Video Astronomy is when you use special Astro video camera to watch the night sky. You replace your eyepiece with a camera, and the image is live on your computer screen or LCD device.
When I was buying my first telescope, I was thinking about doing something more than a simple observation through the eyepiece. I saw those fantastic pictures of space, planets, nebulas, and galaxies on the internet and in every astronomy document. I knew same as everyone involved in astronomy that all these beautiful pictures are not real. Ok, I mean they are real, but the colors and the details are not, compared to seeing it with the naked eye or even through the telescope eyepiece.
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The reason behind this is that our eyes can only see a fraction of the light spectrum and you can’t see the colors and details of space as on the pictures you see on the internet. So everything is mainly black and white, with a small exception on planets where you can see some color and details. But I wanted to see nice colorful nebulas. Anyway, I wanted to start making these colorful pictures with my telescope. I knew that it’s not going to be an easy task, but I like challenges. I have an IT background, so the technical point of that was not an issue for me.
My Problem With Astrophotography
I started to do the research, and I found how amateur astronomers are doing those pictures. It is called astrophotography, pretty obvious right? My first question was how much is going to cost me to buy the right scope and equipment for it. I found out after little research that for astrophotography you need a telescope at least on the EQ5 equatorial mount with good DSLR camera. After I saw the price for all of this, my world just crashed. You need thousands of dollars if you want to start with astrophotography. And it was too much for my first telescope. Another turn off was that you actually don’t see those beautiful pictures in real time and they are the product of a few images with long exposure stack together in computer software. So I told myself that I’m not going to spend so much money at the beginning, maybe later after I will enjoy just watching the sky with a basic entry-level telescope.
Low Budget Astrophotography?
I was still trying to work around the problem and the high price until I found out that there is something close to what I wanted to do with my first telescope and the entry price is not so “astronomical” like with astrophotography. It is called Video Astronomy, and many people think that it is the same thing, but it is not. Video Astronomy is different in one significant aspect. You can see everything in real time with color and all the details! Of course, I knew that it’s not going to be so nice and clear in a high definition like in astrophotography, but it feels more real for me to see it real time even in lower quality.
I was keen to start doing Video Astronomy, and I was looking for my first telescope. You don’t need an expensive mount for this kind of hobby. The standard mount is sufficient but I had a bigger budget, and I decided to buy Newtonian reflector on azimuthal GoTo mount. With an aperture of 130mm and the focal length 650mm. Good enough for me and it was on GoTo mount which was an essential factor for me because I wanted to navigate easily on the sky and save time by searching for objects manually. You can control it with the handset while watching the screen on your computer.
One crucial factor in Video Astronomy is a telescope. Because you want to see as many details in real time, you need a bigger aperture. The obvious choice is, of course, Newtonian reflector. They can collect a lot of light and are cheaper than refractors. Anyway, the refractor is not a good option for Video Astronomy. I’m not saying that it is impossible, you can try it if you have one but it will be only enough to watch moon and planets. I will explain later.
If you want to know more about how refractors and reflectors work you can check my article where I explained it.
Video Astronomy With Webcam
Yes, you hear me right. You can start doing Video Astronomy with a simple webcam, which means the entry price for this hobby is very low. The only thing you have to do is to modify the webcam a little bit by removing the lens and IR filter, so you end up with uncovered video capturing chip. There is, of course, a limitation for what you can do with a simply modified webcam in your telescope. It is only suitable to watch the moon and planets. On the other hand, you can use any telescope for that, refractor or reflector.
This is the real-time image of the Moon and the Jupiter through my telescope with a webcam, cool right?
However, if you want to see deep sky objects in color and real details you need something more sophisticated than a webcam. The camera for this purpose needs to have high light sensitive CCD chip. These chips can see a lot more of the light spectrum that your telescope is gathering.
Professional Camera For Video Astronomy
I was blown away after few hours with only a webcam in my telescope, and I wanted more. I wanted to see all the nebulas and galaxies in real time on my computer screen, and I still had a little bit of the money left. Thus I started looking for professional CCD camera which is used for Video Astronomy. There are many brands in different price range starting at a few hundred dollars going up to a few thousand. I didn’t want to spend too much, but I wanted something decent.
The excellent starting camera is Orion 53082 StarShoot G3 Deep Space Color Imaging Camera. You will get gorgeous pictures of deep space objects and planets. It is high quality, easy to set up and control with included software. But there is still room for much better experience with a more expensive camera, and I’m talking about $1000-$2000 price range. This is a little bit too much for Video Astronomy beginner. However, it didn’t stop me in my research which was good because I found an alternative with a bit of the challenge.
CCTV Camera For Video Astronomy
Let me explain first. There is no such thing as dedicated CCTV for astronomy. But few amateur astronomers decided to try some of these cameras because they have CCD chip used for Video Astronomy. Only a few models are suitable. The most used camera for that was Samsung SDC 435 with 1/3″ 600TV lines, and Super HAD CCD chip. It also has 0,05 lux and 0,0001 lux illumination sens-up which is very light sensitive and perfect for astronomy. The bad news was that I was not able to find any on the internet until I read somewhere that it has been renamed to Samsung SCB 2000 which I was able to find and purchase for $250.
Bad news for you is that this camera is becoming obsolete now and very hard to get. The chip in this thing is fantastic, and the results can be compared to expensive professional astro cameras at a price of around $2000. However, it needs to be modified, and the connection to your computer can be a struggle. It also has no active cooling so the image noise can be higher. But all this can be fixed and modified as I and many others did. And the results are surprising in real time. Because of its high illumination range and exposure settings I got a lot for little money. If you can find one, make sure to get it as soon as possible!
These are real-time images of star cluster M13, planetary nebula M27 and Orion nebula M42 taken by my modified Samsung SCB 2000 and 130/650 reflector. It was in the highly polluted city, so it’s not perfect, but you can imagine what it can be if observed from some dark spot away from pollution.
The Advantage Of The Video Astronomy Over Astrophotography
The most significant advantage is that you can do it in highly polluted areas and cities with satisfying results. You don’t need dark skies like with astrophotography. The entry price is pretty low with a webcam and even with some pro astro camera. And you don’t need expensive EQ5 mount as in astrophotography. However, you need to buy a Newtonian reflector for deep space objects. Anyway, for me it is very close to the astrophotography because you can export the frames of the video you made, stack it in astronomical stacking software and end up with nice pictures.
I love Video Astronomy and if you give it a try, you will too. It feels authentic watching all these fantastic objects in space full of color and in real time. Imagine having a backyard party with family or friends looking with open mouth on your screen while you are showing them all those beautiful images live. Because in my experience, people expecting to see the space with a telescope like they can see it in the pictures on the internet or TV. And they are always disappointed little bit when they look at the black and white image through the eyepiece of the telescope. But with the Video Astronomy, they can see what they expect to see.