Electronically Assisted Astronomy (EAA) means here real-time (or nearly real-time) viewing of astronomical objects (usually deep sky) with an aid of electronic devices. Typically the term applies to DSLR or CCD live stacking, sometimes also loosly to liveview or video with cameras and DSLRs or HDR Video with DSLRs using Magic Lantern. To me it is mostly Live stacking and what I choose  to call “Lazy Casual Astrophotography“. Lazy means to me the 80/20 rule, with 20% of the effort get good enough astro-photographies, to get them within seconds or minutes and Casual to get them at home where I often “see nothing” with visual observation because of light pollution and bad seeing. 

Atik Infinity EAA

20160610-M29 Ininity 3xBarlow Hantelnebel

Electronically Assisted Astronomy comes with a moderate price tag, especially with the newest cameras. I use an Atik Infinity with my 80 mm f7.5, 130mm f7 APO’s or (not as often) with the two 203 mmm f/4 and f/6 Newtons, together with filters and flattener/reducer.

The Atik Infinity is the first Atik Camera dedicated to EAA livestacking (to me different from “video astronomy”). It has both the speed and sensitivity required for this rewarding technique, and comes with a very good, robust and simple SW. The Infinity features a Sony ICX825 sensor embedded with EXview HAD CCD II™ technology and   6,45 pixel size.

Short Presentation
03192017-Electronically-Assisted-Astronomy-EAA.avi

Click on the picture right or here for a short Presentation of Electronically Assisted Astronomy (EAA). In the field I controll the equipment usually with a small Lenovo X200 laptop connected via a TightVNC Viewer. All of the technology is run by an an Orbsmart AW-06/8 Plus Windows 10 (64-bit) Low Power Mini PC on the telescope, at home conveniently from the warm office with visual contact.

When I meet with visual observers in the field, they really like the color and details without need to collect data and rework them for hours (like for astrophotography) – it all works in seconds to minutes. EAA is  a compromise of course, semi-visual and I still do enjoy the view through their Dobsons – our eyes are the best camera(s).

Live stacking is a common-sense approach: you take a sensitive CCD camera that you already have for imaging (I have a also Lodestar X2 Guider), set for short exposures and connect to a laptop for real-time processing coupled with filters (CLS, SI II, Ha or OIII). The image is produced on the fly and improved with each new frame coming from the camera. If set for summing, the image will brighten with each new frame and the noise will diminish. Gradually the faint details will emerge … Easy!  The Infinity Software registers automatically incoming frames (including shift and rotation) and also capable of basic stretching and color balancing operations.

Livestacking Programs

As I wrote live stacking addresses a large segment of what I choose to define as “Lazy Casual Astrophotography“.

For fast results and when I crave color views of nebulae and star clusters my choice is Color. On certain targets a mono camera is certainly better.

There are several options foe EAA Software:

  • Atik Infinity Software – for use only with the ATIK camera – ATIK Infinity Camera (C/SW) and the ATIK cooled Horizon Color CMOS with a Sensor D=21,9 mm.
  • Pauls Lodestar Live Beta renamed Starlight Live (now official Starlight Express Distribution) for Starlight Express Lodestar X2.
  • AstroToaster/DSS Live appears to be the most popular stacking/viewing add on for any camera.
  • Sharp Cap can capture video to AVI and SER format; capture stills to PNG and FITS and supporting Starlight Express and others native as well as Ascom drivers.
  • DeepSkyStacker Live is designed to be used in the field during an imaging session for the following tasks:
    •  Aligning and stacking the images as they are captured.
    • Computing and showing statistics on the incoming images (FWHM, number of detected stars, drifting…)
    • Showing the stacked image

Below there is the first try with an Atik 314L+ and narrowband filters. I took this images from my office a few days ago, on what has been the worst  “White Zone” background.  DSS Live stacking  an PixInsight for reworking/composite. The two M42 (first picture field trip just 50 mi  from city) show, that also for live stacking, clear sky is still rules astrophotograpy.

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The Infinity Livestacker software is included with drivers in the core software, stable with all (but not more than) needed features.  Is in my homble opinion the leader of the pack. Since 2018 there is even Colour Binning in the Infinity Software.This allows to bin the data from and maintain the colour information. It’s compatible with the Infinity camera, Atik Horizon and 4-Series models.  An Atik article explains it more in depth here. Colour binning happens in software after the unbinned image has been read out for both CCD and CMOS cameras. You won’t get the same level of increase in signal to noise ratio when using CCD as you would using on-chip binning and losing the colour (you can read more about the maths behind that here) but it can still provide some great results.

DeepSkyStacker Live and AstroToaster (uses Deep Sky Stacker engine) are compatible with any capturing device (DSLR, CCD Camera) and any software as long as the captured images are created in a folder and are of a recognized file format (FITS, TIFF, JPEG and most RAW images). DSS Live is slightly cumbersome doing live stretching and colour adjustment.   The  Starlight Live is free, but works only with Starlight Xpress camera).

SharpCap is another easy-to-use but versatile Astronomy camera capture tool. It can be used with dedicated astronomy cameras, webcams and USB frame grabbers. A wide range of features makes SharpCap suitable for Electronically Assisted Astronomy) but also Planetary, Lunar, Solar types of astro-imaging including.

Post Processing

HDR (High Dynamic Range) workflow

Normally I use PixInsight for Potst-Processing, which is divided into four main sections—Preprocessing, Linear Post-processing, Nonlinear Post-processing, and Special Processing. In the picture on the right I used Pseudo HDR with Photoshop Elements – overlay of a highly stretched picture and a low one over a blured mask.  In PSE 12 it is not possible to work on the mask directly, but I used an adjustment layer on a sharp mask and blur it with brush and gauss filter. Photoshop Elements does support layer masks, but only with adjustment layers. An adjustment layer always comes with its own built-in layer mask, which is one of the reasons why they’re so useful. Well, what we can do is to “borrow” a layer mask from an adjustment layer, and “share” its layer mask with a normal layer. Of course, almost any CCD camera will do for live stacking, some even use DSLRs, but very sensitive cameras will do best.

Electronically Assisted Astronomy – Practice

  • Electronically Assisted Astronomy (EAA)  ie. digital image capturing with Live stacking addresses a large segment of what we call EAA
  • For fast results and when I crave color views of nebulae and star clusters my first choice is my Infinity Color. I have a S/W Lodestar X2 guider too.
  • EAA is trying to establish a very real gap/need in the market. Instant gratification with near real time imaging experience at the scope without sacrificing resolution/quality and overcome light pollution.
  • Having done standard imaging (with a DSLR) and casual imaging for many years I don’t think EAA will replace the high end cooled CCDs anytime soon.
  • EAA is useful to check if post processing is worth it.
  • Atik Infinity SW has no hot pixel removal as Starlight Live with Lodestar X2 and iis Image acquisition seems slower (although appropriate comparison due to the RGB matrix) or even 60Da
  • In summary, EAA/Imaging user experience addresses both the inexperienced user as well as an experienced imager looking for a more casual experience.

With two or three cameras, tree tubes and filters, there are lots of combination to get the right Field of View (FOV) and sensitivity for the different Deep Sky objects and one needs to plan ahead. Sometimes I use Newton and APO simultaneously. Distance of the reducer is critical.

 

Scope Reducer Needed T2M48 FW T2M48 Ext EOS Distance Camera Focus
ASA 65 5.5 20 5.5 -21 11 44 Canon APS
LP 55 5.5 20 5.5 -31 11 44 Canon APS
None 55 0 20 5.5 -25.5 11 44 Canon APS
None 55 0 0 0 0 11 44 Canon APS
Lens 55 0 0 0 0 11 44 Canon APS
N f/4 ASA 65 10 11 44 Canon APS OK
APO F/7.5 LP 55 0 11 44 Canon APS OK
N f/4 ASA 65 5.5 20 5.5 21 0 13 Ininity
APO F/7.5 LP 55 5.5 20 5.5 11 0 13 Infinity OK
APO F/7.5 None 55 5.5 20 5.5 11 0 13 Infinity OK K Adpt
None Lens 55 0 19 0 12 11 13 Infinity
ASA 65 52 0 13 Ininity
LP 55 42 0 13 Infinty
APO F/7.5 None -12.5 0 12.5 LodestarX2 L+K Adpt
Guider 60 mm   f/4 None -12.5 0 12.5 LodestarX2

 In order for EAA to work as observing tool it needs to be fast and easy to setup (e.g. no guiding, short exposures) and fast to acquire images (i.e. short exposures, sensitive) but guiding still helps.

Therefore choosing a very sensitive camera is a good choice. First I tried my Starlight Xpress Lodestar X2 B/W which I use for guiding. It is a reasonable sensitive little camera and it works with Starlight Live, and brought reasonable results. However, make it even easier I acquired the Atik Infinity, which I do like.  IMHO live stacking is the most promising EAA approach, very natural, very versatily, quick, and as close as possible to observing/imaging álso under difficult circumstances.

I do field trips for visual or photographic observation, but often the weather is not stable enough to spend a 100 Mile trip plus 4 hours (pack/unpack, getting equipment up). Or I am simply reluctant to crawl around the telescope in the dark or freezing cold but do like to see and even record objects with minimum frustration. Then I am not ashamed to be a “couch-astronomer”. 

Links

Live Broadcasting Websites

  • Video Astronomy Live: www.videoastronomylive.co.uk
    This site has been created as a platform for amateur astronomers globally to broadcast live and share with you the views they see of our Universe. Using a variety of specially adapted CCD cameras and sophisticated software they will showcase live views of Lunar, Solar, Planets or near live views Deep Space Objects. You will be able to chat with Broadcasters in real time and ask questions or even make requests for a specific object you would like to see.