Like many of our customers, often times development of new features or even trouble shooting hardware or software issues is often held up by lack of imaging weather. You can go a long way on the desk, or with simulators, but nothing really shakes out a piece of code like sitting in the dark with a small screened laptop with a flaky trackpad trying to image while the mosquitoes are buzzing in your ears and bitting you. There's not much patience here for misbehavior while visions of being injected with the West Nile virus are dancing in my head...
After a summer almost devoid of clear nights, this last weekend we had good seeing and good transparency so I decided to head down to my dark sky site in South Florida. I had a few goals, one was to see if I could not make the MYT misbehave with respect to guiding (sorry, but I could not), one was to work on "SkyBox", our Linux based imaging product, the other was to try and get some good dark sky time on a Nikon D810a before I have to return it.
"Did he just say Nikon?"
Yes. There has been some growing interest in Nikon X2 support, and with the new D810a Nikon has officially signaled that they are interested in the astrophotography market. In an effort to help things along, they sent me/us a D810a so I could use it for a little while, and work with the SDK to see if I could not get a native X2 plug-in going much like we have for the Canon DSLR's. I've had some success and can take pictures with a native X2 plug-in, but it is a long way from polished, and is taking time from a couple of high priority projects. In addition, simply... this is an expensive camera and if I can't have one to use regularly and debug against it, it's going to be pretty tricky to support it on an ongoing basis.
Around the same time... at least one if not more than one customer has mentioned that they like Backyard EOS better for DSLR imaging. Okay, I get this. Our workflow treats a DSLR like an uncooled CCD camera, and Backyard EOS treats it like a DSLR. They have a very polished interface that is 100% inspired by the DSLR experience. In fact, I already owned a copy and have used it for video capture for planetary imaging myself. I could go on and on about how there is more than one way to skin a cat, and how different mind sets and learning styles like to work in different ways, but I'll spare you the lecture. Needless to say, it was already in the back of my mind to make a plug-in that simply uses Backyard EOS as the X2 camera (TheSkyX already works well using other third-party imaging software as the "camera"). Then you could use TheSkyX "natively" for things like mount modeling, TPoint, closed loop slews, etc. and switch to Backyard EOS for your image capture if you like. All without having to disconnect/reconnect, etc. This would be a killer setup I thought for planetary imaging too since TPoint makes finding and centering the planet easy, and Backyard EOS makes capturing the 1 to 1 pixel ratio video of the planets possible.... and well, there's a good sized group of people who prefer to work their deep sky data captured as raw files, prefer live view to automated focus, and so on.
The straw that broke the camel's back on this idea was that O'Telescopes has also released Backyard Nikon. Now, here's a way to easily get Nikon support into TheSkyX without having to have a camera to test against ongoing. You can of course also control image capture from TheSkyX if you wanted as well if you wanted all the goodness that FITS files bring to the table (there are tradeoffs, but let's not make this blog about that).
Backyard EOS/Nikon has a socket based interface for remote control, so I asked the developer and he was very enthusiastic about the idea. In fact, he even added the ability to grab the raw files rather than the existing jpg interface (to be fair, he did say he was planning to do that anyway, but my request just gave him more reason to do it sooner). I was able to reuse bits of the Canon plug-in for turning the NEF files into raw data for FITS (we all pretty much use the dcraw library for this), and for the software 2x2 binning and subframing that makes plate solving and our focus routines work better. In the end, this worked really well on my desk, and at least too... if you'll excuse the pun... in my backyard. What I really wanted was a good run under dark skies too, at least once. What might I do 'scope side that I'm not thinking of at my desk...
In the end, I think the plug-in is ready for release, and just in time before I have to surrender the D810a. Bonus, it will also work with Backyard Canon! I'll have another blog soon just about the features/tradeoffs (you can only do whole second exposures for example), but in essence there's no real compromise to either using @Focus, TPoint, All Sky Image Link, with either a Canon or Nikon camera. You just select "Backyard Nikon" (or Canon) as your camera type and go. You will of course need the next Windows daily build, and an upcoming soon-to-be released build of Backyard Nikon or Backyard EOS.
Of course this wasn't all I did with my one good night. I'm working on a new plug-in for a guider that shall not be named... it locked up. Strange how it worked at home, but not in the field... thus my policy of not releasing anything I haven't used myself for real.
That not withstanding, I shot the Helix nebula in narrowband using the SkyBox/Linux project on a Paramount MYT, and also the same object on the Paramount MX+ using the Nikon D810a. I thought it would be fun/interesting to combine narrowband with DSLR RGB data... and I was right. I have a few critiques, but I'm not ashamed of the end result of nights worth of R&D... and a little imaging on the side.
09-23-2015 11:53 AM