Software

ASCOM (Astronomy Common Object Model)

I list this first, because if you are going to go beyond simple telescope control from your computer, you will have to become very familiar with ASCOM.

From the ASCOM site: The ASCOM Initiative is a loosely-knit group of developers and astronomical instrument makers that work together to bring vendor-independent and language-independent plug-and play compatibility between astronomy software and astronomical instruments.

Earlier, manufactures and vendors had to write drivers into every piece of software and hardware, and there were no standard requirements.  What a mish-mash.  Your computer cannot have more than one active driver running for a particular piece of hardware.  Try to connect both Maxim and The SKY to the telescope at the same time and at some point one or the other will crash, and/or your scope or camera will lock up.  The computer can't sort out what info is going to what.

ASCOM provides software hubs that act similar to a network router.  The hub talks directly to the hardware and software sending the proper signals and data to the correct item.  ASCOM compliant hardware and software is required, most of it is today.  Now, you can connect multiple programs to multiple pieces of hardware and everything usually coexists and runs flawlessly (remember, you are running Windows and nothing is a sure-fire bet).

In my setup, I run POTH (Plain Old Telescope Handset) as my ASCOM hub.  I then connect The SKY, Maxim DL and Focus Max to POTH as the telescope.  Other hubs are available that can do more than tell the scope where to go, such as MaxPoint or T-point, both of which will model your scope's goto and tracking, making corrections on the fly too keep them on target.  You can even setup The SKY as a hub and connect all the other software to it.

Almost every facet of your setup can be controlled with ASCOM.  Drivers are available not only for scopes, focusers and cameras, but weather sensors, cloud sensors, dome automation, etc.  Add in some scripting and you can run an entire imaging session, from start up to shut down, from the comfort of your bed.

ASCOM maintains most of the hubs and drivers provided by manufactures on their web site so they are easy to track down and install.  Most are free, though more complex packages, like MaxPoint, are not.

Currently, ASCOM only supports Windows.  There is an initiative to adopt MAC and Linux, but due to the small user base in the astro arena, it may be a while yet.  There is a Yahoo Group, moderated by ASCOM, that has the latest info and input from the MAC and Linux community.

It seems confusing, but once you start with a simple hub and the proper drivers, it is all downhill from there. 

The Sky v6

Super planetarium program, we use it for driving the goto scopes, click on where you want to go and the scope follows.

Available in three levels, I highly recommend the Professional.  It is the only level that allows full automation and scripting.  The Serious Astronomer version is the minimum for telescope control and has a good feature set for the average observer.  The Student version is extremely limited, not even capable of generating observing lists.

Maxim DL v5

Outstanding CCD camera program controls the camera, filter wheel and auto guider, also processes the images, very powerful and user friendly. Recently upgraded from v3.  What an improvement.  Measurement tools are more robust than earlier versions.  You can now set up numerous calibration frames at one time, instead of having to constantly compile them as in earlier versions.  In one menu you can set up dark frames for multiple temps or binning.  Same with flat fields, bias, and, both bias and dark subtracts.  It automatically selects the proper calibration frames for the image you are working.  The Deconvolve filter now includes Maximum Entropy and Lucy-Richardson.  More user variables in most of the filters, more wizards to assist.  Filters now have an optional full screen preview, which I prefer to the small thumbnail views.  Color processing used to be limited to compiling the image and limited color balance corrections.  Now there is a fair amount of color options available - Saturation, Smoothing, White Balance, Color Balance, etc.  Most of the filters also now operate on color images.

Every time I used to close the images, I always asked why there was not a "Close All" command.  You had to close each image individually.  Not hard, just a major annoyance of mine.  Guess what?  They must have heard me, there is now a "Close All" command.  Love it.

Camera, autoguider, and telescope controls are mostly unchanged, but there are some improvements.  The biggest change I have found is the ability to insert a filter multiplication  factor in the autoguider.  Before, you would set the autoguider exposure, with no filter, to just short of blooming and it would be too short when you got around to the blue filter and you would loose the guiding, sometimes with very bizarre results.  You had to stop and manually change the autoguider exposure before using the blue filter, and sometimes the red and green.  The result was I rarely used the autoguider and just used a lot of short exposures to assemble my images.    Now, put a factor of 1.5 (or whatever it takes) in the software for each filter and it automatically multiplies the autoguider exposure for that filter by that factor.  Neat. 

Limited video is supported.  It cannot steam an AVI or MOV, but instead takes individual frames as FITs.  It can also integrate several frames, with no corrections, as they come from the camera into one FIT, useful for very dim objects.  An AVI can be exported by combining several FITs together.  An AVI can be imported and broke into separate frames for processing, just be sure you limit how many frames at a time or it tries to break down an entire video.  I have 3 gb in my computer and it crashes around 100 frames - about 7 seconds of video.  Around 40 frames is all I can really break out and still have any performance to process them.  You can also set up a video camera as an autoguider.   

AMCap

Provided with a video or web camera.  Basic video capture using Microsoft Direct X.  Works well, does nothing except video capture - AVI or stills.  Toolboxes open on top of the live view so you can adjust settings and see real time what is happening.  I wish it would automatically assign or increment file names - more than once I have taken several videos and ended up with one file.  It rewrites, without warning, if it is saving to an existing file name.  Or, I forget to hit save and lose it anyway. 

Note: Ver 9.1 and newer will automatically save - no more having to remember to save, and it will save to a filename by timestamp - no more overwriting my existing files. 

AIP4WIN (Advanced Image Processing for Windows)

Has no camera control capability. Extremely powerful CCD image processing, somewhat difficult for color images, otherwise very good. Lots of measurement tools, super for astrometry, photometry, angular separation, separation distances, spectroscopy, etc...  Aimed more at the astronomer looking for data from their images.  Can read the native formats of all cameras currently on the market and the program authors will modify/add formats on request, also allows the user to specify format parameters so you can load formats not yet supported.

I don't use it much, preferring Maxim for my basic processing, but the book is worth the cost.  Anything you wanted to know about image processing, even the in-depth math, is included.

RegiStax

Freeware program designed to stack and align multiple astro images.  Works with AVI, FIT, TIFF, JPEG, BMP formats. RegiStax can either automate almost every step of the processing, or allow you full manual control of every step.  The best feature is a quality filter.  You select a "quality" frame by either manually selecting a good frame, or allow RegiStax to build a reference frame, and then all the other frames are compared and rated against the "quality" frame.  You then can choose a percentage of quality, so if you choose 90% then only frames that are rated at least 90% of the "quality" frame will be stacked and processed.  This eliminates the need for you to manually select what frames out of the hundreds on the video to use.  After aligning and stacking it takes you to a section called "wavelets".  They are essentially six levels of unsharp masking.  You have total control over each level.  Of course the usual histogram, brightness, contrast, color balance, and gamma shaping typical of most graphic programs are also available.

ESA/ESO/Nasa FITS Liberator

It used to be a free plug-in for Photoshop to import FITS, now it is a stand-alone application.  Designed to allow the layman to import and play with Hubble images.  There are currently no freeware FITS plugins for 64 bit Photoshop.

Photoshop, Nikon Capture, etc...

After processing in Maxim, AIP, or Registax, it helps to run images through a conventional desktop graphics program to tweak the image. 

Photoshop plug-ins I find very useful:

Noiseware Pro - a great noise filter plug in, also available as a stand alone applicatrion.  Another popular noise filter is Noise Ninja.

Astronomy Tools - a collection of 34 actions.  Includes things like DSO enhancing, star color enhancing, star size reduction, etc.  Very handy.

Fits Plug - import FIT, monochrome or color images.  Imports in 32 bit.

Perfect Resize - formerly Genuine Fractals.  Does a fantastic job enlarging images.

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