Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned astrophotographer with a very complex setup in an observatory, you will need software to control and synchronize all the equipment, much like a perfectly choreographed ballet.
When I first heard of N.I.N.A several years ago I thought it was just another free software that will perform some basic tasks. I soon realized how wrong I was! I will be sharing my experience and the main features of N.I.N.A. by going through my typical session step-by-step.
What is N.I.N.A.
N.I.N.A. (Nighttime Imaging ‘N’ Astronomy) is a complete astrophotography suite; it is all you need to capture data for deep sky imaging. It is not really aimed at planetary work (lucky imaging) and has no image processing capabilities.
The philosophy behind N.I.N.A. makes it very powerful. It is open-source software, meaning there are constant improvements from multiple contributors and user feedback (several updates a week). It is completely free, no trial versions, and no ads.
What does N.I.N.A. do?
N.I.N.A. ties all the equipment together, and controls everything, including the camera, filter wheel, focuser, rotator, mount, autoguider, dome and much more. You can either capture data manually (taking single exposures) or have N.I.N.A. run full sequences with multiple filters and targets.
1 – Setup
The layout may seem a bit confusing at first but after a few sessions it becomes second nature. You can completely arrange and organize the layout and colors to your liking. You then select your devices from a list, which is saved as a profile (various profiles can be saved for other setups, if needed). Then, with a click of a single button, everything is connected simultaneously.
2 – Polar Alignment
N.I.N.A can be used to polar align the mount using one of the many plugins available. I find this feature very useful for locations where I have no view of Polaris (the North Star is used as a reference by most software via polar alignment scopes). N.I.N.A. uses plate solving, so the telescope can be pointed anywhere in the sky to work out your polar alignment error using three points.
.3 – Built-in Sky Atlas
A very useful feature in N.I.N.A. is the atlas of 10,000 deep sky objects, which displays target coordinates, size, and apparent magnitude. The user can determine if a target is suitable based on its plotted altitude vs. time. Sunset, sunrise, and the Moon’s details are also shown.
4 – Framing assistant
Once a target is selected, it is sent to the framing assistant. N.I.N.A. then connects to sky survey servers, such as NASA’s Sky Survey, and simulates the view of the target and field of the user’s telescope and camera. The framing can be perfected by moving it to exactly where desired, and even rotated if a rotator is available (if not, N.I.N.A. can guide the user in manually rotating the camera).
5 – Plate Solving and Centering
Once the framing of the object and the rotation angle are specified, N.I.N.A. can use platesolving (via ASTAP, also free) to perfectly center the object. Plate solving is a process that compares an exposure of the sky to a large database of stars, much like facial recognition software works, to determine exactly where the telescope is pointed. It will then recenter the target you have selected in the framing assistant.
6 – Autofocus
Another very powerful feature is N.I.N.A.’s ability to autofocus very accurately. It does this by moving the focuser by increments and determining where the image is sharpest, i.e., at what point stars have the smallest diameter. The user can set a host of parameters to fine tune the process. Once set up, the autofocus routine is excellent and has not failed me yet.
Autofocus can then be set to run later during the night whenever the camera changes filters, when the temperature drops by a specified amount, or whenever the software notices star images getting larger. This is a key feature that allows true hands-off imaging.
7 – Autoguiding
With the setup connected, polar aligned, centered, and focused, N.I.N.A. incorporates PHD2 software (also free) to autoguide the mount. It will automatically start and stop autoguiding when needed, such as during slew commands or autofocusing. From here on, it’s just a matter of collecting photons.
8 – Imaging
Once sub-exposures are captured, N.I.N.A. auto stretches and analyzes each sub in seconds, displaying vital statistics like the size (HFR) and number of stars. It also displays the statistics and histogram of the minimum values of the pixels (useful to set the offset) along with the number of saturated pixels (useful to determine if the exposures are too long).
I find that the trends of these data points give me a clear picture of what is going on. For example, If the autoguiding graph looks good but the HFR trend graph shows stars are getting bigger, this indicates that the mount is fine, but the telescope focus has drifted off. Sometimes, both the autoguiding and star sizes are nominal, but the number of stars starts to drop, an indication that clouds are rolling in.
9- Simple Sequencer
Data can be captured manually with N.I.N.A. but most users will find the sequencing feature very simple and useful.
Even the simple sequencer is enough to fully automate an imaging session. You tell it how many sub-exposures to image, the filter to use, and for how long, and it will execute and repeat the process.
I use the sequencer to fully automate my sessions. You can set it up to do everything, like start cooling the camera, autofocus, center, and rotate the camera, start guiding, and take exposures with all the desired filters.
N.I.N.A. will also manage the dreaded meridian flip. When the flip is required, N.I.N.A. will stop imaging, flip the mount, plate solve to ensure correct centering.
N.I.N.A. will then refocus and, if desired, restart the autoguider and continue imaging.
10 – Advanced Sequencing
There is also an optional advanced sequencer that is very powerful. In addition to the basic sequencing capabilities, you can program N.I.N.A. to perform tasks based on various criteria. For example, you can have it continue looping the sequence of exposures until the target is, say, 30 degrees above the horizon, or until sun rises, or until the weather monitor notices it is unsafe (rain), and so on.
Once the end of session criteria is met, N.I.N.A. will warm up the camera, park the mount, and close the dome, if you have one.
Room for improvement
There have been a few instances where the software has had bugs or crashed, but that is quite rare, and it’s been months since I’ve had any issues. Also, perhaps an option to open, view, and analyze images captured in previous sessions would be useful.
Another useful feature could be a web-based interface. I currently use a remote desktop to operate the laptop in my observatory from the house, so that can work as well.
I’ve really enjoyed using N.I.N.A. for the past three years as I’ve watched it evolve into its current version with all its advanced features. Being community-based, multiple contributors and users all work together to advance its capabilities. I have had a few questions, and I’ve received responses within minutes on the N.I.N.A. Discord channel, Facebook page, and forums.
Overall, N.I.N.A. does a very good job at running my relatively complex setup in a motorized dome. Having taken the time to set everything up, my sessions are now fully automated, and I usually have a smile on my face while enjoying my morning coffee and looking at the data captured during the previous night.
For more information and examples by the author: https://linktr.ee/Rouz_Astro