Using PHD2 Guiding

There are five basic steps to start guiding.
  1. Press the USB-icon button and connect to your guide camera and mount.
  2. Pick an exposure duration from the drop-down list.
  3. Hit the loop button and look at the available stars, adjusting focus if necessary. Move the mount or adjust the exposure duration as needed to find a suitable guide star.
  4. Click on a non-saturated star that's not very near an edge for use as the guide star.
  5. Press the PHD2 Guide button.
Details of these operations will be described in the sections below.

Equipment Connection

In order to begin guiding, PHD2 must first connect to your hardware: the guide camera, the mount, and, optionally, an 'aux' mount, an adaptive optics (AO) device, or a rotator.  When you click on the USB icon, you'll see a dialog that looks like this:



Camera Selection

The Camera drop-down list shows all the camera types currently supported by PHD2.  In all cases, the OS-level drivers for the camera must be installed correctly in order for PHD2 to connect to the device.  If the camera uses an ASCOM interface, you'll also need to install the corresponding ASCOM driver for the camera.  If you don't see your ASCOM-compatible camera shown in the drop-down list, you probably don't have the ASCOM driver installed. Neither the ASCOM nor OS-level drivers are included with PHD2, so they must be located, downloaded, and installed separately.  For non-ASCOM cameras, the PHD2 distribution does include the additional application libraries needed by PHD2 to use the camera..

It is not practical to provide an exhaustive list of cameras that are supported by PHD2.  In many cases, camera vendors extend their product lines by updating their lower-level drivers without having to change the application libraries used by PHD2.  In those cases, we aren't aware of the changes unless a user reports problems.  The list shown below should be interpeted as follows:
1.  If the camera vendor is completely absent, it is unlikely that the camera is supported, or it may only be supported using a web-cam interface
2.  If the camera model is shown in the list, it is supported unless there are unresolved problems with the vendor's drivers
3.  If the specific camera model is absent but earlier models are shown, it is likely the camera is supported
4.  If the camera uses an ASCOM interface, it is supported

Since the PHD2 download is free, the simplest course of action is to  install it and see if your camera is shown in the PHD2 drop-down list.  Alternatively, you can check for camera support info in the Wiki on the PHD2 Google forum:  https://github.com/OpenPHDGuiding/phd2/wiki/CameraSupport

Finally, you can always post a message on the open-phd-guiding forum asking if anyone has experience with the camera.  

Baseline list of supported cameras:

Windows:
Mac:

Support for SBIG Dual-chip Cameras

Many cameras from the Santa Barbara Instrument Group (SBIG) have two sensors - a primary one for imaging and a second, smaller one for guiding.  While the two sensors are physically separate, they share electronics inside the camera and more importantly, share a single USB data link to the computer.  This means that  downloading of data from the two sensors must be coordinated - you can't retrieve a guider image while an image from the main sensor is being downloaded.  Beyond that, Windows will only allow one application at a time to connect to the camera over the single USB link.  These are physical and architectural restrictions that can't be circumvented by PHD2.  However, it is possible for the camera-controlling (image capture) application to implement an interface for PHD2 to get data from the guide chip - essentially, a "side door" mechanism that won't violate any of the above rules.  With this arrangement, the image capture application is acting as a traffic cop to coordinate access to the two camera sensors.  At the time of this writing (October 2015), the only imaging application that does this is Sequence Generator Pro (SGP).  If you use SGP as your main imaging application, you can also use their "SGP API Guider" module, which allows PHD2 to access the guide chip on the SBIG camera.

ASCOM Camera Properties

If you choose an ASCOM camera, you'll also be able to access the ASCOM setup dialog for that camera by clicking on the properties button immediately to the left of the 'Connect' button:



Depending on the camera, this may provide access to properties that are not controlled by PHD2.

Multiple Cameras of the Same Type

If your computer is connected to multiple cameras from the same manufacturer, you'll usually need to specify which camera should be used by PHD2.  You can do that by clicking on the 'fork' button to the right of the camera drop-down list:



Clicking this button will show a list of the available cameras and you can choose the one you want.  PHD2 will remember the choice and save it as part of your equipment profile, so you should only need to do this once.

Mount Selection

The Mount drop-down list displays options for connecting to your mount.  There are generally two ways to do this:
  1. Use an ASCOM-compatible telescope driver that sends guide commands to the mount over a serial cable (or more commonly,  a USB/Serial connection)
  2. Use the ST-4 compatible guide port interface on the mount with a specialized cable and an intermdiate device like a camera or a Shoestring box
The ASCOM interface relies on third-party drivers to communicate with the mount.  These drivers are available from the ASCOM web site (ASCOM Standards) or from the mount manufacturer - they are not distributed with PHD2. So the drop-down list will be populated by only those ASCOM drivers you already have installed on your system.  The ASCOM driver must support the 'PulseGuide' interface, which has been a requirement for ASCOM compliance for many years and is widely supported.  With this type of mount control, guide commands are sent from PHD2 to the mount over the serial interface.  The high-level PHD2 guide commands (e.g. "Move west 500 mSec") are translated by the mount firmware into the appropriate motor control signals to execute the command.  With the ASCOM interface, PHD2 can also obtain the pointing position of the mount, especially the declination and side-of-pier, which can be used as factors in guider calibration.

The "Guide-port" interfaces use a specialized, hardware-level control port available on most mounts.  To use this type of interface, there must be another device in the link between PHD2 and the mount:

  1. Any of the guide cameras which have an ST-4 compatible "on-camera" guider interface. Use the 'on camera' mount choice for these setups.
  2. Any of the Shoestring GP-xxx devices
  3. A supported AO device with a guide port interface
With this style of interface,  PHD2 guide commands like "Move west 500 mSec" are translated by the intermediate device (camera, Shoestring box, AO) into electrical signals necessary to drive the mount motor for the correct length of time.  

Aux Mount Selection

If you have selected an ST-4 style of guiding in the 'mount' section, that interface cannot be used to query the pointing position of the telescope.  As a consequence,  guider calibration won't be automatically adjusted for declination, nor will it be automatically flipped when the side-of-pier changes.  You can restore these features by specifying an "aux" mount connection that will be used only to get the telescope pointing information.  An example is shown below:



For Windows users, the "aux" mount can use any of the ASCOM-compatible mount drivers, while Linux users can take advantage of INDI drivers.  The "aux" mount choice will be used only if the primary mount interface cannot return pointing information - it will otherwise be ignored.  Note: some mounts (e.g. Celestron and iOptron) have a separate hardware port also labeled 'Aux' - DO NOT USE THIS  for guiding - it is completely unrelated to the 'Aux' connection in PHD2.

The last entry in the list of 'Aux mount' connections is labeled "Ask for coordinates."  This can provide a rudimentary aux-mount facility if you can't use an ASCOM or INDI connection to your mount.  If you need to pursue this option, you can read about the details in the Tools section.

Benefits of Using ASCOM (or INDI) connections

If you're running on a Windows platform, you'll probably be better off using an ASCOM connection for guiding your mount.  On other operating systems, your best choice is likely to be an INDI connection if one is available.  This advice may be contrary to some old-school experience or folklore on the Web and probably isn't what you'll hear from the manufacturer of the guide camera.  But the benefits of doing so with PHD2 are substantial, and you should use this alternative unless you have specific and credible information against it.  Here are some of the primary benefits:
  1. A drastic reduction in the number of re-calibrations you'll need to perform.  Changing targets will not require another calibration because PHD2 can know where the scope is pointing and automatically make adjustments to the guider calibration.  Most users get a good calibration and then re-use it until they make hardware changes of some kind.
  2. Automatic adjustment for meridian flips - no need to remember to manually flip the calibration data.
  3. Automatic adjustment of RA calibration to handle targets in different parts of the sky (declination compensation)
  4. Elimination of the ST-4 guide cable as a point of failure - this is a surprisingly common problem because the cables can be damaged or confused with similar-looking cables (e.g. telephone cables)
  5. Elimination of a moving cable that can snag, drag, or bind as the scope is moved around.
  6. Improved ability for PHD2 to sanity-check calibration results and warn of possible problems before you waste hours of imaging time.
  7. Better diagnostic and trouble-shooting information, which is particularly helpful if you need to ask for assistance
  8. Availability of scope-slewing options during drift alignment which can further speed the process of polar alignment
If you have an older mount built before 2005 or thereabouts, it may not have firmware-level support for ASCOM pulse guiding.  In those cases, you may get better guiding results using the ST-4 guiding interface.  If you're in doubt, check the documentation for your mount or ask on one of the forums about pulse-guide support.  Even then, you can use ASCOM for the PHD2 "aux-mount" connection and get many of the benefits listed above.  A common misconception, frequently seen on Web forums, is that ST-4 guiding is hardware-based and thus more accurate or responsive.  For any of the modern mounts you're likely to encounter, this is no longer true - there will always be software running at each end of the cable, just like ASCOM guiding.  The bottom line is this: if you have an ASCOM or Indi driver available for your mount, you should probably use it.

Adaptive Optics and Rotator Selections

With PHD2, you now have the option of controlling the Starlight Xpress adaptive optics unit and/or any of several ASCOM-compatible camera rotators  These can be specified by clicking on the 'More Equipment..." button in the above dialog:



If you don't have these devices, just leave the selections at 'None.'  If these devices are connected, you'll see additional tabs in the 'Advanced Settings' dialog that provide access to various device-related properties.  PHD2 does not control a rotator, but it will read the current angle setting from the rotator and adjust the guiding calibration if needed.

Simulators

All of the PHD2 devices - camera, mount, AO, rotator - include built-in simulators.  You can use these simulators to explore how PHD2 works and to decide how you want to use the program.  There's no reason to waste valuable dark-sky time learning to use PHD2!  Virtually all of  PHD2's features, including full calibration and all the graphical display options, will work properly when device simulators are used.  You will even see fairly realistic guiding performance to give you some idea of what to expect in the field.  To get started using the simulators, choose 'Simulator' for the camera type and 'On-camera' for the Mount type.

That said, the simulators are not useful for trouble-shooting any problems you encounter with your real mount.  Both the camera and the mount must be real devices in order to diagnose problems or otherwise get your gear calibrated and working.  In that sense, what you see when using the simulators is realistic but "fake" behavior.  The simulators can be useful in some cases for reproducing PHD2 application problems, but not for anything having to do with your actual guiding equipment.

Equipment Profiles

At the top of the 'Connect Equipment' dialog are some additional controls for managing equipment profiles.  All of the guider settings in PHD2, default or otherwise, are automatically stored as part of an equipment profile.  If you have only one guiding setup - you use the same camera and guide scope combination each time - you will only need one profile; and you can just use the default profile.  But you may have multiple equipment configurations - for example, an off-axis-guiding arrangement for a long focal length scope and a separate guide scope/camera configuration for a shorter focal length imaging scope.  The PHD2 guide settings for those configurations are likely to be different, so you would want to use separate equipment profiles  The controls at the top of the 'Connect Equipment' dialog let you choose the profile you want to use and to create/edit/remove profiles as you see fit.  When you select a profile and connect to its associated equipment, all of the settings last used with that profile are automatically reloaded.  Once you've established the profiles you need - perhaps only the default one - you can simply click on the 'Connect All' button and you're ready to move ahead.   If you already have a suitable default equipment profile and you simply want to connect to the equipment just as before, you can do a <shift>-click on the main screen 'USB' button and PHD2 will automatically re-connect to your hardware.

New-Profile-Wizard

The best way to create a new profile is to use the "Wizard" capability.  The wizard takes you through a sequence of windows that explain the various settings and help you decide how to set them.  It will also calculate baseline algorithm settings that are likely to work reasonably well for your set-up.   Creating a profile this way is faster and less error-prone than doing it by hand in the 'Connect Equipment' dialog.  When you run PHD2 for the first time on your system, this wizard will be automatically launched.  Subsequently, you can use the new-profile wizard by clicking on the 'Manage Profiles' field in the 'Connect Equipment' dialog, then  choosing 'New using wizard...'.  

The wizard asks a number of questions that are important for getting your profile built correctly.  The explanatory text in each pane of the wizard should make clear what is being asked and what needs to be done.  But here are some additional tips to help you through the process:

1. Camera connection pane: unbinned pixel size.  The 'detect' button next to this field can be used to get the pixel size directly from the camera., so you should try this option first.  However, some cameras and drivers don't provide this information, so you'll need to enter it yourself.  You should be able to get the unbinned pixel size from the camera spec sheet or the manufacturer's web site.  If the pixels aren't square, just specify the size on either dimension or the average value if you prefer.  This won't have any effect on your actual guidng results, but it will allow PHD2 to show guiding results in units of arc-seconds, which is the best way to look at performance.
2. Camera connection pane: guide scope focal length.  This seems to be a common place for mistakes, so it's worth being careful and getting it right.  The correct value is not the aperture of the guide scope, it is the focal length.  So, for example,  if you're guiding with a 50mm finder scope, the focal length willl not be 50mm - it will probably be something closer to 150-175mm.   A 60-80mm refractor guide scope will probably have a focal length in the range of 240-500mm, not 60-80mm.  Similarly, if you're guidng with an OAG on your main imaging scope, the focal length will be that of the main scope.  In some cases, you may be using a small threaded focal reducer on the guide camera, so that must also be taken into account.  Like the pixel-size entry, the focal length doesn't demand a great deal of precision, but you should get as close as you can.  Otherwise, the performance numbers may not reflect your actual results.
3. Mount connection pane:  mount guide speed.  This is another area that seems to cause confusion.  The guide speed is a parameter set in the mount or in the mount driver, it's not something controlled by PHD2.  PHD2 never sets the mount guide speed, it only reads it.  It is usually expressed as a multiple of the sidereal rate and is typically in the range of 0.5x - 1x sidereal.  Despite what you may read elsewhere, it's generally best to use guide speeds in this range rather than much lower speeds.   Higher guide speeds can help to clear backlash more quickly and may help to overcome stiction problems.  If you have the mount physically connected and are using an ASCOM (or Indi) interface, you can click on the 'Detect' button and PHD2 will attempt to read the current guide speed from the mount.  If this fails for some reason, you'll need to enter the guide speed manually.  PHD2 uses this value to automatically set the calibration step-size and to aid in checking calibration results; but the guide speed information is not important for the actual guiding.  If you're using different guide speeds on the RA and Dec axes, enter the larger value.   If you really can't determine what the guide speed settings are in the mount, leave the setting at the default value of 0.5.

In the last pane of the wizard dialog, you're given the option to build a dark library for the profile,  You should always do this unless you already have a compatible dark library that you're going to import from a different profile.  If you are changing cameras and want to keep the dark libraries and bad-pixel maps associated with the old camera, you should create a separate profile for the new camera.  When a camera selection is changed in an existing profile, the previously built dark library and bad-pixel map data will no longer be usable.   That also applies to using the same camera with different binning values. Setups using different binning factors should be kept in separate profiles because the dark library and bad-pixel maps depend on the binning factor.

Exposure Time and Star Selection

The guide star can be selected (clicked on) while "looping" is active - in fact, this is the recommended method.  It can also be selected after looping has been stopped, but this opens the possibility that the star might have moved since the last exposure.  No great precision is required in clicking on the star - PHD2 will find the star nearest to the cursor.  After you do this, a green box will appear to frame the star.  If you pick a star that is too bright (saturated), the status bar will show a  red 'SAT' label  and you should choose a fainter star if one is available.  You can adjust the gamma slider to the left to see fainter stars.  The choice of exposure time will depend entirely on your equipment, sky conditions, and the available stars.  The exposure time you choose has several implications:
  1. It affects the signal strength (brightness) of the selected star - a brighter star will stand out better from the background and will generally produce better guiding results so long as it is not saturated.
  2. It also determines the frequency with which guide commands are sent to the mount - guide commands cannot be sent any more frequently than once for each exposure cycle.  Some mounts benefit from frequent small guiding adjustments while others do not - you may need to experiment to understand what works best for your situation.  
  3. It has a strong effect on the sensitivity of the guide algorithms to seeing conditions.  As the exposure time is increased up through 2-6 seconds, the effects of seeing are smoothed out.  The camera is essentially averaging out the larger, high-frequency seeing movements, so the guide algorithms have less difficulty distinguishing "seeing jitter" from actual guide star displacements that need to be corrected.  This is particularly noticeable if you are guiding with a long focal length setup.
As a starting point, try using exposure durations in the range of two to four seconds.  Rather than choosing the star yourself with a mouse-click, you can let PHD2 Auto-select the guide star by using the Alt-S keyboard shortcut after stars are visible in the main display. If you want to de-select a star without choosing another one, you can do a shift-click anywhere on the image display window.   If you are just starting with this equipment set-up, you'll probably need to focus the guide camera - doing so is important for good guiding.  You can use the Star Profile tool to help with that process.   The camera exposure control displays a wide range of pre-set exposure times.  Exposure times smaller than one second are intended for use with adaptive optics devices or in other special situations - they are generally not appropriate for use with typical guide camera set-ups.  There is also a 'custom' exposure option at the bottom of the list that lets you specify a value not already displayed.  Again, this is intended for special applications, for example where an unusually long exposure time is needed.

There is also an Auto exposure time selection available. When exposure is set to Auto, PHD2 will attempt to adjust the exposure to keep the selected guide star at a constant signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) value. This is a specialized measurement used by PHD2 to determine how well the star can be distinguished from the background - it is similar but not identical to the signal-to-noise ratio used in photometry.  The Auto setting is primarily intended for AO users who want to minimize exposure time without losing the guide star. The settings to control Auto-exposure are on the Camera Tab of the Advanced Dialog.  Non-AO users should probably not use the "Auto' exposure setting because it complicates interpretation of the guiding results.

Automatic Calibration

Conventional Mounts

Two things need to be measured by PHD2 as part of guider calibration:
  1. The angle of the camera relative to the telescope axes 
  2. The length of the guide pulse needed to move the telescope by a specific amount
PHD2 handles these measurements automatically by sending guide pulses to the mount and watching how far and in which direction the star moves between guide camera images.  This process begins after you have selected a star and then clicked on the PHD2/Guide icon button.  Yellow cross-hairs will appear over the original location of your guide star and PHD2 will start to move the mount in various directions, tracking how the star moves as a function of what move commands were sent to the mount.  The status bar will display the commands as they are sent to the mount, along with the incremental movements of the guide star relative to its starting position.  PHD2 will do this on both axes, first moving east and west, then north and south.  PHD2 wants to move the star up to 25 pixels in each direction in order to get an accurate calibration.  Once this is complete, the crosshairs will turn green and guiding will start automatically.

Although PHD2 moves the guide star in all four directions, only the west and north movements are actually used to compute the guide rates and camera angle. The east and south moves are used only to restore the star roughly to its starting position.  Before the north moves are begun, you will see a sequence of pulses that are intended to clear backlash.  PHD2 takes a fairly aggressive approach to clearing this backlash, watching for a clear pattern of movement in a single direction with no reversals.  Even so, these pulses may still not clear all the declination backlash in your mount, particularly if you are significantly affected by seeing conditions.   In that case, the computed declination rate may be too low, a situation that is discussed further in the Tools and Utilities section.  You may also see that the south pulses leave the guide star well-short of its starting position - this is another visual clue that you have significant declination backlash in your mount.  If you see evidence of sizable backlash, you can run the Guiding Assistant tool and measure it directly.

In most cases, calibration will complete automatically without any user involvement.  If you get frequent failures during calibration, you should consult the trouble-shooting section.

If you're using an ASCOM (or Indi) connection for either the 'mount' or 'aux-mount', a good calibration can be re-used for a long time, and that is the preferred way to operate.  These  connection options allow PHD2 to know where the telescope is pointing, so a calibration done at one point in the sky will be automatically adjusted as you slew to different targets.  The old method of having to re-calibrate whenever you slewed the scope or switched the side-of-pier is a thing of the past so long as PHD2 has pointing information.  With this type of set-up, you would only re-calibrate if you rotate the position of the guide camera by more than about 5 degrees or make other major changes to the hardware configuration.  In general, the best practice is to get a good calibration within about +/- 20 degrees of the celestrial equator and high enough in the sky to avoid major seeing (turbulence) problems.  Since PHD2 has pointing information for this type of configuration, the  'Auto restore calibration' option in the Guiding tab of the Advanced Dialog will be checked automatically.  From this point forward, you can simply connect to your gear, choose a guide star, then begin guiding immediately.  Finally, if you're using an instrument rotator as part of your equipment profile, PHD2 can use the 'Rotator' connection to adjust the calibration data based on the angular position of the guide camera - one less reason for re-doing a calibration.

You can always review the results of your last calibration by using the 'Tools' menu and clicking on 'Review Calibration Data'  That will open a dialog that shows a graphical representation of the mount's movements along with the values that were computed for guiding your mount.  This window is described elsewhere in the Calibration Details section of the help file.  As a quick quality check, you can open this window and confirm that 1) the RA and Dec lines are roughly perpendicular and 2)  the plotted points are roughly linear with no significant curves, bends, clumping of points, or reversals in direction.   If you do see these kinds of odd patterns in the graph, you should probably re-do the calibration.  Even with high-end mounts, calibrations can occasionally go awry because of environmental conditions, especially wind and bad seeing.  

After a calibration is completed, PHD2 will "sanity check" the results to be sure the calculations at least look reasonable.  If they don't, you will see an 'alert' message at the top of the main window that describes the calibration result that looks questionable.  You can choose to ignore the alert or click on 'Details' to get more information.  It is generally advisable to pay attention to these alerts because there is no point in trying to guide using a significantly bad calibration.

Adaptive Optics Devices

If you are using an adaptive optics device, there are actually two calibration processes that must complete.  The first handles calibration of the tip/tilt mirror in the AO and calculates the magnitude and direction of the adjustments as they relate to displacements of the guide star.  The second calibration is the one described above, dealing with guide commands that need to be sent to the mount.  Known as "bump" commands, these will be issued when the guide star has moved beyond the range of corrections that can be achieved with the AO alone.

Guiding

Once guiding has begun, diagnostic messages will be displayed in the status bar to show what guide commanda are being sent to the mount. PHD2 will continue guiding until you click on the 'Stop' icon.  To resume guiding, simply start looping exposures again, select your star, and click on the 'Guide' button.  You will not need to repeat the calibration in order to resume guiding.  In some cases, PHD2 may lose the guide star and you'll be alerted by an audible beep and flashing orange crosshairs.  There are several reasons this might occur:
  1. Something may be obscuring the star - clouds, the observatory roof, a tree, etc.
  2. The star may have abruptly moved out of the tracking rectangle because something shifted in the mount/camera/cabling infrastructure - cable snags can cause this
  3. The star may have "faded" for some other reason, perhaps because it is overly faint
Obviously, you'll need to identify the source of the problem and fix it.  However, it's important to understand that PHD2 will not start moving the telescope around in an attempt to relocate the guide star.  It will simply continue to take exposures and look for the guide star to reappear within the bounds of the current tracking rectangle.  When you first start guiding, you may see an 'alert' dialog at the top of the window if no dark library or bad-pixel map is being used.  You can choose to ignore this warning and continue with guiding, but you are likely to get better results if you spend the few minutes needed to construct a dark library for future use.

If you are using a German equatorial mount (GEM), you will usually have to do a "meridian flip" around the time your image target crosses the meridian.  This means you will move the telescope around to the opposite side of the pier and then resume imaging.  Doing this invalidates the original calibration, typically because the declination directions are now reversed.  If you are using an ASCOM (or 'aux' ) mount interface, your calibration will be adjusted automatically and you can simply resume guiding (assuming you haven't also rotated the camera or focuser).  If you aren't using an interface that returns pointing position, you will need to take action to adjust the guider calibration.  You can, of course, simply do another calibration on the current side of the pier, a process that will typically take only a couple of minutes.  Or, you can use the pull-down menu item under 'Tools/Modify Calibration' to "flip calibration data" and then resume guiding immediately.  Note: 'flip calibration data' will have no effect if PHD2 is using an ASCOM or 'aux-mount' connection.

In some cases, you may want to force a re-calibration.  For example, you may have rotated the guide camera as part of resolving a cable problem.  You can do this by clicking on the 'Brain button',  moving to the 'Guiding' tab, and clicking the 'Clear mount calibration' checkbox.  Or, you can simply do a <shift>click on the  'Guide' button on the main screen and PHD2 will start a calibration run.  

Once you have started guiding, you will almost certainly want to know how things are going.  You can of course watch the star in the guide camera display but in many cases you won't be able to see all the small adjustments that are taking place.  But PHD2 provides many tools for measuring and displaying your performance, as described in the Visualization section.  Several of the guiding algorithms have limit settings for the maximum guide correction that can be issued with a single command.  If these values are smaller than what is needed to correct the mount's position, you will see an alert dialog at the top of the main window advising you of the situation.  If this is a recurring problem, you may want to increase the values for these settings or otherwise solve the underlying problem.