Polar Alignment with a CCD Imager

This is not for the faint of heart. You need to know how to use a CCD imager and your telescope. I write this here, because there are so many websites with INCORRECT information about this process. Some miss the point completely. All this does is mess with your head and mess with your gear. This method works. Trust me.

Polar Alignment with CCD

This is for permanent installations, as it can take up to 3 or 4 hours to complete the whole process to the point where your mount is perfectly polar aligned. The result is that you no longer have to worry about declination drift during imaging. You still have to worry about periodic error from your mount’s drive, but any good autoguider will take care of that. These instructions assume that you know how your CCD is aligned on the scope (which way is N, E, S, W on the images). In all cases, you will be monitoring North-South changes in a star’s position on your CCD images. IGNORE any east-west drift.

Polar Axis Altitude Alignment:

1. Manually polar align your mount to the best of your ability. Some mounts come with polar alignment scope in the polar axis shaft. Use it! This will actually get you close enough to take 5 to 10 minute integrations without doing the rest of this list! You will depend on your autoguider.

2. Aim your telescope at a star low on the eastern horizon and on the celestial equator (close is good). Faint stars are ok. You do not want them blooming.

3. Take 15 30-second long integrations of that star. Some people prefer to take one 5 minute long shot of the stars to see its path, but it works just as well to see the star’s position move due to drift via snapshots. DO NOT move the mount in any way during these shots. Just let the RA motor do its job.

4. Now to fix your drift! In this step you move the mount’s permanent polar axis depending on the way the star has drifted on your images.

a. If the star drifted north on your images, then move the mount’s polar axis down a tiny(!!) bit.

b. If the star drifted south on your images, then move the mount up a tiny(!!) bit.

5. Repeat steps 2 through 4 until you see NO DRIFT in 5 minutes. Want better? Go for longer. You will find that you can use the centroid tool in your image processing software and get excellent results in about 30-40 minutes.

Polar Axis Azimuth Alignment:

1. Aim your telescope at a star on the meridian and on the celestial equator.

2. Take 15 30-second long integrations of that star. Some people prefer to take one 5 minute long shot of the stars to see its path, but it works just as well to see the star’s position move due to drift via snapshots. DO NOT move the mount in any way during these shots. Just let the RA motor do its job.

3. Now it is time to fix your polar alignment’s altitude to perfection! Be sure to make VERY SMALL adjustments to the polar axis at this time.

a. If the star drifted to the north in your images, then slightly move the mount to the east.

b. If the star drifted to the south in your images, then move the mount to the west.

4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 above until there is NO DRIFT in your 5 minute series.

Congratulations! Your mount is polar aligned. You will likely not need to adjust this again until you swap out telescopes, have an earthquake (more common than you think!) or someone fiddles with a knob or two on your mount (also not all that uncommon as you think).

Taking Flat Fields

Introduction:

When taking CCD images, and particular, when trying to use those images for scientific purposes, it is important to reduce the amount of unwanted signal and unwanted noise from each image. Optical path “noise” (some of which is actually signal), is such a problem that many astronomers really never come to grips with it. Their data suffer, and the end result is poorer science. This treatise will spell out the simplicity of taking good flat fields to reduce optical path noise and CCD sensitivity issues and will also walk you through a couple of methods to get flats done.

Optical Path Noise:

Telescopes, CCD chips and filters all block light as well as transmit light. They also harbor dust, finger prints, and other unwanted shadow producing things in the light path. The result of such optical path obscuration is an unevenly illuminated CCD chip. This is a real nightmare for anyone doing photometry, in which a standard star of known brightness might measure a bit faint one night because it was being imaged on top of a dust speck on the filter glass! Optical path vignetting and other physical path obstructions will also cast large, non-discernable shadows onto your CCD, causing poor even illumination.

CCD Sensitivity:

In the spatial realm both on the multi-pixel and single-pixel level, a CCD chip will display uneven sensitivity to incoming light. This can depend on the thickness of the substrate and uneven cooling among many other issues. This creates issues very much like those mentioned already in the optical path noise section above.

The Solution:

Take flat field images and divide them out of your images. A flat field is an image taken of an evenly illuminated object like the dusk sky, or a special illuminated white card hanging on the wall of the observatory. These images are taken through the telescope:

· at the same temperature as your nightly work,

· through the same filter/s as your nightly work,

· at the same focal point and at the same rotational angle being used all night,

· and with integration times to allow the flat to reach an average of between 20 to 50% full well capacity of your CCD chip. Flat images should never bloom, but should also not be less than a second in integration time.

For precision work, 20 to 30 or more flats through each filter should be taken each night you are collecting science data. Each flat of a given filter should then be averaged together to create a master flat which is then divided out of your light frame on a pixel by pixel basis. These details are usually all handled automatically by your software. I will assume you are using MaxIm DL software revision 5+ for the following examples.

In Practice – Taking Sky Flats:

Taking flats is easy. Here is a step-by-step method to take sky flats which has worked well for me for years. You need no special equipment other than that you already own to take CCD images.

1. Wait until the sun is setting, but still just above the western horizon.

2. Turn on your observatory: EVERYTHING. The mount, the fans, the CCD, the PC, lights normally on, etc.

3. Cool down your CCD to the night time working temperature. Wait 10 minutes for it to settle to the working temperature.

4. If you are using filters, you should take flats in order of densest filter to most transmissive. I work in the order of Ha, B, V, R, then lastly I. Set your filter wheel to the first filter.

5. Set the focal point of the system. Minor adjustments through the night are ok in order to allow for temperature changes of your optical tube assembly. Do not make changes more than a mm or so. You’ll have to take new flats if you do make larger changes.

6. Set the CCD camera’s angle to the system. Leave it here all night.

7. Point your telescope at the blue sky towards the western side of the meridian. Avoid areas of sky where there are bright stars (which will not be visible yet, as the sun is still up).

8. Take a 1 second integration.

9. Once it downloads, use MaxIm DL’s Information Window in Area Mode to inspect the average pixel count of the image. If it is too bright, some pixels will be saturated, and you will have to wait until the sun sets some more. If you have an image that reads about 20-50% of the full well count, then proceed immediately to the take a series of flats.

a. Generally the Sun is at a point in the west where its light might just be still touching the top of the treetops on the eastern horizon. Stars are not visible to the eye, nor generally to the camera yet.

b. My full well count with an SBIG camera is 65535, so I aim to get flats with an area average of 20000.

c. You can use MaxIm DL’s image series command to take a set of flats with any given filter. Repeat all the steps above as needed until you have flats for what you need.

10. You can use these flats for as long as you wish, but for precision work, flats are taken every night and sometimes in the morning after your imaging is complete. If you are not after precision work, then taking flats once a week is enough. Some would say that’s sacrilege!

A helpful hints:

If you want to start taking flats earlier, just to give yourself some time, cut out sheets of frosted mylar (used in silkscreening) to cover the objective of the telescope. Use 5 to 10 sheets of this milky white plastic material to basically dim the incoming sky brightness to the optics.

You can take flats while aiming at evenly illuminated clouds. This is ok!

I have gotten away with as few as 6 averaged flats. For truly accurate work, I have gotten up to 40 averaged flats.

Here is a flat. Look how ugly it can be! The donuts are dust. The edge darkening in the corners is caused by vignetting.

flat.jpg

A typical flat field frame. This one is of the evening sunset sky taken through an H-alpha filter. Note the dust donuts and uneven illumination of the chip. This is what we use to correct our images for these issues.