A Telescope Computer Tutorial

Types of Telescopes
This tutorial assumes that you know the difference between an equatorial and an altitude-azimuth (or alt-az or altazimuth) telescope mount.  If you don't, check out the many articles that can be found on the Internet.  To summarize, an equatorial mount, when polar aligned, allows the telescope to follow the path of the stars across the sky by moving in only one axis.  An altitude-azimuth mount is like a gun turret which requires movement in both axes to follow the stars.

Types of Computers
There are two basic types of telescope computers—Guiding and GoTo.  The first telescope computers for the amateur were simply digital versions of the mechanical setting circles that show the orientation on the two axis (left/right and up/down).  These two positional indicators are called right ascension and declination (for equatorial mounts) or azimuth and altitude (for altitude-azimuth mounts).  The early computers were called Digital Setting Circles or DSCs as they duplicated the two mechanical indicators.

Guiding Computer
Add computer control and a database of objects in space and you have a guiding computer.  Guiding computers allow one to pick an object in the database and have the computer guide the movement of the telescope to the correct position where you can see the object through the scope.  The computer detects the current orientation of the telescope and indicates the movement necessary to arrive at the correct position.  This is accomplished by reading encoder data from two encoders, one on each axis.

You must move the scope to the position indicated by the computer display.  This can be a number showing how far you are from the desired location and arrows showing the direction to move or it can include a computer display (e.g. a laptop computer) showing a map of the sky with a crosshair showing the current location of the scope and the same basic information indicating the direction to move the scope.  By the way, these computers as still sometimes referred to as DSCs and they usually have a simple setting circles mode which displays the position of the two axis.

GoTo Computer
The "go to" computer "goes to" the location you choose all by itself.  The difference between a guiding computer and a GoTo computer is the motors that drive the telescope to the desired location.

If your computer "knows" its position and either guides you or moves itself to the position you choose, it has encoders.  Encoders are necessary for the computer to get "feedback" as to its current position.  The movements of the telescope are encoded in digital form via voltage fluctuations and fed to the computer, thus the term "encoder."

Related Sensing Equipment
In order for a computer to know which direction to move and the distance necessary to reach the destination (object), it must first know its current location.  Giving it this information is called aligning the scope.  Telescope alignment on a guiding computer is usually done manually by the operator.  However, many of today's GoTo telescopes include sensing equipment to automatically align the scope.

This equipment includes a Global Positioning System (GPS) to determine the latitude and longitude or location on the Earth's surface.  The next thing it must know is how level the scope is.  Internal leveling sensors give that information.  A compass tells the computer which direction the base of the telescope is facing.  Finally, the date and time must be known by the computer.  When all this data is available, the computer will know where to point the scope to find any object in the database.

Stand-along, PC Interface or Integrated
The original DSCs were a separate handheld box that connected to encoders and included a display to show the position of each axis.  The guiding computer started out as a separate box also.  Then a connection was added to interface with a Personal Computer (PC) with planetarium software to show a map of the sky and the position of the scope.  The guiding computer became the interface between the telescope and the PC. The main interface with the user is the PC keyboard, mouse and display. The integrated computer is built in to the telescope electronics and is controlled by the telescope's hand control unit.
JMI Equipment Type of Equipment
NGC-microMAX Stand-alone Guiding Computer
NGC-MAX Stand-alone Guiding Computer or PC Interface*
Argo-Navis (same as NGC-MAX)
SGT-MAX / BBOX PC Interface*

     * Go-To capability is determined by the computer software and telescope drive capabilities.


The JMI Team