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Viewing the Solar System with a video camera is extremely rewarding.
It’s an excellent observing tool for outreach, great for those who find eyepiece viewing uncomfortable and instantly satisfying, especially for those without the time for astrophotography.
With the right kit you can not only experience eyepiece views as good as the real thing live on any HDTV, but also broadcast live on the web through the Night Skies Network or record footage for creating high resolution photos at a later date.
Orion’s StarShoot HD video/web broadcasting camera is a recent addition to this emerging field, allowing for real-time observation of Solar System objects through a telescope; something that will appeal to beginners and advanced astronomers alike.
Opening its box revealed a comprehensive range of accessories, including an HDMI converter for processing the camera’s HD-SDI signals, a USB video capture box and software for observing with a computer.
The supplied manual is well laid out, but a wiring diagram to guide us through the set-up procedure would have been very useful here – especially for beginners, as there are many possible cable configurations depending on your preferred method of observing.
Surprisingly, the 12V input on the back of the camera has been disabled. Instead the camera requires 24V power via the supplied HDMI converter box and mains transformer.
Since this breaks away from convention we felt the manual should have made a better reference to this.
Power is sent to the camera through the supplied lightweight but low-grade BNC data cable.
This developed an intermittent connection fault, which was sorted by swapping it for a more robust, broadcast-quality cable.
Scouring the Solar System
The Sun, Moon and Saturn were our only feasible Solar System targets in the sky at the time of review, so we began by testing the Orion StarShoot HD with our 2.5-inch solar telescope and a focal reducer.
Using the converter box we simultaneously connected the camera to a domestic 19-inch HDTV with the supplied HDMI cable, and to a 6-inch HD professional monitor receiving the HD-SDI camera signal using our own broadcast-standard BNC cable.
We adjusted the gain and shutter using the supplied StarShoot imaging software to reduce noise and improve the exposure of the solar disc, as well as adjusting the colour balance and changing one of three dynamic range settings to improve contrast.
Setting this to 1.0 brought out the detail of both prominences and filaments, as well as the granulated texture of the Sun’s visible surface.
We could detect some sensor noise, although it was hard to see against the grainy photosphere.
More seriously, we a noticed an unexplained red cast to the right of the frame and a banding pattern across the screens.
Although barely noticeable at this point, it became more pronounced in close-up solar views without the focal reducer.
To observe the Moon we connected the StarShoot HD to a 4-inch apo refractor.
Detail on our nearest neighbour looked especially beautiful through the HD-SDI output, with none of the banding pattern visible in our solar telescope.
Though mountain ranges and craters showed up crisp detail, we could also see lots of distracting noise on the monitors – what looked like compression artefacts, along with a greenish tint in the shadow detail.
The much smaller image scale of Saturn proved more challenging for the camera, even with a 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain.
We had to increase the gain and reduce the shutter speed to achieve a good exposure, but we could discern the Cassini Division and the dark North Equatorial Belt between moments of good seeing.
There’s no doubt that the images, especially from the HD SDI broadcast signal, show lots of potential for a rewarding observing experience, especially when sharing at star parties.
However, the StarShoot HD is seriously compromised by the lack of field-friendly power requirements.
The fact is that 24V batteries are not as readily available as 12V ones, and finding access to mains power in the field will limit it to observatory or home use only.
Combined with some technical issues we feel that this camera package, although good value, is trying too hard to achieve too much for too little, so the overall product quality suffers as a result.
Outstanding outreach potential
The list of supplied accessories and connectivity options is impressive.
Depending on your preferred method of observing, configuration possibilities with the HDMI converter box include HDMI using a domestic HDTV, uncompressed HD-SDI for a professional broadcast TV signal, or standard definition.
There are also camera control, computer control and video capture options.
Cleverly, both HD outputs and the SD output can be used simultaneously, giving you the ability to use an SD monitor for framing and focusing, while at the same time an audience can be viewing a distance away (perhaps indoors) on several HDTVs.
For the ultimate observing experience though, the enclosed SD video capture device allows you to connect to the Night Skies Network and broadcast views directly from your telescope to much larger audiences, making this a very useful outreach tool.
This is purely a Solar System imager – its 1/3-inch sensor approximates to a 7mm eyepiece.
The camera can be set to three resolutions: standard definition at 720×480 pixels, or high definition at 1280×720 or 1920×1080 pixels.
We felt the sensitivity could have been better.
The supplied software allows you to control the StarShoot HD without having to touch the buttons on the rear of the camera body.
It was easy to navigate and made settings simple to adjust.
We found the preset menus didn’t give the best images; adjusting them manually was easy and gave better results.
The security-style camera body has a C mount front and is supplied with a threaded 1.25-inch nosepiece.
It can be operated without a computer by using the rear buttons to activate the onscreen display and navigate the menus, although touching the camera causes distracting shake.
There are two main outputs, standard definition and HD-SDI.
The latter produces a professional uncompressed HD signal for superior picture quality.
Connecting the converter box to the HD-SDI output lets you connect to domestic HDTV via the supplied HDMI cable. An aux output allows for computer control using the supplied software.
Shutter speeds range from 1/10,000th of a second to eight seconds, and as such Orion says the StarShoot HD can record some deep-sky objects.
When testing the eight-second exposure setting on globular cluster M13 using a 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain at f/4, the sensor disappointingly failed to record any real stars, only noise and dead pixels.
However, solar, planetary and lunar subjects were fine.
This review originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine.