Stark Labs Affordable, Powerful, and Easy to Use Astrophotography Software

Equipment Impressions

Hotech T-Adapters

Every so often, you come across a product that fills a need wonderfully and that is just plain well thought-out. About a month ago, I was at Nightfall 2008 and I met David Ho of Hotech. He was there doing demos of his self-centering laser collimators. The trick to these devices is that they have a set of rubber O-rings along the barrel that can be compressed by twisting a knob. This compression makes them expand which is how they self-center and lock solidly to your focuser’s drawtube.

“Neat idea!”, said I, and continued, “but you know you really should make a version of this that goes from
your 2” expanding nosepiece here to T-threads. This has always been a real problem as it’s tough to get your camera to stay locked in place in the focuser drawtube.” He let me go on for a good minute or so about my travails before reaching under the table and bringing forth the exact thing I was describing. It was the prototype and he was planning on releasing it soon (along with a 1.25” variety).

I’ve now had a chance to have a better look at it and I must say, I’m taken with it. The thing just works. No matter what kind of attachment system your focuser drawtube has (single set-screw, compression ring, etc.), the device works the same. Screw your camera onto its T-threads and slide it into your drawtube. Then twist the big, black, knurled knob to compress the O-rings. Give it a few good twists and what once might have been a jiggly connection becomes rock solid. I might as well have epoxied the camera onto the focuser drawtube. Well, had I, I’d never get the camera off, but here all you do is untwist that knurled ring and then slide the camera out.

Great idea and great solution to a vexing problem. Well done Hotech!

Now, for my next request... can I get this style of nosepiece onto my focal reducers / correctors? (Well, ones other than the 2” or 1.25” filter-size ones that will screw right into the bottom of the adapter already.) Really, if we must use tube-style fittings and not threaded ones, this kind of nosepiece should be on every device that needs to be held solidly and squarely in place.

Orion 190 mm Mak-Newt

A few months ago, Orion Telescope and Binoculars announced a new 190 mm (7.5”) Maksutov-Newtonian telescope. Russian Mak-Newts have long been held up as excellent instruments with APO-like performance by many observers. The Orion MN, unlike most of the Russian (but not all) is designed with a relatively large central obstruction. While this can rob the image of some contrast in the low frequency portions of the MTF curve, it is needed to illuminate larger imaging chips or wider FOV eyepieces. Thus, it is billed as a $1300 astrograph.

Round 1
Having just unpacked the scope yesterday, all I have time for is some first impressions and a few quick tests. More will have to follow.

The Package
First, the scope is bigger and heavier than I expected. Yes, the specs are on the website, but going from a 12 lb Vixen R200SS to this is a big jump. With rings and a dovetail bar, the rig comes in at 26.5 lbs (Orion specs it bare at 22 lbs). It’s also 37.5” long, a good 10” longer than my old R200SS. Having it physically here, it seems bigger than that by comparison. I think with the Vixen, I was able to think of it as just a touch bigger than a C8 and mentally that’s how I thought of it. But really, this is about the size of a number of 8” Dobs, so keep that in mind when you’re thinking about the scope.

The scope comes as a bare OTA (no finder, eyepieces, rings, etc) but does include tools (screw driver, allen wrench, collimation plug) and a copy of a “lite” version of Starry Night. I’ve not installed that yet and probably won’t. They know they’re not selling this to total novices, so keeping these out and their cost out is fine by my book.

Anyone doing photography will want to know about the focuser. This is a single speed Crayford with somewhat oversize knobs on it. While I’d have preferred a dual-speed setup, I was able to focus with the existing one just fine. I used a Canon XSi’s LiveView mode and I used the Fine Focus tool in Nebulosity both without trouble. The focuser was smooth and had no problem with the DSLR. For visual use, a 2” extension tube is provided to let your eyepieces reach focus.

Collimation is done with hard push-pull screw pairs (screwdriver for “pull”, allen wrench for “push”) on the primary. On the secondary, there is a metal cap that covers the three collimation screws and there is a retaining ring that lets you twist the secondary to line it up. The primary has a nice center spot (ring) and the secondary has a very faint one (also a ring).

Under the Stars
I had a chance to get it out for some quick tests last night. This was in a lit parking lot, so don’t expect accounts of faint fuzzies. My goal was to see how well it will perform as an astrograph, so I wanted to see what the stars really looked like across the field and what kind of vignetting to expect.

Visually and in LiveView, it was clear the scope had a very nice “snap” into focus feel. The intra- and extra- focus images looked nice but I didn’t have a chance for any formal evaluation. Things looked pretty “textbook” to me. Panning Vega around in an eyepiece showed nothing odd, just a nice crisp star that took magnification well. All I had was a Baader Hyperion 8-24 mm zoom with me, but a quick visual look there showed nice images so far.

Sticking the camera on, things look good as well. Here is a full-frame (stack of four 30s shots) image around Vega:

Clicking on the image here should get you the full-sized version so you can scan around for yourself. In the lower-left, stars are a bit off but elsewhere they look quite good. We’re not 100% perfect at the corner
s but really I don’t think we can complain about this. The lower-left is probably the result of my collimation not being spot on. We’re not badly off at all but it could be tightened up a bit I’m sure and there’s little else that would cause one corner to be worse than the others. Something isn’t perfectly lined up / squared.

So far, so good. I took a series of flats using my “Elf” flat-fielder. This gives a known-flat image (it’s an EL-sheet) and works very well to give me flat frames that correct the vignetting in my scopes. I binned the image 8x8 and have plotted the intensity relative to the maximum here:

Keep in mind the x and y-axis labels are in 8-pixel steps. It’s probably best to just realize that this is an APS-sized chip (22 mm x 15 mm). What we can see here are two things. First, the secondary isn’t perfectly centered on the focuser. This is what is causing the shift to the right of the hot spot. Second, even once centered, the best we’ll be getting is probably just around 80% (plus or minus a few percent) illumination in the corners of the frame. If you’ve got a smaller chip, you should be able to use this to estimate what kind of vignetting to expect. Note, this was with the supplied 2” to T-thread adapter and a standard T-ring. I will have to try this with my CCD Labs Q8-HR that places the same-sized APS chip a lot closer to the T-ring to see if that is part of the vignette I’m seeing.

There is one other thing worth noting. I was fighting balance and flex last night. My mount seemed to be tracking just fine despite the imbalance. PHD was keeping the star centered and the errors were never very large. Yet, the frames were showing drift from frame to frame. Ah, the dreaded flex. While I can’t be 100% sure I found it as I’ve not tested it yet, I did find one really bad spot where flex was creeping in.

Orion supplies a 2” to T-thread adapter. This is a very nice idea given the target audience for the scope. They also supply a nice compression ring setup on the focuser. Individually, these are nice things but together they are ... insert some not so nice word here. The problem is the angled cut on the 2” to T-thread adapter (so it won’t fall out if you’re using set-screws, but we’re not using set-screws...) and the compression ring don’t play well together. The net result is that you can wiggle your DSLR around easily when attached this way. It’s in no danger of falling off but it’s not exactly solid. After taking things down for the night, I tried a different 2” to T-thread adapter (an Antares unit with a normal, flat undercut barrel) and the compression ring fit right into the undercut. The camera was held very solidly with this and there was no flex in this joint.

That’s all for now...

Telescope Stability Systems

I’ve got a nice Takahashi EM-10 mount. While its GOTO system is a bit quirky (an understatement), it sure is a nice and smooth mount. Its polar scope is also a real joy as in about 5 minutes I’m aligned well enough to image all night long. In fact, here’s a shot I took without any alignment over 100 minutes of exposure using PHD and a QSI 540wsg (integrated off-axis guider) following under 5 minutes of polar alignment. Overall, a very fine mount.

Its tripod is really designed to be nicely portable and while sturdy, still isn’t a rock. Tak intends the mount for lighter payloads than I often put on there, which does make the tripod start to show signs of weakness. Recently, I reviewed a Telescope Stability Systems tripod, the “Stable Max” for Astrophoto Insight magazine. The tripod is such a wonderful addition to my aresenal, I bought it. From the beefy legs and center column to the precision machined bushings everywhere to the nicely modular approach that lets you use the tripod with any mount (by means of an adapter plate), this thing is a real joy.

One thing I can’t really convey in the format of the review is just how this stacked up to the stock tripod in real use. When out testing it, I prepared a series of videos doing things like tapping on the OTA and dropping (padded) objects onto the mount while recording the resulting bounces with a camera. PDF just doesn’t capture video all that well. So, you get ot see them here. This is me tapping the OTA with the rig on the TSS tripod and the stock Tak tripod.

Here I am dropping a heavy weight onto the tripod’s countershaft (rope attached to scope and to padded weight, dropped from the same position each time) with both setups:

If a picture is worth 1,000 words this video was worth buying the tripod. I don’t fear the wind nearly so much as I used to. Sure, you hit the countershaft with a weight and the image moves. But it settles down very quickly getting you right back on track and helps show just how solid the setup is overall (a quick blip in a 5 minute image isn’t nearly so damaging to your image as a long time bouncing.)

Equinox 6

When I moved over to the Mac a few years ago, I kept Windows running in a virtual machine a lot of the time. There were two programs that I just had to have going whenever I was thinking about a night’s imaging or about new scopes or cameras. One was Rod Wodaski’s CCD Calc and the other was Cartes du Ciel. Being a “switcher”, I wanted to have something native to the Mac but at the same time, I was so used to both of these and they did just what I needed them to do. But, it was time to make a switch.

I looked at a lot of options on the Mac. AstroImageBrowser provided a decent stand-in for CCD Calc. It does some things a lot better than CCD Calc, but it doesn’t do a few things that CCD Calc does or just does better. Neither program lets you see how things will look with an FOV of more than 1 degree and with today’s DSLRs and other decent-sized chips, it doesn’t take much to get larger than 1 degree. (These days, I find myself using something else, however, thanks to some recent updates to Equinox 6 - read on.)

When looking at “planetarium” software, I had a much harder time. I’ve tried Starry Night Pro on both the Mac and Windows and there was something about the interface I just couldn’t ever get my head around. The sky never seemed to move the way I wanted it to and despite giving it a solid try, it just didn’t work for me. In addition, their support of my Takahashi Temma mount was limited to Windows. I’d been a fan of TheSky for a long time, but their Mac version was very out of date. (TheSkyX is out now, but still only in the Student Edition). I trield Stellarium and Celestia and both are beautiful, but neither would let me really plan for an evening of imaging much less control the Tak mount. I looked at Voyager 4, but the price tag was a bit steep, especially since it wouldn’t control the odd Tak mount (sense a theme here?). AstroPlanner could do a lot, but I really did want more of the planetarium-style interface. It’s a neat package that I encourage folks to look at, but it’s not exactly a replacement for CdD. Oh, and yes, I did even work with CdC’s code, getting things sort-of compiled and going on OS X, but this isn’t ready for prime time (or wasn’t then). As a side note, the mount can be run via cocoaTemma if you know where you want to go by name or coordinate and I do have things going nicely on it with a PDA and TheSky Pocket Edition).

Enter Equinox 6, by Darryl Robertson. Equinox 6 has been around for awhile and I won’t pretend to say I know it’s history, but I’ve now used it for almost two years and can say I like what I see. At first, I must admit it took a little getting used to. For starters, there is a separate “main view” that shows the whole sky or whatever portion of the sky you’re zoomed to and a “scope view” that shows what should be in your telescope. It’s the “scope view” that can show the fainter stars, show camera or eyepiece overlays, etc. and it took a bit of time to get used to this split setup. Now, it doesn’t bother me and can even be a nice feature at times. In truth, it didn’t take very long to adjust (and as always, reading the manual actually helped. It’s a very nice manual.)

It’s got all the features you’d expect from a nice planetarium package (and then some!) and I encourage you to take it for a test drive even if just for these (and yes, it does even control my Tak Temma mount!). What I’d like to really point out today are one long-standing thing and two new things that I think make Equinox 6 exceptionally cool and help show what kind of product it is. These latter two things actually are evidence of the first and that is that Darryl is just the sort of guy you’d love to have writing a program you use. In my time using it, I’ve gotten to watch it grow and watch how quickly bugs are fixed and patches put out. I’ve spotted a few bugs myself and let him know either via e-mail or via the Yahoo group and patches arrive promptly. Any time you write software and certainly any time you don’t have a large development team and substantial beta-tester crew, you’re going to have bugs. (As we all know, even when you do have huge development teams, etc. bugs happen.) Bugs are part of life with software and what matters is how well and how promptly they get fixed. Darryl gets an “A” in my book here.

I’ve pitched a few ideas to him for the program and some he’s gently said “See page X in the manual -- it’s already there” and others he’s taken to heart and thought about. Some of these (and I’m certainly not the only one giving suggestions) have appeared in the program. One I particularly like is the ability to grab shots from the DSS of any FOV you want and see how your scope + camera combination will frame things. True, you may need to spend a few minutes figuring things out if you don’t have a pre-defined camera (which is really just a pre-defined sensor size), but once done you can do things like this:
That’s a nice wide view of the Veil from DSS data as it would look on my Borg 101 f/4 and QSI 540. I can swap around cameras or scopes, rotate the FOV, nudge things around, etc. and still see just how much of this target will fit without having to deal with limitations of 1 degree of FOV. When thinking about scopes or cameras, I can grab any number of targets, see just how it will fit, etc. I can also see just how faint something really is since the DSS shots are all standardized. This has been a really nice feature for me and one that makes Equinox stand out for me.

Another recent addition is the ability to superimpose information from the NOMAD star database in in the “scope view” here (I had nothing to do with this one and was just pleasantly suprised when it arrived in an update!). One potential limitation of Equinox has been that the main star database is limited to 12th magnitude stars, even in the “scope view”. 99% of the time, that’s not a limitation, but at times I’ve needed to see and/or know the magnitudes of something fainter. NOMAD is a “simple merge of data from the Hipparcos, Tycho-2, UCAC-2 and USNO-B1 catalogues, supplemented by photometric information from the 2MASS final release point source catalogue.” With it, you can get things like detailed magnitudes for stars down to 18th magnitude. Here is a shot of Equinox’s “scope view” with the filter set at 15th magnitude:

I think I’m not going to have trouble finding out any star magnitudes anymore! Of course, you can turn on or off aspects of this display, showing just the stars even if you like, etc.

As noted above, there is a lot more to Equinox 6 than just these two features as it is a mature package. What these new features help show is that Equinox 6 is continuing to evolve with slick new features being continually added. Registered users get free updates so registered users get all the bug fixes and new features. I like that approach (as it’s what I use in my commercial software.) If you’re a Mac user and haven’t given Equinox 6 a try or haven’t looked at it for some time, head on over to its site and give it a shot.

Astrophoto Insight & Astronomy Technology Today

Some of you may have seen articles and reviews I have done in Astrophoto Insight, Astronomy Technology Today, and Cloudy Nights (you can find these on the Articless and Reviews section of my personal page). I consider these three of my favorite astro-resources. Toss in the various Yahoo Groups and you’re set as far as I’m concerned. While the Yahoo groups and Cloudy Nights are free websites, Astrophoto Insight and Astronomy Technology Today both involve subscriptions for full access. Now, these aren’t break-the-bank kinds of prices. Astrophoto Insight will let you download the current issue for free and wants $24.95 for a “Platinum” level membership that will give you full access. Astronomy Technology Today wants $18 (for US print + online or for International online access). My advice - subscribe to both.

I subscribe to both and I do so not just because I’ve published in them or met the guys who run them. Sure, Al from Astrophoto Insight and Stuart and Gary from Astronomy Technology Today are all stand-up guys. These things and $1.69 get you a cup of coffee, not a wallet opening for a subscription, though. I subscribe because they publish solid articles on things I want to read about. From real tips and techniques to solid reviews, both do a bang-up job. And please, I’m not talking about my reviews and articles in here. I certainly skip those and can read them for free. When the latest issue of either comes out, I devour it. I devour it in the way I used to devour S&T years ago.

“Oh, but magazines are driven by ads” one might say. Sure, that’s a part of it. I’ve got a very long history with magazines and reviews as I grew up in the business (my father was a magazine editor). Ads give the magazines a lot of the money they need to do what they do but this can present a conflict of interest. So far, I’ve not detected biases in the reviews that would suggest the reviews are being slanted based on ad money. As someone who’s written for both, I can also state that I’ve been able to freely talk about the downsides of gear in my reviews. To me, that’s huge. Any product will have its good sides and bad. Some have more good and some more bad. To trust a source, you’ve got to know that when there are bad sides, they’ll be covered and not swept under the rug. Seeing both from the inside has made me feel I can certainly trust both. (FWIW, the more common thing to have happen is that when a product is really bad, it just won’t get reviewed. No, I’ve not hit that yet with either, but I did see it a bit growing up.)

Ads also do things for readers (apart from helping the magazine exist). They let us see neat new toys and find out new things going on in our hobby. Just a few days ago after seeing an ad in one of them I said, “Hey, that’s a cool new gizmo!” and contacted the company for more info. Depsite spending a lot of time with this hobby (far too much my wife would say), I’d missed this new gizmo (just so you don’t think I’m making this up, it was the Moonlight Telescope’s SCT focuser that lets you screw the focal reducer into the drawtube.)

There’s another thing that these two magazines do for readers when it comes to ads. They show ads for products that can’t make it into the bigger magazines. I certainly know this from first-hand experience. Our hobby has big companies and small companies and the small ones have certainly done a lot for our hobby too. Small ones often can’t afford to advertise in bigger magazines but can potentially afford to advertise in API and ATT. Or, even if they could, the ad wouldn’t have as much info in it as it’d be crammed into a small space.

If you’re not a subscriber / haven’t checked them out, do so. Heck, if somehow you’re reading this and don’t know about Cloudy Nights, stop reading this and get over there now. We’ve got some fantastic sources of information and communities available to us. Use them. Support them.


IP4AP - Save yourself $$$$$

IP4AP - Image Processing for AstroPhotography

Why do my images suck? OK, let me rephrase that a bit. Why do my images suck less than they used to but still just don't have the same bang that those really good images have? Is it my gear? Is it me?

Well, like most people, I turn first to the gear. My scope, mount, or camera must be the culprit. Or, I don't have some cool new software someone else has. That's it... yea... If I had a new camera and got that new software that does the Zambizi Triple Datum-Redux method, I'd be all set. Break out the wallet, this won't be cheap. But, I'll get those better shots!

Nope. I've been in this now long enough to know that that's just not going to do it. Sure, it may help some, but it won't really do it. The problem is me, not the gear.

I was first introduced to this concept (that I'm the one that sucks, not the gear) in another context - car racing. Like every American male, I thought I knew a good bit about how to drive and that out on a track I could keep up with most anyone, so long as the car was capable. How laughably wrong I was. A number of years ago, I first tried autocrossing (aka Solo Racing) in an old Porsche 911 I had (as old as I was). I came in last. Dead last. It must be the car - these guys all had their cars prepped a lot more than I did. Yea. New tires, rework the engine... Break out the wallet, this won't be cheap.

Then I signed up for a course run by the local club (the San Diego PCA - great group) and found out I was by far the limiting factor. Others could make my car fly around the track and I was using habits I built up on the street that were just plain wrong. Was I stupid? No, just ignorant. Nobody had taught me how to really drive and how to really control a car -- how to use weight balance, friction, and your power to really go fast. I picked up a number of tricks and techniques there that got me going a lot faster and made me a better driver - on the track and off. The hobby became a lot more fun (steering with the gas pedal is still a serious blast), I wasn't so frustrated, and, well I didn't suck quite so badly. All for a nominal fee for the course.

Why this tangent? Well, it's the same thing here. I've been my worst enemy when it comes to data processing. I've had bad habits that have let to results that didn't do justice to the underlying raw data. The gear's not the rate-limiting factor. I am. Or, I was.

Enter Warren Keller and his IP4AP series of tutorials. IP4AP may get confused on the tongue with AIP4WIN, but the two products couldn't be further apart. Jim Burnell and Richard Berry are technical wizards with a great product in AIP4WIN and The Handbook of Astronomical Image Processing. If you want the geek / weenie stuff, they're your guys (and as a geek, I mean that in a flattering way). But, if you want to easily learn how to use PhotoShop (or AstroArt) by looking over an expert's shoulder, Warren's your man.

A few weeks ago, I got an early copy of his newly done / redone "Intermediate" set of tutorials. This is aimed at using Photoshop to handle things like gradients and vignetting issues, powerful use of the Curves tool, dealing with LRGB data, and use of DDP (this last one in AstroArt). Warren spends a lot of time himself with PhotoShop, a lot of time learning techniques from others, a lot of time devising his own techniques, and a lot of time teaching people these techniques. This all shows in the videos. The idea behind IP4AP is to let Warren separate the wheat from the chaff in techniques out there, distill them down, and then show you how they work and why. In the video format, you get to look over Warren's shoulder as he processes images. It's a really effective technique. While you don't get to ask questions right then and there (you can - you can e-mail him and even setup one-on-one sessions), you get to do watch them whenever you like and replay sections as often as you like to see just what he did to achieve a certain effect.

Warren can get a bit goofy at times, but it's part of his wry sense of humor and it serves a real purpose. While watching the videos, you're there to learn, but you shouldn't loose sight of the fact that this is a hobby and meant to be fun. The semi-random appearance of a picture of a cow will help to keep you in this mindset.

So, if you're reading this blog and aren't a contender for APOD (and by reading this blog, odds are pretty much 100% you're not) and if you're not trying to image by lying on your back with a point-and-shoot, holding the shutter down and manually tracking the stars (so that it's not the equipment's fault entirely), I'll make the following wager. Spending $40 on IP4AP will do more for your images than any purchase you could make for 10 times this cost. So, wanna break out the wallet and for that new scope, camera, or mount? Or want to part with a mere $40 (direct) and quite possibly (if not probably) get an even bigger effect on the images you're making? The choice is yours. I know what I'll be doing when he comes out with the next DVD in the series...