SkyNews tests a versatile astronomical imaging system.
Since 2010, I’ve had the privilege of trying out Rock Mallin’s VSS+ and Xtreme video CCD cameras, both of which impressed me with their ability to present near real-time views of night-sky wonders in detail — and full colour — on a computer monitor or TV screen. So when I heard about a new MallinCam model, dubbed Universe, I jumped at the opportunity to test it.
When the package arrived, I quickly realized that the Universe is a very different creature from the MallinCams I had come to know. For starters, it isn’t so much “the latest MallinCam” as it is a whole new addition to the toolbox of amateur astronomers — a significant step closer to a high-performance CCD camera than previous versions.
What’s really new is the Constant Refresh System (CRS) that presents a full-frame preview on the monitor every time the camera acquires another picture while aimed at the same celestial object. So you can essentially display real-time images while simultaneously acquiring multiple shots for stacking and manipulating once your observing session is over.
While earlier MallinCams still amaze me with their quality imagery, I learned that the Class 1 CCD sensors they use are only 380 kilopixels in size, while the Universe has a 6.3-megapixel sensor — 16 times bigger. The results are nothing short of staggering.
Mallin’s earlier models were specifically designed as an “aid to visual observation.” Because of the small size of the video CCD sensor, you could acquire bright, full-colour images of deep-sky objects in well under a minute. But frame grabs often resulted in less satisfying representations than what was displayed on the monitor, as enlarging the images shows pixelation. However, the Universe’s Class 0 large scientific-grade sensor delivers an image that is 3032 × 2016 pixels — plenty big enough for gorgeous images. Even more important, the time it takes to gather the images is substantially reduced. The bottom line: You can now take great images in very short order while still retaining the ability to display live, or near live, images as the camera does its job.
Entering The Mallincam Universe
The Universe arrives in a package containing the big camera (2.2 pounds) with its built-in cooling system, a 2-inch threaded adapter, a 1.25-inch converter, an AC adapter (100V AV to 12 V DC) power supply, 16 feet of USB cable and the Panel Manager software and drivers (delivered in a classy USB flash drive). MallinCam also offers an optional 0.5× focal reducer and a spacer for Universe, a good idea if you want to capture images of extended objects, like those featured here.
Now to the setup. Universe runs from your computer laptop, which can also be attached to a large-screen monitor for group viewing. Ideally, a GoTo telescope is the best equipment for Universe, enabling you to minimize the intervals between moving from object to object. Mounting the camera in your telescope’s eyepiece holder adds weight and requires counterbalancing the telescope tube. For a GoTo telescope to track properly, the telescope must be balanced. Once the camera is installed on the telescope, you don’t have to touch it again. Everything else is controlled by the computer’s software.
I’ll state right here that I’ve never done CCD imaging before other than to snatch some frame grabs for my 2010 review of the MallinCam VSS+. However, I quickly found the Universe straightforward to use, and I couldn’t believe the quality of the images I managed to obtain on my first night out.
A combination of several factors makes this possible, and the detailed User’s Guide leads you through each step of installing the software and hardware, then learning how to use the various settings in the Universe’s software. (You can download a PDF copy of the guide here.)
And if there’s anything you still don’t understand, Mallin has a whole army of volunteers ready to help you on a number of on-line forums. (I’m particularly indebted to François van Heerden, who was always ready to answer any of my questions in simple terms I could understand.)
One Step At A Time
By following the User’s Guide, one cautious step at a time, I soon had the Universe running by simply clicking a “Start Camera” button on the Panel Manager. Immediately, things began happening. A line under “Exposure” showed that the Universe was rapidly acquiring an image, and a moment later, the preview window on my laptop displayed a blurry image of the Moon (I thought it wise to begin on a large, bright object). I had the camera plugged in to my friend Gordon Skerratt’s older-model Meade 10-inch LX200, which has a Motofocus that makes focusing easy.
A section on the Panel Manager marked “Area Display” allows a small portion of the object being imaged to expand to full screen. Once you’ve done that, it’s a simple process to get the image as sharp as your optics — and the seeing — will allow. (It’s also a great way to fine-tune the collimation of your Schmidt-Cassegrain or Newtonian telescope.)
Other main tabs on the Panel Manager allow you to select specific settings for acquiring a single image or multiple images and to choose where the images are to be stored on your computer. While it is possible for more experienced astro-imagers to make numerous subtle changes to the image acquisition, I am happy to report that you don’t need to. Mallin has provided simple, quick ways to ease new users into the world of CCD imaging.
For example, I thought the histogram at the top of the Property tab would be a nightmare to grasp until I realized that you can simply click on “Auto,” and the camera will take care of those settings for you. And if you want to be more hands-on, you just left-click the left side of the histogram graph, then right-click the edge of the right side to get your image exactly where you want it.
When you are ready to take an image, you click on the “Capture” button. After the exposure time you have selected has passed, you click on the Picture tab, and there’s your image. Nothing to it — even for an “old dog” like me.
However, a single image capture isn’t really the raison d’être for the MallinCam Universe. Its prime purpose is to capture multiple images that you can stack and manipulate (using programs such as DeepSkyStacker, RegiStax, AutoStakkert! and myriad others — all available to download for free).
Note: You can utilize the Universe’s own Stack function, but the camera then uses all the images you’ve acquired, including any tracking glitches, passing clouds, aircraft, satellite trails, and so on.
Mallin has made the multicapture process as simple as possible by incorporating a Sequence Capture Mode on the main Property tab. You just select how many images you’d like to acquire, then click the Capture button and watch as it counts down your images. Once it’s finished, you click on the Picture tab to see the results.
Under A Night Sky
I was fighting clouds, bad seeing, a waxing gibbous Moon, swarms of mosquitoes and less-than-perfect tracking on my first night with the Universe. So when the clouds finally turned into a solid overcast, I surrendered and went inside to play with the images I had managed to acquire.
I seem to have had the most success with a series of twenty 10-millisecond images of the southern half of the Moon, so I fired up RegiStax and asked the program to stack my images and meld them into one, and I could not believe the final image it delivered. Tycho seemed to jump out of the photo, almost as if it were in 3-D. The craters along the Moon’s lower limb all showed gorgeous, sharp detail — and this was just my first attempt.
When the Moon gets out of the way, I will be dipping into deep-sky imaging. But since Chris Appleton and Daniel Borcard have already mastered this with the Universe, I’ll let their images do the talking.
As to the reactions of others who have seen my Universe images, there has been much jaw-dropping. People can’t believe how good the images are and how little time it took me to acquire them. I have a feeling that I’ll be spending many late nights out in the dark with my “new best friend,” the MallinCam Universe.
Glenn Norman has been an amateur astronomer since the early 1960s and still can’t wait to get out under the stars on a clear night. He lives near Mount Forest, Ontario.
This review originally appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of SkyNews.