By: Michael Carnes
What is Video Astronomy? In talking with people and even fellow club members there appears to be some confusion about the term Video Astronomy. Many appear to get Video Astronomy confused with imaging or Astrophotography. For purposes of this article, let’s think about Video Astronomy as the substitution of a telescope eyepiece with a highly sensitive camera that enables near real time viewing of deep space and solar system objects by projecting the camera image on a laptop and/or monitor. There is little or no post processing of the image which helps distinguish Video Astronomy from Imaging or Astrophotography. Imaging
typically requires extensive post processing and extended exposure times.
A simplified Video Astronomy setup would include a telescope, a video camera, a Go To mount and tripod, and either a laptop, monitor, or a projector for viewing the camera image. For a novice, such as myself, I have found the addition of a Telrad finder scope, a Celestron Star Sense Auto-alignment utility, and a GPS unit essential in quickly setting up, polar aligning, and acquiring images. I try to subscribe to the KISS (keep it simple stupid) philosophy. By keeping it simple you are going to have less problems. Less problems mean better uninterrupted viewing and more fun. The photo shows my Video Astronomy setup.
Video Astronomy has many advantages especially for mobile astronomy which I have termed Astrotreking. Video Astronomy setups can be very light and compact which is nice for transport, setup, camping, and star parties. Modern day Video cameras are so sensitive that one can use modest telescope apertures and still obtain superb DSO images. Smaller scopes are lighter in weight, less expensive and thus easier to setup and transport. The high sensitivity of Video cameras also mean almost real time acquisition of images which reduces mount tracking requirements. This in turn means less expensive mounts can be used in Video Astronomy. Bottom line is one can get into Video Astronomy at a reasonable cost. Video Astronomy has some definite advantages for those of us advanced in age where stiff joints and aging eyesight provide challenges to enjoying astronomy.
When I joined the Raleigh Astronomy Club, I had no equipment. Only a strong curiosity about a branch of science that I knew virtually nothing about. Through the Club’s equipment loaner program and Michael Keef’s kind and patient guidance, I tried out a Celestron 8 inch scope equipped with an eyepiece. I quickly discovered that my Astigmatism corrected glasses made eyepiece viewing unsatisfactory. With or without glasses I saw two overlapping images of everything in the eyepiece. At the time, video security cameras were being adapted to telescopes as a replacement for an eyepiece. In researching this option, I could see a solution to my viewing problem. This encouraged me to strongly consider Video Astronomy. The ability to see DSOs in clear full color was very appealing. The added benefit was also that I would not have to bend and stoop uncomfortably at an eyepiece. Video cameras have made huge strides in all aspects since the days of using security cameras. I became a fan of Video Astronomy and have never looked back.
Video Astronomy also has some disadvantages. The most obvious is the incompatibility of Video Astronomy with those using eyepiece and human eye astronomy at Star Parties. Eyepiece Astronomy depends on the dark adaption of the eyes in order to be able to enjoy the night skies and views through an eyepiece equipped telescope. The stray light emitted by laptops and/or monitors can instantly destroy night vision. This will make you very unpopular at Star Parties. Therefore, strict precautionary measures must be used at mixed use Star Parties.
This requires the capture of stay light by enclosing the laptops or monitors in a variety of possible ways. One can use laptop domes that cover the screens, red filters on the monitors, placing your equipment in opaque tents, and or placing light emitting sources inside your RV or car. This must be done in order to be a good citizen at mixed use Star Parties. I personally prefer to attend Star Parties devoted primarily to Video Astronomy such as ECVAR held at Coolbreeze campground at Galax Virginia. The Grand Canyon Star Party is relatively friendly to Video Astronomy because of its obvious usefulness as a public outreach tool.
Another excellent strategy is to organize small impromptu groups of fellow Astrotrekers at various campgrounds around the US with exceptionally dark skies.
It can be great fun!
Now, how in the heck does one go about purchasing a Video Camera? There are as many opinions on this as there are stars in the sky. It is a highly personal decision and based on intended use and, of course, affordability. For this article, I will describe my rationale as a rank novice for selecting my Video Astronomy equipment. In searching for various brands of Video Cameras I looked for a manufacturer that provided a complete package of hardware, software, and accessories specifically designed and tested to work together. Being essentially lazy, I did not want to go through the time consuming and expensive trial and error process of piecing together software and hardware from many different vendors to get a fully functioning system. I was looking pretty much for a one stop shop. A shop that preferably has decade’s long track record of providing the highest quality State of the Art Video Astronomy equipment. Equipment that is being used and tested in prestigious observatories around the US and by NASA by professional astronomers would also be a plus. It was also important to me that this manufacturer stands solidly behind their equipment. I was looking for a strong, and supportive users group to help me bridge the learning gap. On top of all this, I had budgetary limits so I was looking for a manufacturer that offered a broad selection of cameras at affordable prices.
After a least a year of research and visiting their manufacturing and testing facility in Ottawa and Jamestown, Ontario, Canada, I settled on Mallincam. Mallincam offered everything that I was looking for. They provide a turnkey system both hardware, software, and accessories that works together right out of the box. Mallincams are built with only the highest research grade components and best sensor grades. The Mallincam camera control software is extremely robust and takes advantage of all of the camera features as well as sophisticated automated stacking functions. I have yet to explore all of the software features. All Mallincam cameras are specifically setup and fine-tuned for Video Astronomy. The Mallincam users group is, in my opinion, second to none and has been a tremendous resource for me as a novice Video Astronomer. So, I am unabashedly biased toward Mallincam line of tested and integrated Video Astronomy products.
I sincerely hope that more club members discover the fun that Video Astronomy has to offer. Let’s go Astrotreking!
Michael Carnes previous article on Astrotreking