Progress with OnStep re-Build of Ealing Mount

Here are some pix of the progress Alan Tarica, Michael Chesnes, Bill Rohrer and I have made so far on our conversion project for the university-grade Ealing telescope mount’s motor drive at The Hopewell Observatory, with moral support from other Hopewell members.

The project has gone through quite a few different very-low-budget but very-labor-intensive phases.

(We are a low budget organization, and being a retired school teacher, I for one have more time than I have money.)

The first phase involved me trying to re-install the clutches on the original gear and synchronous motor system from the 1970s.

This required careful disassembly and re-assembly of a very complex gear train, which I did accomplish, but I was unable to fine-tune the exact amount of friction needed, so I gave up on that approach and decided to try an electronic conversion that many other folks had been using on their own telescopes.

Namely, an Arduino-based system called OnStep that grew out of the modern CNC industry that powers modern 3-D printers and most modern fabricating machinery of all types.

Our version has MaXESP3 boards made and sold or generously given to us by Ken Hunter and George Cushing. We have also had considerable help from OnStep’s Howard Dutton, Robert Benward, and NCA’s own Prasad Agrahar.

The MaxEsp board (about the size of my hand) powered two little stepper motors (roughly cubical, 5 cm on a side) donated by Prasad. We were given by Ken, and also purchased, some tiny LVL and TMC stepper drivers about the size of a postage stamp that fit into rails on the MaxEsp board. The motors were connected to the wonderful original Byers gears inside the mount by ingenious little direct-drive couplings donated by Prasad.

This rebuild required me to remove all the original motors and gears and clutches in the scope mount’s motor box and carefully line up the new motors with the telescope shaft, which required some careful machining and filing.

We discovered that those stepper motors didn’t have enough torque to drive the mount, even with all of the optical tubes removed.

(Btw, connecting all these electrical components was a huge learning curve for me! There are SOOOO MANY different types of connectors, and we have now discarded several types as unsuitable. Wiring up and soldering some of those connectors require the skills and steady hands of a seasoned watchmaker or Heathkit veteran — which I am not. My hands shake terribly!! One small slip of one of my hands, one time, was enough to fry two of those tiny drivers and blow a tiny fuse… I had to adjust a tiny potentiometer screw while the circuit was live… I didn’t realize there was a better place to connect my grounding lead to… fortunately those drivers only cost a few dollars…)

It was suggested to add a belt and put pulleys of different sizes onto the stepper motor and the mount shaft. That required moving the stepper motors and hence a bit more machining.

But that didn’t work either.

So I ordered bigger stepper motors.

But the first ones I ordered also didn’t have enough torque either! I found I could stop their rotation with my bare hand!

So I ordered some more powerful stepper motors. And got rid of the belts and pulleys. (We have extras if anybody’s interested!)

But they needed more current (amperes) and voltage than the Tiny postage-stamp sized stepper drivers could produce.

Larger stepper drivers won’t fit directly on the MaxEsp board, and also need more voltage than the board can tolerate.

So Ken Hunter figured out a way to bypass that: he changed (for free!) some of the wiring on the back of two of our MaxEsp boards, and suggested some much larger stepper drivers about the size of a small deck of cards, and a regulated switching power supply that puts out a steady, adjustable direct voltage from 0 to 42 volts that is the size of a medium-length hardback novel.

But the MaxEsp board can’t take that many volts, so we needed something called a buck step-down power supply to reduce the 0-42vdc power down to a steady 10 or 12 volts – just for the MaxEsp board.

We wired all that up and re-adjusted the stepper motors and got the worm gear from the stepper motors to mate properly with the Byers gears on the scope mount — not an easy task! Physically screwing in the gearbox was insanely difficult until We figured out an easier way. We only fried two of the buck power supplies via short-circuits, but this was no great loss since five of them had cost about $15.

Everything worked great when we had all the components wired up **outside** the cavities built into the mount itself. But when we carefully slid the five separate components into those cavities, some of the many, many tiny little colored and numbered and labeled leads broke off that connected all those components, broke off.

Yes, we made wiring diagrams — I think we are on version eight or nine now! (Mine are done in pencil on large sheets of thick art paper. Bob Benward has generously made electronic versions for us; I’ll have to send him the revisions.)

We took it all back out, and did some trouble shooting. I tried using an old Heathkit oscilloscope made by the late Bob Bolster (one of the principal founders of Hopewell) but made little progress until Ken explained **where** to connect the o-scope leads (hint: at the output from the MaxEsp board and not at the output from the drivers), and Alan brought in a brand-new solid-state o-scope.

Using that info, and using Alan’s new, more sensitive and easier-to-use o-scope, and taking careful notes, and examining those outputs on the o-scope screen when we try to slew or track with the scope controls, I finally figured out that one of our OnStep boards had some defects, but the other two were ok.

It also became obvious that trying to shoehorn all these components inside the original compartments inside the Ealing mount wouldn’t work. We needed a nice sturdy electrical project box. I didn’t see any at local hardware stores that were large enough, so I ordered a sturdy steel one online. It ended up still being too small, so I exchanged it, and with Alan’s assistance, built standoffs to isolate and secure all the components, and I was able to mount and wire them all up correctly onto a removable steel plate that fits inside the box. It’s all modular, and swapping out components is pretty straightforward. (See the photos below.)

Michael, Alan and I decided to place the box against the north side of the masonry pier supporting the telescope. (Drilling the mounting holes into the concrete ended up being harder than I expected, but we got it done.) We also had to drill holes for the “Liquidtight” flexible electrical conduit that connects the OnStep/Arduino circuitry inside the box to the mount where the motors and gears reside. And holes for the fan and vent. And for the Wi-Fi / Bluetooth antenna. And the USB port.

When I finished wiring up everything, I turned on the power… and…

Nothing.

It turned out that I had done something to the 0-42VDC power supply so that it received 110VAC but put out nothing at all. I was too hot and tired to figure out and fix whatever I did on-site that Memorial Day, so I ordered another one, which should arrive this afternoon.

I’ll connect the new power supply on Sunday.

Here are some pix.

From bottom right, CW: greenish MaxEsp board with three sub-boards; silver-colored 0-42VDC power supply; small dark buck power supply; 2 green-and black TB6600 stepper drivers

The fan and USB jack are on the left. Some of those dangly wires need shortening.

The big electrical project box in position on north side of pier, underneath the optics-less Ealing mount. Those hoses atop the box are not for Slurpees!

I had to stop up a number of the holes I had previously drilled in those panel covers on the mount, to keep insects out. If you don’t, marmorated stink bugs and lady bugs enter in droves and many die.

Our OnStep re-build is at last working!

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For many months, we members of The Hopewell Observatory have been doing our best to repair the 50 year-old clock drive on our university-grade Ealing telescope mount.

Yesterday, after a lot of help from others, I finally got it to work — at least in the day time. With no telescopes mounted on it. And 100% cloud cover. So I really don’t know for sure.

We still need to test it out on a clear night, to see how well it tracks and finds targets.

I think I will re-configure the wiring so that it fits in a box outside the mount, instead of using the weirdly-shaped compartments inside: one needs to do occasional maintenance on the OnStep hardware and software, and none of that is easy to access right now.

A short video is attached.

Problem Perhaps Solved

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I think I have figured out what was going wrong with our OnStep build:

  1. Our unmodified Arduino-based, green, MaxESP3.03 OnStep micro-controller unit board had two major errors: it didn’t put out any signal at all in the Enable channel in either Right Ascension or in Declination, and in Declination, the Step channel didn’t work either. (I can only guess what caused this, or when it happened, but these errors explain why we couldn’t get this particular board to work any more.)
  2. We had the connecting wires between the two blue, modified boards of the same type and the external TB6600 stepper drivers in the wrong arrangement. We stumbled upon a better arrangement that Bob Benward had suggested, and indeed it worked!

I never would have figured this out without the nice hand-held digital oscilloscope belonging to Alan Tarica; his help and comittment to this project; advice from Ken Hunter that it was a bad idea to have the boards and stepper drivers connected, because the impedance of the motors makes the signal from the board too complicated, and also the signals to the motors themselves are extremely complex! Let me also thank Bob Benward for making beautiful and elegant schematics from the drawings I’m making with pencil and eraser on a couple of 11″x17″ sheets of stiff art paper and pointing out the anomalies between our (Ken’s? I thought I was faithfully copying his arrangements….) original wiring connections and what the manual recommends.

I’m puzzled that our earlier arrangement worked at all. Given that this oscilloscope sees extremely complex, though faint, voltage curves from my own body (anywhere!), I am guessing that electrical interference fooled the drivers into sending the correct commands to the stepper motors even though the STEP and the DIRECTION wires were crossed.

In any case, I attach tables summarizing what I found with the same oscilloscope I had in the previous post. I have highlighted parts that differ between the three boards. Boards “Oscar” and “Linda” are basically identical ones, both of them modified to bypass the location where small, internal stepper motor drivers (about the size of the last joint on your pinky finger) are normally held. Instead, these two boards, both blue in color, connect to two external black-and-green stepper drivers about the size of your hand.

Board “Nancy” differs from the other two in a number of ways: it’s green, which is not important for its function but makes it easier to distinguish. It is also an unmodified one, and it carries TMC5160 stepper driver chips pushed into two rails.

I used orange and green to highlight the differences in output.

With electronics: when it works, it’s amazing, but it is very, very fragile.

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Edit: It all works just fine on my desk. I hope it will also work once we put it into the telescope’s cavities and wire everything up!

Oscilloscope Testing of OnStep System

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We are still at work trying to debug our OnStep re-build of the venerable Ealing telescope drive system at Hopewell Observatory.

Without having a whole lot of experience with oscilloscopes, we used a brand-new OWON 200-series hand-held unit to measure the output of our various MaxESP3.03 boards towards the stepper motors. We don’t really understand what these waveforms actually mean, and a brief search of the OnStep wiki page does not immediately point me to screenshots of what the signals should look like under various conditions.

In any case, some of the waveforms we see look like simple square wave signals. Some look like weird semi-random combinations of square waves, and some look like just plain noise.

In this first video, we have an unmodified MaxESP3.03 board with TMC5160 drivers, not connected to any stepper motors. I attached the ground pin of the probe to one of the grounding grommets at a corner of the MaxESP board, and systematically probed the pins that come out towards the various windings on the stepper motor. We also pressed N, S, E, and W buttons to see what happened. Here goes:

Those of you who are experts on this: do these waveforms appear to be OK to you in this situation?

This next setup is different. It’s a MaxESP3.03 board that Ken Hunter has modified by adding or moving about ten jumpers on the underside of the board; it has no slip-stick drivers for RA or DEC mounted on the MaxESP board itself. Instead, each axis has three (not four) wires coming out of the same place that four wires generally come out to connect to your stepper motor; these three wires connect to four of the inputs on an external, and separately-powered TB6600 stepper driver, which then feeds four wires to the two coils on the stepper.

The arrangement we have now does seem to work, at least on our workbench at the ATM workshop in Chevy Chase Community Center in NW DC, as you can see and hear in this video, but, once again, neither Alan nor I have any idea if the waveforms are correct. Here is the video:

Again: experts — do you think those waveforms are correct?

We were surprised at how complex, and apparently noisy, are the signals on the Step and Dir lines from this modified MaxESP board to the green-and-black external TB6600 drivers. They don’t show up at all in these two previous videos, but they will show up in the next one, which I’m having a bit of trouble uploading at the moment.

In that video, I test both RA and DEC output.

In RA, pin #1 is Enable and is apparently not connected to anything. It produces a wave that looks like a crosscut saw seen from above that has teeth very widely spaced apart. That ENA signal doesn’t change no matter what buttons we push; we think the graph is merely showing interference from something or other.

Still in RA, pin #2 is the STEP pin, and it produces a nice square wave that changes dramatically in frequency when you press the E or W buttons on the SHC. We don’t really see the difference between the E or W graphs.

Still in RA, and in contrast, the graphs for both the Dir and GND pins seem to just look like noise. When one presses ‘E’ the noise graph from the Dir pin definitely changes voltage (it drops off the screen), but not when we press ‘W’. Nothing happens to the noise graph on the fourth pin (GND), no matter what we do.

On the DEC side, all pins seem to put out flat but noisy signals. The noise signal on Pin 2 (Step) moves dramatically but identically lower when you press either the North or South button on the SHC. The noise signal on Pin 3 (Dir) does not change when you press buttons, and neither does the noise signal on pin 4 (GND).

So can we conclude that this board is fried?

Birds and City Lighting: a Toxic Mix

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An alarming article about studies of bird deaths due to bright city lighting. A couple of quotes:

Every 11 September at dusk, in memory of the 2001 attacks, New York City mounts the Tribute in Light, an art installation in lower Manhattan. And every year, as twin towers of light bloom skyward, they attract thousands of migrating birds, sucking in warblers, seabirds, and thrushes—along with predators such as peregrine falcons eager to take advantage of the confusion. On each anniversary, bird conservationists wait below, counting and listening to disoriented chirps. If the observers report too many birds circling aimlessly in the beams, organizers flip off the lights.

In recent years, on-site observers have also used a complementary tool to quantify the orbiting birds: weather radar, which bounces off birds as well as raindrops. In 2017, a group led by Cornell University ornithologist Andrew Farnsworth found that during seven previous anniversaries, the once-a-year installation had attracted a total of about 1.1 million birds. Within 20 minutes of lighting up, up to 16,000 birds crammed themselves into a half-kilometer radius. But when the lights flicked off, the dense clouds of birds on the radar screen dissipated just as fast, a finding later confirmed by on-site thermal cameras.’

Later, discussing a single building, the author found that a

‘key factor was how many of the convention center’s windows had been illuminated. Each individual bright window left more dead birds for volunteers to find the next day. The correlation suggests halving the number of lit window bays would halve the number of bird strikes, the team estimated, saving thousands of birds at this one three-story building. “It really does seem that each window makes a difference,” van Doren says.’

Mysterious OnStep Behavior

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We are still trying to get our venerable, university-grade Ealing mount to work properly with its new OnStep motor drive system. We thought we had – at long last – everything set up perfectly and running correctly with the various components wired up properly but not yet pushed into place in the interior cavities of our mount. All seemed to be working well until we pushed the last components and wires inside, and then closed the hatches.

Then things stopped working.

We soon figured out that the force we had to use when moving all those items inside the mount had broken some of the leads. We found those broken leads and replaced them with shorter ones.

When we started it up again, we discovered that the mount would not ‘track’ to the west in right ascension — something that the software and hardware are programmed to do as soon as the system is turned on. In fact, I couldn’t slew it to the west either. Eastwards was no problem. Also, we could only slew southwards, not northwards.

We didn’t know what to do, so I emailed a followup question to the wonderful folks at the OnStep wiki. Several folks thought we had a balance issue or a limit switch issue, but I went up today to check on the balance — and concluded that’s not the problem. We have no limit switches yet either in hardware or in software. So that’s not it, either.

Wondering if we had somehow screwed up the MaxESP3 board that is the heart of the OnStep system, I unplugged the board (and all of its sub-boards, as a unit) we had been using last weekend, and plugged in a duplicate board, built by Ken Hunter and ‘flashed’ by him with the same Config.H file as the other one.

Listen to the screeching!

This weird behavior is not the same weird behavior we were getting with the other OnStep MaxESP3.03 board. What on earth is going on?

Another suggestion is that we may be creating ground loops by not connecting our wiring properly. I don’t know. I wish I had taken some electronics classes during my time in college. It would have come in handy here!

More OnStep progress in re-building the Ealing telescope drive at the Hopewell Observatory

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I’ve got the new stepper motors, and their drivers, and their power supplies, working away just fine on my desk, and I’m pretty excited and confident that we will have enough power and precision to drive and slew the Ealing properly!

Counter-clockwise from top: Plug strip; Android tablet; OnStep board in black box; 24VDC power supply; weather module; smart hand controller; NEMA23 steppers (2 of them) with connectors on top; two drivers for the steppers; another power supply.

These steppers are very strong: I am completely unable to stop the motors with my hands (bare or gloved) either when they are just tracking or when they are slewing at full speed or guiding at low speed, even with a fairly large fixture on the end of the shaft.

Without Ken Hunter’s expertise, there is no way I could have figured out how to get these particular steppers wired so that they would run, especially since they require those special, large, green and black drivers that you see in the photo above, which are about the size of the palm of your hand. Ken deserves a real round of applause, and more. (I have found that his advice on the OnStep wiki message board is much more accurate and  friendlier than the advice of many others there.) In addition, he also repaired two boards that had been incorrectly soldered and assembled by someone else and which I and Alan Tarica purchased from that person, separately.

Before Ken’s intervention, the boards didn’t work. He found a number of assembly and soldering errors, and not only fixed them, but he also ‘flashed’ them with the latest OnStep software versions. At no cost! Now, they work very well.

I want to thank Prasad Agrahar again for his original inspiration and follow-through, and also Alan Tarica for his enthusiastic and knowledgeable assistance and advice (which I don’t always follow).

What’s more, as far as I can tell, this arrangement with super-duper steppers and drivers is unique in OnStep. Something like it clearly exists in some form in the professional or amateur CNC world, which is why we can purchase these insanely complex drivers for less than $9 apiece and the steppers for just $37 each, but to my knowledge nobody in the OnStep world has done this particular arrangement. 

The old NEMA-23 steppers and these new ones have the exact same ‘form factor’ except that one can use larger bolts to fasten the new ones to the L-shaped brackets I already have installed.

The attached schematic diagram is a first draft of how the connections on the mount itself will be made. The wiring job is going to have a lot of parts, and lots of connections! 

At the observatory, we won’t have those old military-grade, 14-connector cables any more, nor that very heavy old hand paddle whose cable we all used to trip over. Instead, I ordered 10 feet of 14-gauge, 4-conductor shielded, stranded cable that is highly rated for both high and low temperatures, in order to connect the DEC drive to the rest of the scope. It will need new strain-relief grommets. So  will several other wires. I can re-use most of the existing holes in the cover plates for this mount, and will seal the rest of them to keep out insects. Wiring all of those new connections will take a while!

We will have a local wireless connection (with a small external antenna, like on a router, to make sure there is a good wireless signal), and a small (2x3x5 cm) dedicated basic weather monitor (very basic: just humidity, temp, etc) attached somewhere on the mount*. There will also be an emergency ‘Kill’ switch to allow one to stop the drive immediately if needed.

You can control the scope with a Smart Hand Controller that will be attached via a flexible ethernet-type cable, or, if you prefer, with an inexpensive Android cell phone or tablet that has the proper software installed. (We will leave a tablet up there, with its charging cord.) One won’t need to unclamp, slew, and re-clamp the RA and DEC axes any more in order to acquire a target. We will see how good the pointing accuracy and tracking are, once it’s all up and running.

Since we are using much stronger stepper motors than the ones had been suggested to me and that I had purchased earlier, and they needed a lot more current, we needed different drivers. As a result, most of the connections I had previously fabricated won’t be of much use for us anymore. Perhaps I can give them away to somebody else who is attempting an OnStep conversion on a telescope mount that weighs much less than this one. 

Here is a little video of these things in action:

And here is my first draft of the schematics showing how these things all connect inside the scope as well as how we will connect them to the body of the mount itself. It’s crude, but I think it will be useful.

First Time Installation of OnStep Board with NEMA23 Stepper Motors in Ealing Mount at Hopewell

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A 3-minute video of the results of our first-time installation of something called an OnStep conversion. We are replacing the telescope drive of a venerable but beautifully machined telescope mount, located at a small group-owned observatory called Hopewell, atop a ridge called Bull Run Mountain*.

It’s alive!

Sorry, it’s not the greatest or clearest video. Also, I mistakenly state at about 0:25 in the video that the right ascension axis was turning at 12 RPM, but it’s not: I should have said 5 RPM, or one revolution in 12 seconds.

You can hear some stuttering of one of the motors. You are right, that is not a good sound. We were able to get it to stop and start making that noise and motion by adjusting the precise positioning of some of the gears. It will take some time and experimentation to get that perfect.

Later on (not captured in this video), when I was trying to slew in the declination axis at the highest speed possible, the stepper motor once again screamed and halted. I’m hopeful that all of those problems can be fixed by doing one or more of these things:

  • 1) adjusting the fit of all those gears;
  • (2) changing certain parameters of microstepping and current to the stepper motors in software; and/or
  • (3) increasing the voltage to the board from 18 VDC to 24 VDC.

I’ll need to test things out on my desk at home, using the same OnStep board, but without the gears and timing belt. (That stuff was a royal PITA to remove screw back into place, and none of us have any desire to take them back out again!) I have some identical extra stepper motors that I can test out, with gloved hands, to see if it is possible to stop the motors from turning. Right now, I still don’t think they are putting out the amount of torque needed.

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*Yes, that famous Bull Run of Civil War fame is not far away. However, our observatory is named after a different geological feature, namely the Hopewell Gap that cuts through the hard rock of Bull Run Mountain right about where where the creek called Little Bull Run begins.

If you are reading this, you probably know that serious amateur, and all professional, astronomical telescopes (except for Dobs) are generally driven by ‘clock drives’ so that the object one is viewing or photographing stays properly centered as the earth rotates imperceptibly beneath us. The original Ealing motor drive at Hopewell, while turning excellent Ed Byers gears, had been an intermittent problem ever since it was delivered to the University of Maryland about 50 years ago. It was in fact not operational when they sold it to us for a pittance about 30 years ago. (If you go to the University of Maryland Observatory site I linked to, the scope we have now is the one in the center of the 1970s – era photo labeled ‘Figure 4’.)

Bob Bolster, one of the founding members of Hopewell observatory, disassembled the drive, modified it considerably, and got it working again, several years before I joined the group. The scope worked, off and on, with a very complex clutch system for ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ movement of the scope, for most of the rest of the last 25 or so years, except for occasional motor burnouts and clutch replacements. Also unfortunately, the optics on the original 12″ Ritchey-Chretien telescope, were not very good, so we removed them, had them in an attic for many years, re-tested them, and finally sold the glass and the holders, for a pittance, to someone in Italy who wanted to try to re-figure them.

This was originally a ‘push-to’ telescope, meaning that one loosened up two Byers clutches (one for each axis), located the desired target in the sky, tightened the two clutches, did some fine tuning with an electric hand paddle to center the target more precisely, and then allowed the telescope drive to then keep the object in the center of the eyepiece or camera field of view as long as one wanted. It originally came with metal setting circles (basically, finely-made protractors that showed where the scope is pointing vis-a-vis the polar and declination axes), which made finding targets possible, though not trivial!

About 15 years ago, Bolster (with some help from me) installed Digital Setting Circles, which used a rotary encoder on each axis, along with a small hand-held computer and screen display, to allow one to select a given target; the DSC hand paddle’s display then would indicate how far one should rotate the scope along those axes to find the desired celestial object; when it was in the field of your widest eyepiece, one used the hand paddle to center it more precisely.

Converting this scope to an OnStep drive will, I hope, make this a Go-To scope in which one can command the telescope to aim at whatever target one desires.

Unfortunately, right now, the fastest it seems to rotate in Declination, with no load whatsoever (all scopes have been removed, so no balance or inertia problems) is about one degree per second. So doing a 180-degree turn in a North-South direction would take a full three minutes. A 30-degree turn would take 30 seconds. Can we make this a bit faster? I hope so.

I wasn’t able to really slew in right ascension (East-West) because the counterweight box, even though empty, seems to require too much torque to rotate right now.

Bolster passed away a few years ago, and this summer, the moment I had been dreading finally arrived: the drive on the Ealing died again, and his amazing skills and tenacity in fixing such problems was gone with him. What’s more, in his final years, his incurable, chronic idiopathic neuropathy made it literally impossible for him to speak, and even typing email responses to the rest of us took a very long time. So most of his wealth of knowledge and experience died with him.

As indicated in my earlier posts (here, here, here, and here), with help from others, I was able to take the two motor setups for the two axes out from the mount and get them working again on my workbench in their original format. I was even able to order and install material for the clutches. However, I discovered that one needed to adjust the clutches very, very precisely, or else they wouldn’t work at all.

I couldn’t figure out how to do that.

And nobody else who belongs to our observatory volunteered to help out, except for removing the scopes and drives from their former positions inside the mount.

So I decided to convert to a totally different type of telescope drive, one inspired by the Arduino boards and 3-D printers. A group of really smart and resourceful hobbyists (engineers?) designed a system around the Arduino environment that uses inexpensive off-the-shelf printed circuits and complex sub-boards and components, used originally mostly in the 3-D printers that have become so popular, to drive at telescope just the way astronomers want them to be driven.

Apparently, there have been many, many OnStep successes, but what we are doing may be the largest and most massive mount to date that has done such a conversion.

I was warned that the entire process would take some months. Those warnings were correct. But that’s OK. I’m retired, I have time, and I have access to tools and people who are interested in helping. What’s more, I have learned a whole lot about modern electronics, and my soldering skills are much better than they ever were.

I’d again like to thank Alan Tarica (who’s physically helped a **tremendous** amount), Prasad Agrahar (who first showed me the OnStep conversions he had done on a much smaller equatorial mount), Howard Dutton (who first conceived and implemented OnStep), Ken Hunter (who made and **donated** to us a complete, functional OnStep board together with all sorts of accessories and walked me by phone and video through many of my fumbling first steps), Khalid Bahayeldin, George Cushing, and many others.

Progress and Problems with an OnStep Conversion of a High-Quality 1970’s Telescope Drive

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I have made a lot of progress over this winter break in converting the 50-year-old Ealing telescope mount at the Hopewell Observatory, as you can see in this video.

We are swapping out an electro-mechanical “dumb” drive that failed, in favor of a modern, solid-state one built in the Arduino environment. If it all works out as planned, this mount will be able to slew to any target and keep the target steady enough for astrophotograpy. I hope.

With a project like this, with delicate electronics that can easily get fried, I believe that having spare parts on hand is a good idea. The main board is pretty cheap: under $100, completely assembled, and the motors were about $30 each. We have spare stepper motors, spare stepper drivers, and a total of three main MaxESP OnStep boards.

Except that two of them (the ones we purchased from George C) don’t work at all, and I don’t know why. The one that Ken Hunter built and **donated** to us works just fine, after I did the required tweaking of various settings inside the Smart Hand Controller or SHC and inside a CONFIG.H file in the Arduino programming environment. And added the gears and belt.

I see almost no serious differences between George’s boards and Ken’s board. I am confident the problem is not my wiring or soldering, and it’s not the fact that George’s boards have RJ45 jacks, but what it is, I have no idea.

This is my second build of the connections between the stepper motor and the worm gear.

Without the help of Ken H, Howard Dutton, another Ken, Alan Tarica, Prasad Agrahar, and Khaled Bahayeldin, I never would have gotten this far. I am very appreciative of the amount of work that went into programming all of the many parts of the OnStep project as a whole. However, I found the OnStep Wiki rather confusing for beginners, and I hope to help them make it clearer in the future.

You can probably see that there is a good bit of wobble in the gears that involve the belts. That is probably because I failed to get the gears perfectly flush against the lathe chuck when I was enlarging their central holes from 5 mm to 1/4 inch despite using a dial indicator with a magnetic base to center it. I think I will need to order a new set of gears that have a 1/4″ axle hole already made at the factory. I don’t think I can do any better than I did, and that wasn’t good enough.

The reason for having the gears and belts is something to do with microstepping on the stepper motors that I really don’t understand. OnStep experts told me that the OnStep board, drivers, and steppers simply cannot handle gears that are 1 : 20 : 359. So we added a 3:1 toothed-gear-and-belt system so that the ratios are now 3 : 1 : 20 : 359. That set of ratios seems to make the steppers happy. (These motors have 200 steps per rotation, and are being currently driven at a rate of 1/16 of a step.) They don’t scream and stall any more, but the wobbly gears will probably translate into periodic error that one can see in the eyepiece or on long exposures with some kind of camera.

My next step is to take this entire apparatus up to the Hopewell Observatory itself and see what happens when I install them in the Right Ascension and Declination drives.

Then, we need to repair the electrical supply for the roll-off roof.

Then we have to put the telescopes back onto the mount.

Then, and only then, can we try having a “First Light” with the new motor pushing a very nice Ed Byers drive in an big, old, and very well-built university-grade telescope mount.

Actual Progress with OnStep

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I think I have succeeded in getting our OnStep build to work properly. Previously, whenever I asked the drive to slew to an new location, the stepper motors would build up to a certain speed and then stop rotating while they screamed, seemingly in protest. It’s called stalling.

With the help of several of the principal leaders in the OnStep project (Howard Dutton, Ken Hunter, Khalid Bahayeldin) and Alan Tarica and Prasad Agrahar, I think I may have finally got the settings set properly. The final secret was to reduce the slewing speed in the smart hand controller to the lowest setting.

This does make slewing rather slow, however. To go from the location of Jupiter to Capella tonight, which is a pretty long distance across the sky, took nearly eight minutes. Watch the video.