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Video Astronomy – another path to deep awareness

Video astronomy means that instead of turning your eye to the sky – or telescope – you turn a video camera in that direction.

You can do this with a simple lens on the camera, or you can do it by using the camera alone and using the telescope as the lens. That is, you put the video camera in the eyepiece focuser instead of an eyepiece.

Five reasons why this is a good idea

  1. You see more – simply put, the television camera is more sensitive than your eye – a lot more sensitive –so you see faint details you can't see with the eyepiece.
  2. You see color in certain objects. This is related to sensitivity – the parts of your eye most sensitive to faint lights don't detect color. The CCD chip in the camera does and for selected astronomical objects this is an important addition.
  3. You can record what you see onto tape, disc, or computer hard drive and review it later in leisure, as well as share it with others. Makes an excellent record, means you can really study these objects and get to know them, and it means you can share with the world through email and Web sites such as this one.
  4. It makes an incredible instructional tool. People seldom know what to expect when they first look into a telescope eyepiece and photos in popular books and magazines - usually taken with professional instruments or the Hubble Space Telescope - give far too grand an impression and only serve to raise false expectations. With vido astronomy visual observers can get a preview of what they will see that can be adjusted to pretty cloosely match their visual view. But the big thing is you can share this view with several people at once and talk about some of the finer points, or ask people to point out what they see in an image that either raises questions for them, or makes interesting points.
  5. Comfort – you can sit in a comfortable position and study the television screen – you are rarely comfortable at a telescope because the position of the eyepiece is constantly changing and you're usually squinting with one eye. Oh, and I should mention that some folks sit comfortably in their houses, looking at a television screen, and operating their telescope by remote controls. This isn't my cup of tea, but there have been nights when either cold, dampness, bugs – or things that go bump, or howl, or threaten to douse you with perfume have sometimes made me wish I was inside. ;-)

Enough why – more about WHAT it is

For bright objects, such as the planets and moon you can use a simple, inexpensive camera, such as a Webcam. For "deep sky" objects such as star clusters, nebula, and galaxies you probably want a more sophisticated camera that is more sensitive to faint light and can take what amounts to time exposures. A normal video camera - by the US standard – takes about 30 pictures per second. But a video camera can be made to accumulate light for several seconds, then send out the same frame over and over again at the 30-frames per second rate – so it will display like any other video on any ordinary television screen, but it's really a still picture. My camera allows me to adjust these integrations over several steps that lead to 2.1 seconds, then it makes a jump to 6 seconds, and another jump to 12 seconds. (For the moon and planets I have shutter speed choices as high as 1/12000th of a second - and believe it or not you sometimes need them.)

Since your goal generaly is to collect all the light you can you may think you always use the 12-second settings for deep space objects. Wrong. Making this and other settings is a science, art, and craft. Being an experienced visual observer helps – but I know I still have a lot to learn in terms of choosing the right camera settings and matching camera, and scope to both the object being viewed and current sky conditions. Bottom line – you can get some impressive results right out of the box with very little knowledge – but as with so many things, knowledge helps and most of it can only be obtained through trial and error. Video astronomy sounds like a passive activity – I'm finding that, if anything, I'm more active than I am when doing visual astronomy – there are simply more possibilities for adjusting the image and getting the most out of the telescope and camera.

The camera I use at Driftway Observatory excels at long exposure of dim objects. It's called a Color Hyper MallinCam and as I understand it, it is an elaborately modified security camera and is made, one at a time, by Rock Mallin, a guy in Ontario. You can learn more about it on his Web site here: http://mallincam.tripod.com/

Is this the best camera available? Maybe. I really don't have a clue. I bought it as I was feeling my way into this aspect of the hobby and one of the main reasons I bought it, is Dave Kriege, who makes Obsession Telescopes, recommends it. (See: http://www.globaldialog.com/~obsessiontscp/learning_center/Video_Imaging/index.html )

Since Dave makes a super telescope, I assumed he knew what he was doing. Bottom line – I'm real happy with the camera at this point, but I'm a far cry from an expert on this technology and I know there are other cameras out there that other people like and the MallinCam seems to be one of ths best, if not the best, but also one of the more expensive.

But where did AWE go?

Why do astronomy this way? The reasons I've listed are sound, and practical, but they don't speak to the real issue. The more technology you put between you and the universe, the more abstract the experience all becomes and thus you may gain information, but you lose, really deep knowledge – don't you? Boy I asked myself that a lot because, frankly, I resisted the idea of doing anything but visual observing. First, I didn’t feel like mastering yet another fast-moving technology. And second – and more important – I am genuinely worried about putting too much technology between the observer and the universe. Technology can be a barrier to awareness and awareness is what's most important to me – deep, filled-with-awe, awareness. But guess what – if you are also fully aware of the technology and the role it is playing, the technology can enhance your awareness tremendously. At least that's what I feel it is doing for me. So I don’t regret this move one bit.

A friend recently expressed this concernt his way:

"I felt a tang of prejudice about your telescope+video setup. I can't explain it, and I apologise if you find it unpleasant. In my present state of mind, and state of knowledge, I would'nt consider looking at an image when the real thing was there in the eyepiece. Sure, I know the reasons why the image is better. No eye squinting. No neck craning. And quality better than direct vision. But I'd put up with discomfort to reject any intermediary between me and that globular cluster."

That stimulated me to play out this theme more completely and test my idea with him and myself. Here's what I wrote:

I had another wonderful four hours observing with the camera this morning and loved every minute of it. But before I could approach this I had to get rid of my own prejudice which is identical to yours and if anything stronger. My reasoning - rationalization? - goes like this:

1. Your eyes lie to you. We are human centric. We assume the only reality - real reality - is what we see. Truth is, we are like any machine designed to do a specific job with only the tools necessary for that job. Our eyes don't reveal the "real" world. they reveal a tiny slice of it that helps us with our particular survival mechanisms. Light - that is light visible to the human eye - is just a tiny part of the electro-magnetic spectrum and thus reveals only a small part of reality to us as represented by that spectrum which is, in itself, a small part of reality.

2. Yes, using the telescope visually puts less between you and the object. The energy from a star is acting directly on your brain. I don't know why that should be important, but it does seem important to me. BUT, remember you are already using a machine - the telescope - to gather far more of that light energy than your eye could on its own. So why is it a problem to use another machine that increases the sensitivity of the telescope and gathers more energy? True, that energy is no longer acting directly with your brain - it has been transformed into a television image and your brain is acting with the image. But the bottom line is it brings you more information about the universe around you then you can get with your eye and the fact that you can evaluate this information in comfort means you can focus on it better.

But for me the bottom line is this - awareness - Tony's theme song (Anthony DeMello, author of a book entitled "Awareness"). What I have been preaching all along with astronomy has been to be aware of what, exactly, it is you are seeing - where you are, where the object is, and what is the relationship between you and the object. (And as I've said, astronomy is NOT important in this respect. Daphne's dragonfly - revealed to you in "real" life in part of its glory, but revealed to you even more when you examined the photograph of it. I doubt that you mistook the photo for the real thing. I hope it helped you -as it did me - be more aware of how incredible life - reality - is. )

Using a telescope and/or video camera can be an impediment to this kind of deep awareness - OR it can extend it. It depends on you. I think the problem is exactly the same as the one mentioned by Tony who is quoting some Zen master , I believe - that is the problem that when you teach a child the name of a bird he will no longer see the bird.

The solution to that problem is not ignorance - it's awareness. We don't need to teach less - we need to teach more with the correct emphasis, making sure people don't lose track of the big picture.

This, I believe, is the same solution to the problem you raise - to what you call your prejudice. To enjoy the video and get the most out of it you need to be totally aware of all elements - of the stars, the telescopes, the video camera - and you - and understand the role each is playing. The danger is the TV screen just becomes another black box and your approach becomes a yawn.

You can extend this principle to photos. But I see video as a significant intermediate step. The reason is that with the video you are still out in the observatory - or in the case of the 15-inch, standing in the open. You are still under a dark night sky. The TV set is covered with a piece of red transparent plexi so that your night vision is preserved. So at any moment you can look up at the sky - and at any moment you can pick up binoculars, use one of the other telescopes, or in a few seconds remove the TV camera and use the 15-inch. At one point this morning I caught Sirius - the dog star - shining brightly through a gap in the trees and before returning to the TV set I paused, I folded my hands, I bowed deeply and reflected in awe. This ability to see the world through your own unaided vision, through the telescope, or through the eyes of the video camera - and to quickly and seamlessly move back and forth among these various information inputs, makes it far easier to preserve and enhance a deep awareness - or so I hope.

Stay tuned. I'll be reporting more of my video astronomy experiences with images as time goes on.

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