutes to all night, were executed in the development and testing of this version. A ridiculous number of hours were spent in the development of this version, making this more than a full-time job for me. Here are some of the key innovations:
|A brand-new user interface that leads you through the steps to get your automated session going. A separate status window provides key run information during the run. Both windows can be resized as the user desires.|
|A revolutionary method of guiding with both CCDSoft and Maxim that does not rely on guider calibration. After a one-time initialization in version 3, the scope can be pointed anywhere, and if rotator-equipped, rotated anywhere, and guiding will be better than calibrated guiding - because the guiding is algorithm-defined. Support for DirectGuide is included. This feature is available nowhere else.|
|When used with TheSky6 and an appropriate FOV indicator, you can simply select the FOVI location you wish and the scope will go there with arc-second precision. No more image link and checking to see if the scope is where you think it is. Technology developed in version 2 was enhanced to provide this capability.|
|SkyStar focusing has been enhanced for more responsiveness, automatic focus star centering and focus magnitude selection.|
|Multitarget imaging is now available in the Professional version. Continuing the CCDAutoPilot's model of making things easy, there are many point-and-click or simple entry ways of defining targets and planning your run. Reference information is provided for your targets, sun, moon and your favorite links for sky conditions and weather. Import functions are provided to bring target lists from TheSky, Starry Night and a general CSV or text file. In testing we were able to successfully import a 530-target survey list, preserving destination directories. We even import a competitor's currently free Planner output. We want migration to CCDAutoPilot as easy as possible for other users. Of course, our native method of target selection and definition can't be beat for simplicity and ease-of-use. Target lists can be saved and reused so that you can return precisely to the original target location to arc-second accuracy, the next night or the next year!|
A full evening's run can be totally automated without a single script or action or other text-based method solely by the point-and-click interface. For those that have their special scripts, they can be accommodated during the course of a run.
|Auto-folder generation will put your data, calibration frames and logs automatically in appropriate folders for easy data reduction.|
As in the past, and unlike competitors, we support a number of applications for automation. Camera control programs CCDSoft and Maxim, telescope control by TheSky6 and ASCOM, FocusMax and all ASCOM focusers, rotators by RCOS and Optec, dome control by ASCOM, Automadome and Digital DomeWorks are all supported. No competitor currently has this breadth of support.
A word about competition...
Competition is good for this industry, like any other. There are many claims made by competitors and the occasional comparison chart. Unless the latter is done by an objective third party, it is pretty meaningless. There is a simple way to determine which program is best for you - try them! Download each trial program and determine for yourself which is the easiest to install and get up and running. I am confident you will find CCDAutoPilot the easiest to use by far as well as being the most full-featured.
Leading the way