Sunday, October 06, 2013

 

Here Comes Junior!


M17...
Believe me, muchachos; I have not been stringing y’all along, not intentionally. I promised a full report on the Mallincam Junior Pro, the new 599 dollar (699 with a more sensitive HAD chip) deep sky video camera from Rock Mallin, and I had every intention of bringing y’all up to speed on it months ago. Why didn’t I? The cotton-picking weather, of course.

Not that I didn’t try. On one of this past summer’s rare clear, moonless nights, I packed up Junior, the C8, the laptop, the video gear, and all the other astro-junk I need to do a Mallincam run and headed for my old buddy Pat’s observatory. Set everything up, aligned the mount, pointed the C8 at M13, and got—nuttin’ honey.

Well, next to nothing, anyhow. What I saw on the monitor was a dim round spot, not a ball of stars. At first I figgered I just didn’t know how to work the Junior, which is a little different from my Xtreme. But none of the settings I tried helped, and I couldn’t think of what else to do. Not that thinking was easy when I was dripping with sweat and being feasted on by mosquitoes the size of humming birds. I gave it up as a bad bidness and tore the rig down.

Soon as I removed the camera from the C8’s rear cell, I could see what the problem was:  the Meade f/3.3 reducer was completely fogged. A look at the corrector plate up front on the scope showed it was well on the way to being dewed-up, too, despite me having kicked the DewBuster heater up a notch. That’s how bad it was, y’all. On a night when the ‘Buster can’t keep your optics clear, you are better off inside watching Svengoolie. So, I didn’t say anything to you-all about Junior. What was there to say? I’d have to bide my time till we got weather good enough to give the camera a fair trial.

I finally got that last weekend, but before I let you-all in on the details, let’s back up to Square One and talk about the camera itself. When I heard from my friend Jack Huerkamp, the U.S. distributor of the Mallincam gear, that Rock M. was releasing a new “novice” camera, the Junior Pro, I was overjoyed. The Mallincam Xtreme is a fine machine, but the price of admission is a wee bit high to attract folks just getting into video. Yeah, there was the (standard) Mallincam Junior, but it and its competition, the Orion StarShoot vidcam, are limited to short exposures and that is purty limiting for even beginning astrovideographers. You can do the Messier with ‘em, but it’s hard to go much past that.

Not shown are the video cable and AC supply...
The Junior Pro is different. Essentially, it is a Mallincam Xtreme. Its exposure time is unlimited for all practical purposes, up to 99-minutes (not that you’ll ever need that). Like the most popular Xtreme model, this is a color camera, though, as with the Xtreme, a black and white version is available. The camera’s standard chip, a ½-inch Sony ICX418AKL, is the same CCD used in the more expensive camera.

To keep the price down, a couple of the Xtreme’s more expensive-to-implement features have been eliminated. Most importantly, the Junior’s chip is not cooled. And the shutter control system for long exposures has been simplified. The Xtreme allows you to set-up and execute long integrations from a computer or with the Mallincam wireless shutter controller. The Junior Pro doesn't have computer shutter control, so it requires you to use the wireless HC. The upside is Junior can use a less expensive shutter controller than the Xtreme, and one is included in the purchase price.

What did I find in the box when the cam arrived at the Old Manse? Most of all, the camera itself (the standard chip model). When I pulled it out of its box, I was immediately impressed by its build quality. It looks just like an Xtreme. It is as solidly built and even has Rock’s signature, his signature, on its bottom just like the more expensive camera. Also in the box are the wireless remote, its receiver that plugs into the camera, a 1.25-inch nosepiece for Junior, a Video/power cable for the cam, and an AC power supply.

Anything not included with the camera that I wished had been? One minor quibble is a lens cap or lack thereof. The camera comes with a screw-on dust cap to protect the CCD sensor. That’s cool, but most of us will leave the 1.25-inch nosepiece on the camera all the time and there wasn’t a 1.25-inch lens cap for it.

More significant is the lack of an included serial cable for Junior. While you can’t control the camera’s long exposures with a computer, you can set all its other functions from your laptop. Unfortunately, you won't find a PC control cable in the box. You can purchase one separately, but a serial cable needs to be standard equipment in this old boy’s opinion.

Junior's rear...
How do you set things like gain and gamma without a computer? With small buttons on the camera’s rear that throw up a display on your video (not computer) screen. I tried these at Pat’s and found I didn't like ‘em. Fumbling with little buttons in the dark is not my idea of a good time. You can use a wired five button remote in lieu of the camera buttons, but that is, like a computer cable, an extra cost option ($179).

Since most of us will operate Junior on DC from a 12-volt battery at least occasionally, I’d have liked to have found a DC cord included as well. The camera draws very little current and there is really no reason not to operate on battery all the time. That is exactly what I do with my Xtreme. Running on battery ensures the cleanest current and thus the cleanest video possible.

Finally, while I have a pre-production camera and am not positive what sort of manual comes with Junior now, I suspect it is the same printed pages I got and which can be downloaded from Jack’s fine website. These files will allow just about anybody to get the camera and wireless remote going tout suite. HOWSOMEEVER…the information you need is scattered across several documents. What I want novices to get is an integrated beginner-centric manual. One that takes the newbie through every single step in a-b-c fashion.

After familiarizing myself with the Junior Pro as well as I could indoors, all I needed was a decent night so I could give ol’ Jr. a workout. While continuing to wait for the rains to stop, I did get computer control squared away. I dang sure knew I wanted to operate the camera with a laptop rather than use those devilish little buttons, and I had the serial cable from my Xtreme on hand. However, Mr. Jack informed me the software I use for the Xtreme would not work with the Junior Pro, and that I’d have to go on his download site and get a version for the new camera. Sure hoped I wouldn't have to learn new software and a new camera.

The program was easy to download and install, and playing with the software indoors revealed it to be nearly identical to the Xtreme’s control program. No, you can’t set long integrations, but everything else is there, including a checkbox that throws up crosshairs on the screen, a great go-to alignment aid.

At the PSAS Dark Site...
This past Saturday was forecast to be dead clear. It was, the weather goobers insisted, even going to be a little cooler, down in the mid-60s, and drier than a night had been in months. Ha! As usual, they got it all wrong. By Saturday morning, the forecasts were still saying “clear,” but had added “with some passing clouds.” Mid afternoon, those clouds began to multiply. I was still optimistic, though, and packed the 4Runner, Miss Van Pelt, with a full load-out for a video run.

I could have cut back on the stuff a little, I reckon, but I didn’t, since I had another agenda in addition to letting Junior strut his stuff. With our favorite local star party, the Deep South Regional Star Gaze, just a month away, I wanted to give all the equipment a good check out, especially the new VX mount.

Actually, I’d had the VX since May, but I’d only been able to use it a grand total of four freaking times. And two of those times were undemanding Lunar imaging runs. One other VX session was cut short after just a few experimental go-tos to deep sky objects, and one was that abortive night at Pat’s observatory. Most of all, I wanted to make sure the mount worked OK with NexRemote. That program is key for the type of amateur astronomy Unk practices these days, “senior citizen astronomy.” I sit warm and cozy under a tailgating canopy, observe with a Mallincam, and run the telescope mount with NexRemote.

So, the whole schmeer went in the truck:  My beautiful Edge 800 C8, Mrs. Emma Peel. VX mount. The Junior Pro. The Toshiba laptop. Three jumpstart batteries. DVD player that serves as a video display. Wireless wingman gamepad/joystick I use with NexRemote as the mount’s “HC.” Couple of gear boxes. Cables aplenty. Can of fraking Monster Energy Drink. You get the picture.

The video settings menu...
On my way out to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society dark site the clouds didn’t seem to be tending to full overcast, but they were thickening.  As I said to my observing buddies, Jon and Max, who arrived shortly after I did, if I’d been all by my lonesome, I probably wouldn’t have stayed long. But having a couple of my mates to talk to made the time spent waiting for those “passing clouds” to hurry up and pass go quicker. I chugged a Monster and had a good time shooting the breeze with my friends.

I still had hopes, and, sure enough, just as Polaris winked on, the greasy gray miscreants floating across the sky began to thin. I was able to get the North Star lined up in the hollow bore of the VX RA housing, at least. I’d also do an AllStar polar alignment in the interest of good tracking, of course. That’s what I planned, anyway. With a small video chip and its relatively high “magnification factor,” a good—if not necessarily perfect—polar alignment is necessary if you want round stars in even 15-second exposures.

Shortly, it was dark enough to begin the VX’s go-to alignment. Fired up Junior, setting him to expose for 2-seconds, and lit-off NexRemote on the PC. Mrs. Peel (well, NR’s Microsoft Mary voice) announced, “Press Enter to begin alignment,” and we were off to the races. I didn't have a bit of trouble with NexRemote on the VX all night long; it worked just as well as on the CG5.

Only slight bummer? I have not been able to get the Celestron Auxiliary Port Accessory that provides the CG5 with a PC port to work with the new mount. So, instead of hooking the laptop directly to the VX, I have to run it through the RS-232 port on the base of the hand control. That is not a big deal, but I do prefer not to have to keep up with a cotton-picking hardware HC. Anyhoo, it sure is nice to be able to use the “normal” Celestron NexStar HC NexRemote throws up onscreen instead of the pea-picking Celestron Plus hand control that came with the VX, and which I don’t like a-tall.

I was able to get a two-star alignment done somehow, but it wasn’t easy. The clouds were back with a vengeance, and the two stars NexRemote picked were soon obscured. I kept mashing Undo, and finally got two, Vega and Deneb, that were visible (through clouds). It was the same with the calibration stars. I was not able to find four, so I had to settle for three. And those three were not the ones the HC initially suggested.

Mrs. Peel...
My experience over the years with Celestron NexStar mounts has been that accepting the stars the hand control picks is usually best. Sometimes there will be a ringer, a star that’s too low or one that for some inexplicable reason causes an “alignment failed” message. But usually it’s best to accept what you are given. I couldn’t do that on this night, but it appeared I’d be OK anyhow. The last two calibration stars were in the smallish field of the camera when the scope stopped slewing.

Time to tighten up my rough polar alignment. I slewed to Nunki in Sagittarius, which was well placed for an AllStar polar alignment, being almost due south. When the star was in the field, I hit align, invoked the AllStar routine, and followed the instructions, re-centering the star with the HC (actually with my Wingman joystick) when the mount slewed off it. Next step was to center Nunki using only the mount’s altitude and azimuth controls after the VX slewed away from it one last time.

As I peered up at the star through Mrs. Peel’s Rigel Quickfinder, it disappeared behind a cloudbank. Well, shoot. Maybe the clouds would wander off if I waited a bit? Nope. They seemed to have taken up permanent residence in the south. I gave up on AllStar, desyncing Nunki and sending Mrs. Peel to M13 as a go-to test.

The big glob was dang near dead center, and even when I increased the exposure to 15-seconds, tracking seemed OK. Not perfect, but OK. I had gotten lucky when I’d positioned Polaris in the polar bore. Actually, I’d cheated. I used the star chart generated by a new iPhone program, Orion’s StarSeek Pro (from the SkySafari folks), to help get me closer to the pole than I would have just by centering Polaris.

Not that I was happy with the way M13 looked on the monitor, e’en after I upped the exposure to 15-seconds. What it was was a small fuzz-spot surrounded by a meager handful of stars. ‘Bout the same it had been on that cursed night over at Pat’s. Was the Junior bunk or junk or maybe both? I was getting more and more put out by the minute. Once again, nothing I changed on the camera settings helped a bit. The only encouraging thing was that the Junior software was just as easy to use as the Xtreme version and seemed to work OK. Too bad the camera didn't.

M13...
That’s what your silly old Unk thought, anyhow, till M13 suddenly exploded onto the screen. One moment it was a pitiful smudge; the next it was a big, bright, and beautiful ball of stars fully equal to the way it looks with the Mallincam Xtreme. What the—?  The camera’s “problem” had been clouds and your silly old Uncle. While I’d been fiddling with the computer, a new batch had drifted in front of M13. With them gone, Junior was kicking out the jams. I managed to record a brief sequence of the glob on my Orion StarShoot DVR before more dagnabbed clouds intervened.

When they did, I took a break, had a critical look at the sky, and consulted with Jon and Max. Sure hated to come all the way out to the PSAS site and go home with nothing but 30-seconds of M13 to show for my trouble. At least I had been able to check out the mount with NexRemote, and I now at least had some idea of the camera’s capabilities.  Well, no need to be hasty; I’d give the sky half an hour and see what happened.

What happened was that about 15-minutes later I looked to the east and saw we were going to get some big-time clearing. For a while. There might be another mess of clouds on the way, but it ‘peared we would have an hour or two before they were overhead.

The summer Milky Way was riding high and beginning to burn as the sky cleared. Its southern end was still compromised by clouds, so I headed to its northern expanse. I’d been working on a magazine article on open clusters, and I thought I’d have a look-see at two of my favorites, M52 and M103 in Cassiopeia, both to check Junior and to make sure I wasn’t misremembering how good they were. Both were beautiful in the camera, with compact M103 being the prize.

An open cluster ain’t much of a test of a vidcam, though. What else was available? Looked like M15 would be in the clear shortly. When the VX stopped, the tight little globular with the blazing core was near the center of the frame, and, just like M13, looked every bit the equal of what the Xtreme does with it. “OK, OK, that’s fine for a bright Messier. How about something a little tougher, there, JUNIOR?”

NGC 7331
Over to NGC 7331, the Deerlick Galaxy in Pegasus. When we got there, I upped the exposure to 20-seconds to see how the lack of cooling would affect the images. Verdict? Good, very good. In the original video there are traces of the Deerlick’s subdued spiral arm. I also noted a couple of the small nearby NGC galaxies, the “deer” at the deer lick, were visible. The image was not quite the equal of what I’ve been able to do with the Xtreme from this site, but this was not a very good night, either. While it was clearer than it had been, there was still some haze, and NGC 7331 was just barely out of the Possum Swamp light dome (I didn’t not use any filters on Junior on this run).

How did the lack of cooling affect images? There was no denying Junior’s frames were noisier than what’s normal for the Xtreme. There were more warm pixels and the background was not as smooth as with the cooled camera, and that tended to obscure details. Still, all objects looked considerably better than they would have in my old uncooled Stellacam 2, even at twice as long an exposure as the Stellacam’s 10-second maximum.

By the way, I didn’t have much trouble with the wireless controller. Oh, I did fumble around till I gave the instructions a closer read, but after that it was reasonably smooth sailing. I still prefer being able to set integration time with the computer, but that is just me. One thing in its favor:  having the wireless means you can leave the computer at home if’n you want, using the remote and the onscreen menus to control the cam. Any down checks regarding the exposure controller system? I do think there needs to be some kind of mounting for the receiver on the camera. I fixed it in place with a piece of Velcro so it wouldn’t just be dangling by its cord, but a bracket of some sort would be nice.

Stephen's Quintet...
How about the dreaded AMP GLOW? At20-seconds it was very  minor, as you can see in the stills here. The brightening of one corner of a video camera’s frame due to the CCD chip’s onboard amplifier doesn't bother me at all, but it does annoy some folks. If that includes you, I think you will find Junior more than acceptable in that regard. Do understand that if you crank up the gain and exposure enough, you will see plenty of glow, just as with the Xtreme. 

The images you see here are not Photo-shopped stacks, by the way. They are single frame screen grabs that have been tweaked minimally at most—usually I just adjusted the levels to make them slightly more contrasty. The live videos are mucho bettero than these minimalist stills. If you are curious about the raw videos, see the M57 sequence I’ve posted on the cotton-picking Youtube (below). Do keep in mind that Youtube compresses videos. A lot.

“Alright Mr. Smarty Pants Junior Pro, let’s see how you handle Stephan’s Quintet.” The famous group of small and dim galaxies just to the south of the Deerlick didn’t look like much, but it was definitely visible in my video with 20-seconds of exposure. And the reason it didn’t look like much was that the less than 800mm of focal length delivered by the C8 and Meade 3.3 reducer just didn’t yield enough image scale to make the little fellers show much detail.

I felt like Junior had shown his mettle, but I still wanted to see how he did with some showpieces. The Ring Nebula, M57, was as good as he is with the Xtreme under similar conditions—purty dang nice, that is. M27, the glorious Dumbbell nebula in nearby Vulpecula? Same-same. Hell, even the dadgum Crescent Nebula, NGC 6888, showed its dim self to Junior.

To finish out the evening, I did the spectacles of the south. You know, M11, M17, M16, M22, M8. All looked good; nearly as good as they would have been on a similar night with the Xtreme. That said, there is, again, no doubt the Xtreme’s cooling makes it better, especially when you go to longer exposures. On the other hand, this new camera is considerably cheaper and more capable than the Stellacam 2, which I loved and which I used to image the bulk of the Herschel Project objects.

M8, the Lagoon Nebula...
M8, the Lagoon Nebula, in the can, the clouds were back, the humidity was up, and the temperature was dropping down into the low 60s. I was tired and chilled and got started breaking down the gear.

Final thoughts back at Chaos Manor South? With those silly Ghost Adventures playing in the background (missed Svengoolie, alas) I sat and ruminated about Junior’s performance. Didn't take much thinking to conclude I was fraking delighted with the camera. Hell, I’d have been blown away if it had worked half as well as it had. I’d still like to try it under a really dark sky and with a mild LPR filter at the PSAS site, but I have no hesitation in giving it a hearty Uncle Rod double thumbs up.

This camera isn’t just a great introduction to video astronomy at a reasonable price for those of y’all who have been sitting on the fence; it is capable of doing real work. I have little doubt I could image even the dimmest Herschels with this 600 buck rig. You cannot beat that with a stick, muchachos.


Next Time:  My Favorite Star Parties:  CSSP 2006…




Comments:
Oh one wishes these were available here in blighty....
 
Are you shue they are not? Might want to contact Rock Mallin in Canada...
 
Hey unk, are all the pics above 20s exposures? I'm really interested in say a min or so, ya think that is too much for the uncooled junior?
 
Hi John:

I think a couple may have been as high as 28-seconds...but...1-minute is hard at my (semi) dark site much of the time and depending where you point in the sky, 1-minute is often too much. Yes, that sensitive. ;-)
 
Mallincam JR PRO "PC version" (not wireless version) has got wired laptop control over long remote control cable for up to 99 mins exposure, so I read. Mallincam wireless remote not needed or used. That's the version of the MC JR PRO I would buy, not the wireless version.

BTW what's with the 'scope dewing over? Our 8" LX90 never dews over even with fog a few metres below us down the hill, since we use a Dew-Not heater strip around the top of the corrector cell (NOT behind it like some do) AND a cardboard DIY dew shield over the heater strip and most of the front of the tube (insulates the heater strip and improves it's effectiveness), dew can be dripping down the tripod legs but corrector stays clear!
Best Regards, Alistair G.
 
To: MoJocvh above, Yes the Mallincam's are available in UK, we are in NW England and my friend Jon H. ordered a Mallincam Xtreme X2 with Class 0 sensor and it arrived from Rock Mallin via Jack's Astro within 9 weeks (took 6 weeks for the waiting list, plus a few weeks of waiting for the more rare class 0 sensor, plus 2 weeks for postage and Customs clearance). Yes we had to pay 20 per cent VAT on it. Yes our warranty was still intact. Rock supported us 100 per cent. No problems at all. Cheers, Alistair G.
 
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