How I Currently Take Backyard Astronomical Pictures

January 24th, 2016


I’ve been asked a few times how I take images that I currently post on Facebook. The process has change substantially since my first attempts in 2005. The biggest changes since my early days are the use of computer controlled telescope mounts with my scopes, open source software to control the mount and the availability of CCD astronomical cameras that have extremely low noise when I try to do long exposures. My favorite objects to photograph are really dim and I image in my backyard in a really light polluted suburb of St. Louis Missouri. It is very possible to take nice photos with all the constraints of backyard imaging, but the process requires extreme patience since everything conspires against the results – bad weather, the full moon, neighbors that leave lights on, a mount that fails for known and often unknown reasons, and the amount of time I have to stay up until 4:00 am in the morning and still do work the next day.

I’ve posted the results of my hobby over the years and the results have gotten better, but the learning process is never ending and I see fairly big faults in almost every image I post. Spending on better hardware has improved the process, but there is always something that that isn’t quite right, or a compromise. A neighbor on the next street over from mine (who I unfortunately have never met) has a dome in his backyard that allows the equipment to be left set up, and his equipment is first rate. In the past he did post an equipment list and results and he rivals the best photographs I’ve ever seen online. However, his equipment cost was the equivalent of a new Nissan Maxima! I don’t have those kind of resources so I make do with cheaper equipment (much of it of Chinese manufacturer) and have all the faults and compromises that choice brings into the hobby.

My main setup has changed over the years and here are photos of my setups since 2005:


First attempts and learning – manual telescope control:

Meade LX50 With Meade DSI-Pro CCD Camera

Imaging in 2005 – Meade LX50 with manual fork mount, and Meade Deep Sky Imager



Globular cluster M13

Photo of M13 From 2005

Changing to a computer controlled mount (2013):

Deforked Meade LX50 With Orion Guide Scope and Orion Computer Controled Mount

Deforked Meade LX50 With Orion Guide Scope and Orion Computer Controlled Mount

Color image of M27 taken in 2013

Color image of M27 taken in 2013

Changing cameras to a modern ultra low noise 6 megapixel CCD in 2015

Current Setup - 2015 Trius SX-694 6 MegaPixel Camera With Color Filter Wheel and Prism Off Axis Guider

Current Setup – 2015 Trius 6 MegaPixel Camera With Color Filter Wheel and Prism Off Axis Guider

M27 Taken with Trius SX-695 Camera 2015

A new telescope (wider angle) with same mount and camera 2015:

Orion 8" Newtonian Astrograph with Trius Camera

Orion 8″ Newtonian Astrograph with Trius SX-694 Camera


The very center of nebula NGC-2238 The Rosetta Nebula

Here is the list of things I currently use:

1. Computer controlled telescope mount:
This is the mount I currently use:

Orion Atlas Pro AZ/EQ-G Computerized GoTo Telescope Mount

It is very flexible and can mount just about any telescope with the right mounting hardware.  The mount has built in control software that can be used to visually find objects in the sky.  When I image I almost always hook up a laptop to the mount that has much more powerful open source software to guide the telescope, monitor the mount and control the camera and color filters that are attached to it. This allows me to do most of my imaging indoors in the light with a second laptop that connects to the outside laptop. I can watch late night tv in the comfort of air conditioning or heat while the numerous long exposures are taken and saved to disk.

2. Telescopes:

Meade 10″ LX50 Schmidt Cassegrain Optical Tube Assembly

Orion 8″ Newtonian Reflector Astrograph Optical Tube Assembly

I’ve had the LX50 since 2001 when I first used it for visual observing. I now use it for high magnification imaging with my cameras.  It is a heavy tube and has issues with holding focus over my imaging sessions, but also can get the most magnification.  It is comparable to a large telephoto lens in conventional SLR photography. It has an aperture of F10.

The Orion 8″ is a lighter/cheaper telescope that is much faster (aperture is F3.9).  It can image larger objects in the sky with less exposure time, but has to be collimated constantly over the night with a laser collimator to keep the stars and focus sharp. Since it is lighter, tracking accuracy is much better and I can usually get clean longer exposures.

3. Cameras

My main imaging camera now is the Starlight Express Trius SX-694 Monochrome camera.  It has a Sony 6 megapixel CCD sensor with an electronic 2 stage cooling device that can chill the sensor 40 degrees centigrade below the ambient temperature. This reduces the amount of noise in the images I take with it. This camera is fantastic and has changed the detail and resolution of images that I can take. The images can be easily blown up to 16 x 20 inches. Since it is a monochrome camera, I have to use color filters to take color images. The color filters are contained in a color filter wheel that is connected to the laptop. This allows the software to change which color filter is placed in front of the camera CCD while imaging.

Since the Earth’s rotation causes the objects i shoot to move in the sky, I use a smaller second camera that is also getting some of the light from the telescope through a prism arrangement. This camera tracks a star that I choose and sends commands to the telescope mount to keep the star centered over the many hours that I image. The camera is a StarLight Express Lodestar X2 Autoguider camera

Here are images of my cameras and storage case.

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Trius SX-694, Lodestar X2, and USB Color Filter Wheel

Trius SX-694, Lodestar X2, and USB Color Filter Wheel

Here is a closeup of the cameras hooked up to the Astrograph:

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4. Focuser

Since I use the telescope from inside the house, I also used a computer controlled focuser that allows me to automatically focus the camera and telescope over the night as the temperature changes and the telescopes mirror moves.

5. Laptop/Software

The images that I take are actually a series of long exposures from 30 seconds to 15 minutes or more long. The images are stored as data on the computer and are averaged together using software to reduce the image noise that you get from stray lights and the long exposures. A typical image can have 2 hours or more of telescope time to collect the data and then more time the next day to process and expand the detail, merge colors and crop to look good. To do this I use the following packages:

Open Source EQMOD telescope control software – for controlling the telescope mount and autoguiding
Nebulosity Imaging Software
Sequence Generator Pro for controlling the camera, color filters, and autofocus.

Astrotortilla for automatically finding my place in the sky after taking a single image. This helps enormously with aligning the telescope and finding objects to image automatically.

I also use Adobe Photoshop to do final color adjustment, contrast, noise reduction, cropping, etc.

This is a a list of all the stuff I’ve acquired to take sky photos. I made a video a view years ago that shows imaging in action on the laptop during the night. I did not have my current camera, but the process is still very similar.

Taking images with a telescope and CCD camera.


Heino Pull January 2016




M27 in Color – 2015 vs 2005

September 2nd, 2015

These are two color images of M27 the Dumbbell Nebula. The first was taken Thursday August 20th over a 3 hour period with my 10″ SCT and is made up of LRGB images shot at 5 minutes per image at -10 degrees centigrade. There were between 3 and 5 images taken per color and it was combined with Nebulosity 4 and Photoshop CS 2015. I have taken this before in monochrome and in color (2nd picture in 2005) on my old camera, and I can see that the color separation filters that I’m using now is giving much closer color to the greenish blue color that should be in the center. The image has come a long way since my first tries in 2005 with the same telescope.

This object is another exploded star collapsed into a white dwarf which lights up the gas causing the colors.. This is in an extremely dense region of the Milky Way with many older stars. The sky was somewhat hazy last night and the wind picked up making guiding impossible, otherwise I would have combined more images. The dumbell goes form lower left to upper right and the wispy sections at the top and bottom require longer exposures than my guiding would have supported previously. I’m extremely pleased with my new camera, filters, color filter wheel and mount/scope.



Arducopter 3.0.1 Software Is Really Good – Good Enough For FPV

August 9th, 2013

Sequence 01_1I’ve been flying various incarnations of software on my almost 3 year old Arducopter and never felt comfortable enough to trust flying it by video signal alone – until now. The inertial positioning in horizontal and vertical is really good and feels rock solid under fpv. The “return home feature – rtl” is also very reliable now and I trust if I loose video signal, I can get home. I flew 12 flights  totally under fpv the weekend of 7/13/2013 and had great success.  I invoked multiple rtls – at least one every flight and a total of 15 or so over the weekend. I was also using a beta iPhone app to watch flight values and battery condition with voice warnings of low battery etc. Here is video of one of the flights at my in-law’s farm:

Ardustation 2 2.0.18 Released – Adds Low Aircraft Battery Voltage Warning

April 4th, 2013

I’ve been working on the Ardustation 2 software since August 2011 and I’ve finally gotten around to adding a feature that has been asked for more than once: a buzzer warning when the received Mavlink aircraft battery voltage has dropped at or below a set value.  The buzzer is sounded  ( at LCD screen updates – 1 Hz) when the voltage is at or below the set warning value while the “flight data” screen is displayed (see below).


Switching to another screen will silence the buzzer until the flight data screen is brought back up. I wanted a way to silence the buzzer if necessary and this mechanism turned out to be the simplest way to implement it – given the need for an interrupt driven buzzer timer. All other features of version 2.0.17 are intact (antenna tracking, parameter update).


I had a chance to test fly 2.9.1 on my Arducopter over the Easter weekend and this worked pretty well to keep my 4000 mah 3S Lipos from exceeding  the use of 80%  of the batteries capacity. Using a HobbyKing 3S voltage warning was killing the life of my batteries. After 12 flights trying to slowly increase the flight times vs battery remaining capacity, I settled at a  warning at 10.6 volts (my quad’s current drawn is about 20 amps at a hover) and that is the default in the software. I have another 2 minutes of flight time to land after the buzzer continously sounds and I’m happy that I’m not puffing my Lipos anymore.  This can be easily changed to other values in the source code before loading into the Ardustation.


My Ardustation has served me well over the last 2 years and I don’t anticipate adding any other features since RAM and screen real estate is very tight. Thanks to everyone who has downloaded the software and provided feature requests and comments and to the code contributors who have worked on Ardustation 2.

As always, the software is available at this link. Be sure to test this with your aircraft on the ground to verify that you understand the behavior and its limitation. I’ve only tested the voltage monitor with my quad – although it should work with airplanes also.

Compile this code only with the library contained within the zip file. The libraries provided with APM or ACM source code have changes that will cause compilation errors. This code can be compiled with Arduino 1.0.1 or 1.0.3.

New Version of Ardustation 2 – 2.0.17 Compatible with Arducopter 2.9.1

March 5th, 2013

This release is for Mavlink changes in ACM 2.9.1. The message location of the number of GPS satellites has been changed for ACM. Ardustation II 2.0.16 will display 0 GPS satellites with 2.9.1.

I’ve also added an additional antenna range/bearing as suggested by James Masterman. He reported antenna pointing issues at long ranges at his location in Australia. This algorithm seemed to fix his problem. I’ve tested both algorithms using a simulation and the results seem to be very close. I’ve left the default algorithm originally provided by 3DR but you can select the alternate algorithm by pressing the center button on the pad while on the antenna range/bearing display. The display will show ALG 1 for the new algorithm and ALG 0 for the old.

I’ve tested the software with my quad on ACM 2.9.1 and an APM 2.5. I have not tested this software with Arduplane 2.7, but I expect it to still work and appreciate any reports of problems by users.

The software is available at the usual spot:

Ardustation II Google Code Repository

Please be sure to download the zip file to a empty folder and to only use the library folder contained in the distribution. Do not merge this library folder with either the ACM or APM library folders. This software should be compiled with Arduino 1.0.3 or Arduino 1.0.1. Do not use the earlier versions as indicated in the Ardustation wiki.


Updated Mavlink 1.0 to Remzibi OSD Converter Software

October 22nd, 2012

I’ve been continuing to use my Remzibi OSD with my Arductoper quad and ACM version 2.7.3. I haven’t released this software in a while for the few who may still be wanting to use Remzibi OSD so I’m attaching the software to this post. This is the source code for the converter and needs to be compiled with Arduino 1.0.1.

Here is a link to the original article. Mavlink to Remzibi Howto


New Ardustation 2 2.0.15 Mavlink 1.0 Support

June 5th, 2012

I’ve just uploaded the latest Ardustation 2 release – 2.0.15 which adds Mavlink 1.0 support. This is to support the upcoming releases of ACM and APM with Mavlink 1.0. You can still use this release with Mavlink 0.9 by commenting out the “#define MAVLINK10” statement in the main ardustation2.pde file.
This version will also warn you if it detects the wrong Mavlink heartbeat being transmitted. Ardustation 2.0.15 will display an error message on the LCD when it detects the wrong heartbeat and direct you recompile with the opposite state of the #define MAVLINK10 statement. The start up message displayed on the LCD will indicate if you have compiled for Mavlink 1.0 or Mavlink 0.9.
I’ve have tested Mavlink 1.0 with ACM 2.6 Gamma, APM 2.4 (with Mavlnk 1.0 enabled) and with the Mavlink 1.0 version of the Mission Planner.
As always, please let me kinow if you have any issues with this release.
and is also available in my git clone here:
and you will need a git client to pull the clone down.

Modified Ardustation 2 Software Now Available

April 3rd, 2012

has my updated blog post.


I’ve updated the Ardustation 2  source code to allow compilation with Arduino 1.0 Relax and the latest libraries for ACM 2.5.3 and APM 2.3.0. This update also includes a modification of parameter names for PID editing that match ACM and APM. The updated version is 2.0.12.


The download zip file also includes the libraries used to verify compilation of the software. The software has been lightly tested with ACM and 2.5.3 and has not been tested with APM 2.3.0.  If you find any issues feel free to comment here or post an issue at the Ardustation 2 Google


The software is available here:

Download 2.0.12 for ACM 2.5.3 or APM 2.3.0 – compile with Arduino 1.0 Relax

Download 2.0.11 for ACM 2.0.48 or APM 2.24 – compile with Arduino 0022 Relax


My EEWeb (Electrical Engineering Community) Featured Engineer Interview

October 4th, 2011

Thanks to EEWeb for posting my featured engineer interview.

Heino’s EEWeb interview

EEWeb – Electrical Engineering Web Community – Site of the Day

September 26th, 2011

I was listed as site of the day on  Here is the link:
My site of the day post
Some FPV video from my quad and fixed wing EasyStar
(volume is a bit loud on both videos)

Quadcopter FPV video with on screen video symbology and a little flip at the end

EasyStar FPV video with a crash at the end

Thanks EEWEB!