A preliminary review
As I indicated in my review last year of the original StarShoot Solar System Color Imager, I am primarily a visual observer. Although I've been an amateur astronomer for decades and a photographer for even longer, I've never managed to combine these two pursuits successfully. So this will not be a review of this new Orion® camera by some hotshot astrophotographer, but rather the experiences of a beginner in astrophotography. From the results of the recent StarShoot Solar System Photo Contest, this camera is clearly capable of fine results; my images are not in that league as yet.
My original laptop had only USB 1.1 ports, rather than the USB 2.0 port required for this camera. I purchased a USB 2.0 card for my laptop, but it proved incompatible with the highest resolution mode of the camera, so I had to borrow another laptop, an IBM ThinkPad 2373 with built in USB 2.0 ports, for this test. The telescope I used was my Celestron NexStar 6SE, a 150 mm f/10 Schmidt-Cassegrain with 1,500 mm focal length. This was used both at its primary focal plane and also with a Tele Vue Powermate 2.5x, yielding a focal length of 3,750 mm.
The StarShoot Solar System Color Imager II is a very simple device. It has no controls on it, being entirely controlled by the supplied MaxIm DL Essentials software. It plugs into the telescope's focuser just like a 1.25" eyepiece, and connects to the computer with a USB 2.0 cable plugged into the bottom of the camera. A bright blue light on the back of the camera indicates that it is powered up; this is handy, but the color is a little odd in an astronomical setting. The camera housing clearly indicates the orientation of the chip inside, an improvement over the original StarShoot. The main improvement over the original StarShoot is the much larger CMOS sensor, with its 1.3 million pixels in a 1280x1024 pixel array.
My primary target so far has been the planet Jupiter. Unfortunately, it is extremely low in the sky this late in the season from my observing location at 45° north latitude, so my efforts have been hampered by the poor seeing at such a low altitude, 17 to 18° when my images were made. The poor seeing made it difficult to achieve a good focus, even viewing the enlarged image on the laptop's screen. I made a number of exposures at slightly different focus settings, but all the images show a certain amount of blur which I attribute to the poor seeing. As Mars becomes larger in the next few months, I plan further tests with a target which will be much higher in the sky. The only other target I've attempted was a nearly Full Moon, 13 days old. This was also low in the sky, and waves of poor seeing are clearly visible on the images I made.
Controlling the camera
The StarShoot comes with its own software package: MaxIm DL Essentials. MaxIm DL, authored by Ottawa's Doug George, is one of the most popular and powerful software packages to control cameras, capture images, and process the results. A simplified version, MaxIm DL Lite, comes as part of Starry Night®'s Astrophoto Suite. The version with the StarShoot camera is even more basic, though it performs all the functions a beginner needs. You can use it to capture images in several different ways. You can have it capture a single image, automatically stack a short series of images in a single image, capture multiple single or stacked images, or capture a long series of images as an AVI movie clip.
I found this array of variations really confusing at first. In my first session I mainly captured AVI movies, but found myself overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data acquired in a short time. A 30-second clip at the StarShoot's full resolution eats up more than a gigabyte of hard disk space! You'd better have a large hard drive to hold your image files. Also, the sheer number of images in a clip this size (450 frames at 15 frames per second) requires huge amounts of RAM to process. I have tons of data from that session, but it's next to impossible to analyze.
In my second session, I used a different capture mode. I set the camera to capture and combine five frames at a time, recommended because the seeing was poor, and to do this in batches of ten. This produced reasonably small data sets for me to practice my processing skills on. Each saved file was 7.6 megabytes in size, a batch of ten taking 76 megabytes.
Once I figured them out, the camera controls worked fine, and I captured images with no problems.
Processing the images
This is where I had a lot of trouble. As mentioned MaxIm DL is powerful software, and what goes with that is a lot of complication and a very confusing interface. It's taken me an extraordinarily long time to figure out how to perform even the most basic processing tasks with MaxIm DL Essentials. Part of the problem is Orion®'s manual, which oversimplifies and just plain ignores most of the processing functions of the software. The user interface is perhaps the most unfriendly I've ever used, and the way the windows operate doesn't seem to conform to any interface standards I'm familiar with. Windows overlap each other without any apparent way of displaying the parts of the window hidden by the window in front.
With a lot of trial and error, I managed to stack a number of the images I made. I then exported these to my Mac, where I did a bit of mild image processing. I'll present them here, along with Starry Night® images from the same dates and times:
It should be noted that Starry Night® uses an image of Jupiter that is a few years old, and the South Equatorial Belt (South is at the top in these images) has faded very extensively this year. These images actually represent fairly faithfully the visual appearance of Jupiter on the nights they were made. As mentioned above, Jupiter's low altitude has made fine detail extremely elusive this year from my location.
These images represent my very beginning steps in planetary imaging, and shouldn't be taken as a negative report on the StarShoot Imager. It performed exactly as advertised, but the limitations of my experience and seeing conditions resulted in less than perfect images. I've just taken delivery of a larger telescope, and plan to spend a lot more time learning to use this hardware and software. As the images on Orion®'s web site indicate, it's capable of much finer results.
I'll report back on my results in a few months time.
Geoff has been a life-long telescope addict, and is active in many areas of visual observation; he is a moderator of the Yahoo "Talking Telescopes" group.