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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.


*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.