Thursday, April 23, 2020


#558: Astrovideo, Slight Return II

Now, when I say “astrovideo,” muchachos, I mean the real deal. The old-fashioned deal. A deep sky video camera putting out analog NTSC (or maybe Super VHS) video, not that newfangled “electronically enhanced astronomy” stuff you read about over on the Cloudy Nights bulletin board. If you’ve read my recent article on video deep sky observing (Sky & Telescope June 2020), you know I think good, ol’ analog video is the best place to start for somebody wanting to take that first step beyond “just looking.”

Why? One reason is, as I say in the above piece, a matter of money—something near and dear to your stingy old uncle’s heart as you know. The older technology allows you to get started, get some results, and decide if video is for you for very little moola—the good folks at Orange County Telescope can get you going for less than three-hundred bucks with their Revolution Imager Kit. That includes a camera; a monitor; and all the cables, adapters, and more you need to get started. And you can indeed get some impressive images with the Revolution.

There’s also the fact that, nice as modern digital cameras, cameras that pipe digital video directly to a laptop computer, can be, there’s still a reason to use the old stuff beyond cost. In my experience, top of the line analog outfits like Mallincam’s Xtreme are still more sensitive than their digital counterparts. Period, game over, end-of-story, zip up your fly. If you’re after the dimmest of the dim, if you want to, like Unk Rod did one time, go hunting quasars, you still want analog gear.

As for the rest of the ins and outs of choosing and using video cams, go buy the latest issue of Sky & ‘Scope if you don’t already subscribe to the best astronomy magazine there has ever been. The subject for today is what your silly old Uncle had to do to get his video mojo working again after a long, long layoff from deep sky picture taking with a Mallincam.

How long a layoff? To be honest with y’all, I hadn’t much used a video camera at the telescope since I tied the bow on the Herschel Project ‘round about 2013. Why not? Several reasons. For one thing, the go-go days of the Project, which involved dragging out lots of gear anytime I wanted to observe, had kinda burned me out on the video. That and some major life changes that began about that time encouraged me to simplify. As 2015 came in, you were much more likely to see me peering into the eyepiece of my simple (but fun) Zhumell Dobbie than you were to see me staring at a video screen.

Even on those rare occasions when I got the yen to do a little imaging, I didn't use video. Astrophotography of late for me has been, “Set up Losmandy GM811 in backyard, attach DSLR to APO, get PHD tracking, go inside and watch TV while the exposure is in progress.” Oh, sometimes I’ve got a little wistful about those long, long nights on distant and dark observing fields sending the C11 to frighteningly distant Herschel galaxies with SkyTools 3. Wistful, perhaps, but not wistful enough to make me want to recreate the experience.

There things remained until I accepted an assignment to do a beginner's video observing article for Sky & Telescope. I decided that if I was gong to write an introductory sort of video piece for the magazine, I really should get out and do some new video observing; not just recount my experiences from years gone by. But would my Mallincam Xtreme still work after not having been used since the summer of 2014, the year after the Project wrapped up? And where had I stored all the video gear?

It didn’t take much rooting around in the sunroom closet to find the little picnic-cooler-cum-case Mallincam shipped their Xtremes in in days of yore. Looked like everything was there; all else I’d need would be a display screen and a video recorder (so I could capture sequences for later processing on a PC).

Actually, I found both my displays. The oldest being a portable DVD player (with a video input) I used both for observing the deep sky and for watchin’ movies on long ago AEGIS destroyer sea-trials. The other was the cool LCD display that came in the Revolution Imager kit. I decided to try both because I was curious to see if both, like the camera, still worked after sitting for years.

I also turned up both my mini-DVRs, one from Orion (Telescope and Binocular Center), and one from Orange County Telescope. Same-same as with the display. I charged up the batteries of both video recorders so I could give both (which save video sequences to SD cards) a checkout in the backyard.

The only remaining question was “Which telescope?” I decided to stick with one of my tried and true astrovideo rigs. Alas, it couldn’t be “Big Bertha,” the C11—she was sold long ago. It couldn’t be the Ultima 8/CG5, “Celeste,” either, as she and her mount also went to new owners some years back. What I still had, however, was Mrs. Emma Peel, my Celestron Edge 800 SCT OTA and her Advanced VX mount. While the scope and mount hadn’t been used at the height of the Herschel Project, they had been in service toward the end of my Julie-Julia inspired quest to view those thousands of deep sky objects.

Finally, I was relieved to recall that despite selling more than a few SCT accessories, I’d held onto my Meade f/3.3 SCT focal reducer, and that it was in its accustomed place in my accessory box (a big Plano tackle box, actually, y’all). A 3.3. – 4 focal reducer is a must-have item if you’re going to use an analog video camera with a relatively small sensor chip with an f/10 SCT.

All that remained was to get everything set up in the backyard on a reasonably clear night—something that has become all too rare in these latter days…

OK, the VX/Edge 800 were out in the backyard and the video display and DVR were set up on the table on the deck. And… that was about it. Well, there was also the laptop computer. I planned to use it mainly to operate the camera with the Mallincam camera control software, however. In the service of my “simpler” mantra, I’d send the telescope to objects with her NexStar hand control. The amazing thing was that I’d somehow remembered how to hook all this stuff up: video cables, computer-camera connection, power supplies, and the old analog cable TV switch I use to send video either to the DVR or the display (the Mallincam doesn’t have quite enough drive to do both at once).

After set-up, there was, of course, alignment. Polar alignment first. I needed the laptop for that as well as for camera control. Since I wanted as little star trailing as possible in 30-second plus exposures, I used my QHY guide camera and that wonderful program, Sharpcap, to do an exact polar alignment of the Advanced VX mount. To tell the truth, it would really have been good enough just to do the NexStar hand control’s built in AllStar alignment, but, you know what? Sharpcap isn’t just far more accurate; it’s easier.

Next up was goto aligning the mount using my Celestron StarSense alignment camera. As with the Xtreme and other gear, I frankly wasn’t sure it would still function after years of sitting, but it most assuredly did. And with the same alacrity as always. Turn on the mount, mash a couple of buttons on the HC, the StarSense slews the mount to a couple of star fields, plate solves, slews to a couple more, plate solves again, and you are done and have a goto alignment as good as what you could have done manually.

Unlike the StarSense camera and video gear, I had used the Advanced VX mount once in a while over the last several years. Still, I found I had to manually input date and time into the hand control—the little battery inside the mount that keeps the clock current was dead as a doornail. Once all this virus stuff is in the rearview mirror, I’ll hie myself to WallyWorld and get a replacement button battery.

Mount still worked, StarSense still worked. How about the Mallincam, which had been on the shelf longer than anything else? I sent Mrs. Peel to bright Vega for focusing, plugged the camera into a 12-volt DC source, turned on the display, and crossed my fingers. I also did considerable fumbling with the Mallincam control software on the laptop before I recalled exactly how to run the thing. But when I finally accessed a couple of my few remaining braincells with that information, I got the camera set to 1-second exposures and was gratified to see a big blue blob on the screen—Vega. In just a few minutes I had Alpha Lyrae focused to a pinpoint.

Being near on to Messier 57, the Ring Nebula, that was an obvious first target.  How would it look in a sky that seemed to be getting hazier by the minute? In my mind I probably knew how the Ring should look on onscreen. But after not having used video for so long, it was still amazing to be reminded of its power. Not only was the ring attractive, showing off pretty greens and subtle reds, its elongated shape was obvious. As was detail in the nebulosity. And, that bane of visual observers, the central star, was just as easy as pie. In my suburban backyard. Under a hazy, light-pollution-scattering sky. With “only” an 8-inch telescope.

After that? I did a tour of all the old late-fall/early winter faves. The Horse’s Nose globular star cluster, M15 in Pegasus, was an amazing ball of tiny suns. Gemini’s M35 was a wonder of an open cluster, and was made an even prettier view when I slewed the scope off center a bit to bring its distant companion cluster, NGC 2158, into the frame. At first 2158 was merely a blob, but with a little fiddling with exposure and contrast and other camera controls, it resolved into a cloud of minute stars.

What did I find most challenging about this inaugural “new” video run? It wasn’t really setting everything up. That was easy enough with a hiccup or three. What was most challenging was learning how to operate the Mallincam again. When people used to ask me how easy the camera was to operate, I’d tell ‘em it was easy enough to get decent results from night one, but that getting the most out of it required practice, and that I found learning to really make the Xtreme perform was analogous to learning the guitar.

The showpiece objects were pretty and all, but how about a challenge before I wrapped up the evening? Over in Orion, Zeta was peeping above the trees, and with it the great Flame (aka “Tank Tracks”) Nebula. On 99% of suburban nights, trying to observe NGC 2024 is a guaranteed FAIL visually with an 8-inch telescope. What would the video camera see? Despite deteriorating conditions, the Mallincam returned a respectable vista of the nebula—naturally the real-time video looks far better than this single frame grab. What do they always say about the Flame, though? If it is prominent, LOOK FOR THE HORSEHEAD!

And so, I did. I just couldn’t resist despite the worsening sky. Did my horse-hunt succeed? It did, if in a fashion that wasn’t much to write home about. IC434, the bright nebula background of the dark horse’s head, B33, wasn’t overly difficult, but it took some fiddling with the controls to deliver the Nasty Nag herself. She still wasn’t much, and I didn’t bother to record her, but she was there, which frankly amazed and amazes me. I saw the Horsehead Nebula! From my backyard!

What’s next for me and video? I’ll no doubt get the Mallincam back out soon—probably should have got it out to observe Comet Atlas, but I didn’t. But what I’d also like to do is get the little Revolution Imager out of mothballs and see what it will do. I know it’s capable of astounding results given its wee price. When I do that, you will hear about it here.

What will (probably) come next in the Astro Blog, though, is a new Herschel Project. No, nothing like the real Herschel Project. A kinder, gentler sort of Herschel Project. The focus this time will be on seeing how easily the Herschel 400 can be done (visually) from a suburban backyard—with a 6-inch telescope. When will that happen? I hope to have the first installment for y’all in May. See you then! Stay safe and stay AT HOME.

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