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Viva La Revolution

There's a revolution occurring in astronomy.  Visual astronomy is merging or at least blurring with what was until recently photographic astronomy.

The revolution started when CCD cameras became available to the public at low cost.   These have combined with powerful easy-to-use computer software to deliver real power into the hands of amateur astronomers.


In my opinion it's just a matter of time before most, if not all eyepieces, will be opto-electronic instead of the traditional purely optical variety.  There will still be glass in the system, of course, but the glass will be there acting as a lens to a camera.  Many folks lately are getting this same idea.

Being relatively new to this astronomy game I don't bring any nostalgia for glass and visual astronomy.   Instead, I find that I am most interested in acquiring bright detailed images that I can see live on my TV. 

I'm not very interested in peering into an optical eyepiece, trying to use averted vision, trying to build-up a mental, and necessarily black and white, impression of the same thing.

The view that I got when I first pointed my Mintron security video camera to the sky was astounding.  There is absolutely no way that a traditional optical telescope could have delivered that view.   No telescope has a field of view wide enough, and until the last couple of years no video camera (that I could afford) was sensitive enough.

The image below is pretty close to what I saw that freezing night last winter, when I first fitted the tiny little f/1.4 wide-angle CCTV lens to the Mintron camera and set it to point straight up.  The heart of a galaxy, albeit our own galaxy, the Milky Way, was right there lighting up my TV.  The rough as guts picture below doesn't do justice to the impression that the television image made, but for an ordinary Joe it was exciting to see.

The Milky Way on TV

So, now I've given up watching Frasier, Sienfeld or other TV shows.  Instead, I now watch stuff live on the TV or take pictures of stuff that, until recently, the common man has never had any hope of seeing. 

Mintron, the camera manufacturer specialise in low-cost but highly sensitive security cameras.  These are the cameras you will see out the back of buildings or factories in dark alley ways.  Mintron says that the 13V1C B&W camera is sensitive enough to display a scene illuminated only by star light (0.0004 lux).  Shots I've taken of the garden and the house indicate that is about right.   I was so impressed with its capability I recently (2006) bought the color version (the Mintron 62V1P-Ex) which is equipped with the highly sensitive half-inch Ex-View CCD chip. 

Generally color cameras are about one-third as sensitive as B&W ones (because the light has to be split three ways into Red Green & Blue).   This camera is a few dollars ($US 40) more but it has about the same sensitivity as my B&W version and it has a slightly wider field of view.   The cost of the color camera was a paltry $US 250. 

By attaching the camera to my 8" telescope I can now see the Orion nebula looking like this live on TV:

The Great Orion Nebula (M42) on TV

So what?  You may think this image is a bit noisy and fuzzy and only slightly brighter than what you'd get visually, but you'd be missing the point.  The image is being acquired in color.   Our eyes can't see color in the low light levels that you get from through the eyepiece of even a large telescope, but the camera can. 

The technology is still in its infancy .  Remember this camera cost me just $US 250.  What view would a high-end camera give you?  Remember electronics and computers are improving in line with Moore's Law (doubling in power every few years).  It will only be  a few years when this camera will be superseded by a cheaper one that is ten times more sensitive and with little or no noise.  Then the image on the TV will look something like this:M42Core07Dec05.jpg (93495 bytes)


The above image was created using the 62V1P-Ex color Mintron camera at prime-focus of an 8" telescope.  It is the result of capturing just 50 video frames in Astrovideo computer software, subtracting a dark frame to eliminate noise and then "amplifying" the image in software like Maxim DSLR.  It took a long time for me to ask around and find out how to do it, but to create an image like this now only takes me about 30 mins at the telescope to capture the data and then another 30 mins on the computer to process it.  Not bad huh for a small effort?  Not saying its perfect I'm just a beginner.  I've got the color balance wrong and the stars have dark halos, and I don't know how to do a composite in the core - it's not important.   It won't be long and you won't have to process the data at all - it will just feed straight from your camera and via your computer to your monitor - with no manual procesing involved.

When I was a kid and was looking at those astronomy pictures in books it was only the pro astronomers who could have produced an image showing the detail of the clouds in M42 like my one that I snared from my suburban back yard.

It is just a question of a few years and amateur astronomers will all be viewing on TV (probably on computer actually) live video of the Orion nebula or other colorful deep sky objects.  In future our kids will be looking at views, much better than this, live on TV courtesy of the new generation department store scope they bought.

As you've seen we're almost there, but not quite yet.  It's just a matter of time, when the hardware is cheap enough.

Click here to see my astrophotographs


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All images and content of this website are copyright (c)2005-2008 Bill Christie.  All rights reserved.