Sunday, January 15, 2012


Now, in Living Color…

I love my Stellacam II, muchachos. When I got it nearly seven years ago it was state of the art: a black and white deep sky video camera capable of integrating frames for not just the normal 1/30th -second but for—gosh—up to ten seconds. Its CCD chip is phenomenally sensitive. With the gain cranked up it has romped through The Herschel Project. Small 15th magnitude and even dimmer galaxies fall before it like dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly. And yet…and yet…

Over the last four years or so I heard less and less about the Stellacam folks (Adirondack Video Astronomy) and more and more about this dude up in Canada, Rock Mallin, who it seemed was pushing the envelope on deep sky video. Adirondack had come out with a Stellacam III that could expose for as long as you wanted and had cooling. B-U-T. Unless you bought a wireless shutter controller, you had to stop and start exposures manually, and the (optional) Peltier cooler had a distinctly cobbled on look—it was developed and installed by a third party.

Mr. Mallin? He seemed to be going from strength to strength, introducing cameras that allowed far longer exposures than my Stellacam II, and, eventually, a vidcam that could expose for as long as you could ever want (100 minutes). His cameras came standard with Peltier coolers that were built-in and optimized for their purpose. The hugest difference? Color. Adirondack was supposedly working on a color camera, but didn’t introduce it before they went belly up a couple of years ago. I haven’t heard anything about a color rig from the outfit that is continuing the Stellacam, Cosmologic Systems, either.

Bottom line was that Rock Mallin had well-engineered, practical color cameras available now and they sure made my Stellacam look old. I will admit I was skeptical about going color for deep sky video at first, but that changed the night I saw my buddy Lyle Mars’ Mallincam VSS in action at the 2010 Almost Heaven Star Party.

Lyle had a beautiful setup on the field, a C14 on a CGE, but that wasn’t what got my attention. What did that was the images the Mallincam was delivering to his monitor. Lyle punched M51 into NexRemote, the big scope went there, and Lyle started a 28-second integration. What slammed onto the screen when it was done near-about blew my mind. There was M51 with uber-detailed spiral arms and dust lanes, but what made it so wonderful was the color, a warm yellow center and bluish spiral arms. I’ve sometimes opined that black and white images reveal more details, but that was not my opinion on this night. There was a wealth of detail visible in this color image.

Nevertheless, being the penny pinching sort I am, I pressed on with the Stellacam. I was deep into The Herschel Project, and had my imaging system DOWN. With so many Herschels still to go, I hated to change horses in mid-stream and learn a new and potentially rather complex camera. As 2010 became 2011, however, I began thinking more and more often about the images from Lyle’s Mallincam and those I’d seen down in Chiefland with my buddies Mike Harvey and Carl Wright’s cameras. With the H-Project well under control this past November, I decided it was time to make that horse-change. I’d get a Mallincam, learn to use it, and be ready for the coming of the galaxies of spring.

The question then became, “Which Mallincam?” Unlike pore old Adirondack, Rock never seems to stop innovating and adding new products, and his Hyper and VSS series cameras have been succeeded by a new one called the “Xtreme.” The older cameras are still available, however, and I considered them—the Hyper especially. The main thing in its favor is fairly simple operation. Most functions are controlled with onscreen menus superimposed on the video display, and are accessed with buttons on the camera or with an optional wired remote. Shutter control for long exposures of up to 56-seconds is via a pair of toggle switches on the camera body.

The Xtreme is a whole ‘nother ballgame. Starting with its exposure capabilities. As mentioned up top, the Xtreme will expose for up to 100-minutes. Not that I thought I’d ever have occasion to go that long, but the camera’s extra long exposure “CCD mode” would be there if’n I ever wanted to use it. Like the Hyper and the VSS, the Xtreme includes Rock’s “mild” Peltier cooling, the same menu buttons on its rear, and the ability to use the wired remote. The Xtreme kicks it up a notch, however.

The Xtreme’s biggest innovation other than exposure time is that it is normally controlled by a PC. The Hyper and VSS cameras are also PC controllable for most functions, but long exposures still have to be set by on-camera controls. Everything on the Xtreme can be manipulated with an included (Windows) software application.

That sounded good to me. I am at my most efficient, as I discovered while working The Herschel Project last winter, if I stay under an EZ-Up tailgating canopy snug and dry (from dew) at the computer. One of the things I did not like about my Stellacam set up was that I had to get up and go out to the scope to change camera settings, any camera settings, via a wired remote tethered to the camera with a short cable. With the Xtreme, I’d be able to sit at the computer and video display, meaning this decrepit old hillbilly might have a prayer of making it to 3 a.m.

Rock and U.S. Mallincam distributor (and old buddy) Jack Huerkamp, make several Xtreme packages available; I chose the most basic one, which includes the camera and a (long) serial control cable. There are other packages offered with both wired and wireless remotes that don’t require a computer for camera operation. I expect these will be of most interest to folks who do public outreach or who, for whatever reason, don’t want to take a computer into the field.

The Xtreme is custom built by the man himself in Ottawa, Canada, so when you are ready to take the plunge you go on a waiting list and wait your turn. Luckily, Jack took my resolution to “go Xtreme” seriously when I talked to him this past summer, and decided he’d better go ahead and put silly old Unk on the waiting list then and there. Thus it was that in just a little over a month there was a largish box in the front hall of Chaos Manor South when I returned from the salt mines one afternoon.

Ahhh…opening new astro-stuff! What on god’s green Earth is sweeter than that? Tearing into the box from Mr. Jack revealed, first off, a Mallincam ballcap. Being a southern boy, I can always use a new ballcap, particularly a spiffy looking one. Below that? A…well…case. It was obvious that the cherry red box was not really a case, but a smallish picnic cooler. My first thought was, “Well, I can run down to Academy and get a pistol case like I planned.” But…turned out the cooler was actually better than the plastic case I had in mind. Padded. Numerous compartments. Carry strap. It ain’t exactly a case; it is if anything better than a real case.

Now for the goodies. The Mallincam was packed very well in a little box with Styrofoam inserts. At first blush, it reminded me a little of my time-worn PC23C planetary camera. Till I picked it up. This sucker is DENSE. Heavy. On the rear are the pushbutton controls to access camera functions, a power connector, a serial RS-232 connector, a composite video out socket, a Super VHS video out socket, and a pilot light. What was really cool? Turning the camera over revealed it had been signed by Mr. Rock. He signs each and every one of his cams, which oughta tell you something about his pride in and commitment to his product.

What else comes with an Xtreme? If you order the basic package like Unk did, you get a combined power and video cable. I like that idea. There are two separate cables in one jacket, and anything that cuts down on cable clutter is a Good Thing. There’s a serial RS-232 computer control cable. And there is a 1.25-inch nosepiece for the camera, so you can slip it into a standard focuser or visual back. Finally, you get an AC power supply, a wall wart with a cord sufficiently long to allow you to plug it directly into the camera if you don’t want to hook it to the far end of the video/power cable.

You’ll dig a CD outa the box, too. In addition to the camera control program, it holds a wealth of information about the Xtreme. The instructions on the disk are easily enough to get even the most Luddite among us, like your old Unk, up to speed with the camera and its software.

You will probably also have ordered an option or three. Rock dang sure has a lot of cool stuff you can get to go with your cam. All cheap old me bought was a 12vdc cigarette lighter cord for the camera, which I’d need since we are bereft of power at our dark site. One popular option is a digitizer that converts the analog video coming out of the Mallincam to digital images your computer can use. With that you can broadcast your video on Rock’s Night Skies Network web site (more on that some Sunday). Since I don’t have an Internet connection out in the wilds of Tanner Williams, and can’t observe from home, I skipped that for now.

Then came the moment of truth, the indoor test. I unwound a little of the generously long video/power cable, hooked the video to my normal rig, a DVD player/DVD recorder, plugged the other end into the camera, rigged up the power, connected the RS-232 cable to the camera and to a USB – Serial adapter on my netbook and let her rip.

Meaning I ran the software on the netbook, connected to the proper com port, selected the “advanced” tab on the Mallincam control program, and ticked the “color bars” box. A set of video-test color bars popped onto my screen. Which meant “success.” No fiddling or fussing; the Xtreme worked from the get-go.

I reckon before we take the Xtreme into the field, I ought to explain its control and exposure system, which confuses some newbie boys and girls. Let’s start with the control system. You can change camera settings by mashing the buttons on the Xtreme’s backside. That causes menus to appear on the video display. The wired remote does the same job, and allows you to stay at the monitor. Neither the buttons nor the wired remote will allow you to set-up long exposures, however. There are only two ways to do that: with a computer or with Rock’s optional wireless controller, which ONLY controls exposure.

And how about exposure? Mallincam novices find that especially confusing. It’s really not once you glom onto the fact that there are three exposure modes. Unless you want to take pictures of the Moon and planets, you can forget the short (“ALC”) exposure system. The second mode is “Sense Up.” This is accessed by a pull down at the top of the software’s Advanced tab’s screen and offers exposures of from 1/15th-second (“2x”) to 2.2-seconds (128x). If you are a deep sky hound like Unk, all you have to do is set the Sense Up to 128x and leave it there for the remainder of the observing run. 2.2 seconds is just about right for focusing and centering alignment stars.

“But Unk…2.1 seconds ain’t much. How you gonna pull in all them deep sky wonders with that?” You ain’t. That’s why the camera offers a third mode, “hyper.” With Sense Up at 128x, you can choose “Preset” exposures of 7, 14, 28 and 56 seconds. Not enough? Or the wrong durations? Select “Custom,” and specify anything you want up to 100-minutes.

To recap, set Sense Up to 128x, choose a preset exposure or specify one yourself, and click the Start button. The camera will begin taking exposures for the duration you chose, displaying each one on your video monitor when it is done. That is all there is to setting exposure.

Which is not to say the software doesn’t provide copious options. But that doesn’t have to be daunting, either. A hint? While you are waiting for your camera to arrive, download the software. You can play with it even though you don’t have a camera connected. When you light it off, you will find you might not even have to worry about the Advanced menu. There are ready-made settings for deep sky, planets, Moon, and Solar. Actually, though, the Advanced menu ain’t that hard. In addition to enabling Sense Up 128x and setting the exposure, all I’ve changed thus far is AGC (gain) and Gamma (more/less contrast more or less).

Course, you can’t tell nuttin’ about a piece of imaging gear until you get it out under the stars, and in that regard, Unk was lucky. When the dark of the Moon rolled around, the forecast was “clear.” One caveat before we hit the PSAS observing field: Unk has been doing video astronomy for a lot of years; if your Mallincam is your first deep sky video camera, do yourself a favor and set up out back the first couple of times. Everything’s easier in your friendly backyard.

What did Unk have to set up at the PSAS’ Tanner Williams, Alabama dark site? My C8, Celeste, and her CG5 mount. Observing table. Computer. Computer Shelter. DVD recorder and a portable DVD player (the display). Lawn tractor battery to power the DVD recorder via a small inverter. Two jumpstart batteries: one for the mount, one for the dew heaters. You get the picture. A ton of…err… “stuff.” But like I done told y’all, I’m used to it after six years with the Stellacam II.

Set up went OK. Mounted the Xtreme on the C8’s rear cell in concert with a Meade f/3.3 focal reducer. That is very important. You want to get the focal length down if you’ve got a long focal length, “slow” telescope. Vidcam chips are incredibly sensitive, but they are also relatively small. In the interest of well-framed, bright images you want a focal length of about 500 – 1000mm.

Just before I fired up the netbook and PC and began scope alignment, I took a critical look at the sky. Dangit! Were those clouds? No, but almost as bad. A woods fire had broken out not far from the site, and the blue sky was rapidly being squeezed out by clouds of billowing white smoke. The local volunteer fire department must have got things under control quickly, though, since the smoke dispersed about sundown. The odor of wood smoke hung on the field for a couple of hours, but that was OK.

Anyhoo, got everything turned on and sent Celeste to her first alignment star. When the slew stopped, the star, Vega, was visible on screen as a ping-pong ball sized blob. A few presses of my JMI Motofocus’ buttons and Vega was a small, blue point, and numerous dimmer field stars popped into view. When I was done with alignment and polar alignment, came the moment of truth, the first light object. I chose M15. Why? The globular star cluster was well placed in the west and out of the Possum Swamp light dome. And there is nothing better than a glob for touching up focus.

Keyed M15 into NexRemote’s virtual HC, Celeste made her normal weasels-with-tuberculosis sound, and, when she stopped, the Horse’s Nose Cluster was centered and looking sweet. I tweaked focus a bit and took a good look. Color looked appropriate, yellowish/orangish. Decent resolution, if not as many stars as I was used to with the Stellacam. Oh, well, got to expect a little loss in sensitivity when you go color, right? Wrong. I had forgotten the exposure was still set to 128x, 2.1 seconds. Selecting a Hyper exposure of 7 seconds revealed easily as many stars as I normally see with the Stellacam, and going higher than that began to overexpose the glob’s core. YEEHAW!

What now? Well, M27, the Dumbell Nebula, was still high enough to be a good candidate, and would allow the Mallincam to show off its color capability. Before going there, though, I ran an eye over the scope and mount to make sure everything looked OK.

This would not be an Uncle Rod run if there were no surprises, I reckon. I noticed the light was out on the DewBuster dew heater controller. Not a good thing on what was shaping up to be a dew-heavy evening. I fiddled with the ‘Buster and its connections and got exactly nowhere. Oh, well. I had an old Kendrick controller as a backup. Plugged it in, turned it on, and its light illuminated—but only briefly. Rut-roh. All I had left in my dew fighting arsenal was a little 12vdc window defroster - cum hairdryer. That would have to do.

Onward to the Dumbbell. It was everything I hoped, with a 28-second exposure showing, as you can see in the simple single-frame screen grab here, plenty of delicious greens and reds in addition to very good detail. When I was finally able to tear myself away from M27, I went to the nearby Crescent Nebula, NGC 6888, which was not only well-defined, but showed a surprising amount of red given its dim nature.

I still wanted to be reassured about the camera’s sensitivity, though, and there is no better way to do that than with a galaxy. The target was NGC 7331 in Pegasus, near Stephan’s Quintet. We down here call this the “Deer Lick Group.” 7331 is the salt-lick, you see, and the three-four little NGC galaxies nearby are deer. In a 28-second exposure, the Xtreme didn’t just pick up the lick and the four deer, but a couple of other teeny galaxies besides. Even cooler, the big galaxy’s dark lane and, on the live video, its sweeping spiral arms were easily visible. I had no further doubts about the Xtreme’s ability to take on the dim galaxies of The Herschel project.

How was the Mallincam control software in the field? I loved it. Being able to easily change gain, gamma, and other stuff encouraged me to experiment more than I normally do with the Stellacam, which I generally “set and forget.” Anything I didn’t like? The software’s “safety timer” took some getting used to. When you change certain things, like gain, you have to wait three minutes before continuing (a “light” on the Advanced menu indicates the safety timer has been activated). That was a pain, but its purpose is to ensure the camera doesn’t get jammed up with commands from the software and crash, so I reckon it is a good thing.

To cut to the chase, I was one happy little camper. But, again, this being an Unk Rod night, there were bound to be more alarums and excursions. Toward the midpoint of the run NexRemote’s virtual hand controller began displaying the dreaded “No Response 16” and “No Response 17” errors. These errors indicate the HC has lost communications with the mount, and can be the result of cable problems, power problems, or internal mount problems. I wondered whether the fact that I was running two USB serial adapters, one for NexRemote and one for the Xtreme, might be causing the No Responses. I hoped that was it; I dang sure didn’t want the problem to be my beloved CG5, which has worked flawlessly for going on seven years.

One sure way to find out: I disconnected NexRemote from the mount, dug the hardware hand control from a case, plugged it in, and did an alignment. No errors did I see. The mount worked a treat for the remainder of the evening. Wheew! I’d have to check the USB – serial adapter and the NexRemote cable and connectors on the morrow.

Before I could get going again, I had to deal with one other minor glitch. The video recorder end of the Xtreme’s video cable turned out to be flaky. Jostle it, and the picture would break up. I thought it might be the BNC to RCA adapter on the end, but fooling with that didn’t seem to help. I positioned the cable so the signal was good and fixed it in place with my favorite tool, a piece of duct tape, natch.

It was smooth sailing for a while after that. Following the Deer Lick, I went to nearby Stephan’s Quintet, that group of five small and dim galaxies, four of which are interacting. Stephan’s was always a problem for the Stellacam with its 10-second-max exposure, but not for the Xtreme at 28-seconds. Not only were all five fuzzies visible, there were hints of detail.

After that it was one showpiece DSO after another: M2, M72, the Saturn Nebula (which was blue and showing off its ansae/ring), M15 again, and as many more as I could think of. One real cool thing? Did you know there are dim little LEDA galaxies scattered among the stars of everybody’s favorite open cluster, NGC 457, the E.T. Cluster? I didn’t, but there are, and the Xtreme picked ‘em up with ease.

Last object of the night was that Horse of Horror, The Nasty Nag, B33, The Horsehead Nebula. I should probably have left this filly alone, since she was still corralled in the Possum Swamp light dome to the east, but I couldn’t resist. Which was a good thing. Not only could I see B33 more easily and in more detail than I ever could with the Stellacam, the very faint nebula that forms the background of the Horsehead, IC434, was glowing a subdued but obvious pink/red.

I hadn’t intended Horsey to be the last object of the night; it was barely 11 p.m. Unfortunately, the dew had got heavier and heavier, and trying to keep it at bay with my pitiful little window defroster gun was a losing battle. I packed it in, packed it up, and headed back Chaos Manor South, where, once the unloading was done, I sat in my blessedly warm den sipping inside-warming Rebel Yell and watching the images I’d captured on DVD on our big screen TV.

What amazed me was how well the videos held up on the large screen. I can often not bear to watch my Stellacam videos on the big TV, but this was a different story. Not only were they colorful, the longer exposures, I reckon, resulted in smoother, less noisy images. The camera’s built-in “mild” Peltier cooler probably had something to do with that, too. I was just as pleased as pleased could be with my new Xtreme. I’d troubleshoot my various problems by morning light.

First patient the next day was the DewBuster. Can’t get much done down here without a dew heater for the corrector. Turned out, as I should have realized Saturday night, the problem was not the controller, but a shorted heater strip. I should have taken the old Kendrick strip, which I knew to be bad, out of the box so I wouldn’t accidentally put it on the telescope instead of the new Dew-Not corrector heater. Luckily, all that was wrong with the DewBuster controller was a blown fuse in its 12vdc cable. Replaced it and all was well.

The fix for the flaky video cable was also trivially easy. Emailed Jack Huerkamp and he got a new one on its way to me tout suite. If only every astro-vendor provided the level of service and support Jack does.

My final problem, the NexRemote errors, wasn’t so easy to diagnose. Not at first. I cleaned all the cables and connectors and examined all the pins with a magnifying glass, but nothing was obviously wrong. OK. How about the Keyspan USB – serial adapter I use for NR? Plugged it into the netbook and took a look at Hardware Manager, which immediately registered an error for the device. A little fiddling with the adapter’s cable did not help. I finally got some canned air and blew out the USB connectors on both the Keyspan and its cable, and suddenly it came back to life. Go figger. Just to be on the safe side, I ordered a replacement from B&H Photo.

Bottom line-a-roony-o? I’ve been doing deep sky video for a long time, muchachos. My Stellacam has continued to amaze me, knocking off one faint Herschel galaxy after another. I didn’t think it could get any better. But it has. Thanks to Rock Mallin, deep sky video has come a long, long way and I’m now reaping the benefits of his hard work. Oh, I’ll hang on to the Stellacam as a backup, but I gotta admit the Stellacam is an Atlas F compared to this Saturn V of a Mallincam Xtreme. Nuff said.

Next time: The Herschels Down Chiefland Way...

I am wondering, Uncle Rod. Only a few years ago I knew the reasons for doing astrovideography instead of “real” CCD’ing. No software, no computer, almost as real-time as visual. It seems that all three of these attributes no longer describe astrovideography as it is practiced today. Now it is all computer control, DVD burning, frame grabbing... and who is still doing 1-10s exposures and enjoying the near-real-time “presence” now that the cameras allow longer?
You can most assuredly do video this way still. I've been doing that with my Stellacam II till just now. And you can even operate the Xtreme that way with the addition of Rock's wireless hc. Some of us do want to take it a little deeper...and it is still easier than a "real" CCD. ;-)
Great write up! I'm over in Daphne with a Mallincam Jr.+ Hyperstar and love it. Hope to make it over to the dark site to meet you guys one of these days.Jeremy.
Shoot I run a Samsung sdc435 and I enjoy the draw of 8 second frames. So do loads of other people. Video astro is still alive and well.
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