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CN Report: The Night Vision Astronomy BIPH
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Adventures with a 90 inch telescope:
The Night Vision Astronomy Binocular Photon Machine
At a recent gathering up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula I had a chance to get some hands on "quality time" with Night Vision Astronomy's upcoming BHIP. Doug Baum, the developer had flown in and brought a sample with him. Doug and I also sat down and swatted a few blackflies (pardon the not so occasional camera jiggles, eh?) while talking about the BHIP, and that's preserved for posterity in the video interview below. Because we talked mainly about the technical aspects of the device, rather than rehash that, I'll let those interested pour over the video a few times and concentrate on my impressions of the device. Now, as you read this - keep in mind it's only a taste - Doug tells me he's planning on shipping me a unit so I can conduct a bit more in depth evaluation on, so expect me to add to this in the future.
For folks unaware of what the Binocular Photon Machine is, here's the quick answer - take a third generation military spec night vision device and mount it to optical gear so you can use in a telescope, or attach a low power lens for wide field scanning. It's similar to the Collins I3, but has a couple of distinct advantages. Quite possibly the two biggest being: 1) it's going to be readily available in fairly short order, and 2) you'll use both eyes to study the image instead of just one. I had a chance to use it in four different telescopes, and in probably one of the most novel and entertaining ways, attached to a 105mm camera lens (think binoculars on steroids). The telescopes we used consisted of an Obsession 30, a Tele Vue 85, a Vixen 115 and a 14" SCT.
Lets get one thing straight right away - this is a light amplification device, and as such you are not looking at a natural image per se. There's a green phosphor screen inside the device that forms the image. Images are quite sharp, and oddly enough eye relief is not a problem. It seems to be whatever you want, but more on that in a bit. The benefit to the device is that it multiplies your light gathering capability by some 50,000 times - effectively tripling your aperture - for certain targets anyway. Like other light gathering devices that have been on the market, it tends to work best on targets with a high IR signature - it does not do all that well with light from the other end of the spectrum. For instance, it does very little (if anything) to improve the quality of face on galaxies. Reflection nebulae, globs and planetary nebula all make for amazing targets however. To give you an idea of how this thing busts globs, we stuck it on my TV85, and pointed it at M13 and M22 - both targets that usually show a minor amount of resolution in that aperture but with the BIPH were clearly and easily resolved all the way across the face. The view was very similar to what I've seen in 10 and 12 inch telescopes from dark skies. But the real kicker here was that this particular observation took place before the moon set. I should note, that there were never any counterbalance issues with any of the setups we used it on.
Remember I said that the eye relief didn't seem to matter? Well, as waited in line to take your turn at the BIPH, it was evident that one could see the image clearly from about 5 feet away - think of an astronomical TV set and you'll get the picture. This is one of the aspects that make it very attractive for outreach.
The device works best in a well baffled telescope (it picks up on amazingly small amounts of stray light in the system), but even tho it was a shrouded truss dobsonian, the views were pretty jaw dropping in the Obsession 30 that was on the field that evening. Seeing the Pillars of Creation, with both eyes, in real time was absolutely amazing. It was like looking at a photo. And of course, in one sense it is. But with a difference - it's all done in real time. I'm not sure if it was the baffling of the open tube, the fast focal ratio or the sheer amount of light gathering ability, but there was a fair amount of "scatter/noise" (intermittent pixels firing) in the views. Honestly tho - that's just something you note and move on. It's not a huge issue.
The views improved when we moved to the C14, and the noise virtually disappeared. The target here was M51, and I can say that I wasn't surprised to see that the BIPH really didn't do much for it. I preferred the naturally aspirated view in an obsession 15" elsewhere on the field. Given the frequency response for the device, that really wasn't too shocking. Galaxies seem to be this technologies achilles heel. Doug Baum tells me he's got some ideas on how to improve on that tho, so it will be interesting to see how things develop in the long run.
Quite possibly the most interesting views came when it wasn't actually attached to a telescope. With a 105mm camera lens attached, we had our own "night vision binocular" - the field was suddenly as bright as day, and the tree line a mile away was clearly seen. Off in the distance, we even picked up a campfire that had gone completely unnoticed with unaided vision. Not much subtle about it in the BIPH. Pointing this arrangement at the summer milky way certainly took my breath away. NGC7000 - the North American Nebula was absolutely enthralling - quite literally, it looked like a photo - actually, it looked more solid than it does in photos - sort of like a cloud. Even though it's still a low powered binocular telescope, there was a definite 3-d view to the cloud-like North American Nebula. The Milky Way showed - well - oodles and oodles of stars, but one of the most striking areas was down in the far southern reaches. Since the BIPH works well into the IR, one thing that clearly stood out were the dark nebula in Scorpius and Sagittarius. These were flat out stunning. Now I've looked at this region time and time again with wide field refractors, and while there's definitely something to be said for the aesthetics of a "naturally aspirated" version, I don't think I've ever had a more "defined" view.
The BIPH worked amazingly well from a dark site, but given the technology it's based on it should work equally well in an urban environment yielding a more real time view than other technologies available today. Further, it's real time (as opposed to near real time - and it does not require an integration), and has no need for tracking. It works with just about any scope on any mount. Some might be concerned about the effects on your night vision. Well, frankly, this is only a concern if you don't plan on using the BIPH the entire evening and switching back and forth between natural and amplified views. Well, after moonset, the site had an SQM of 21.56 (translation - pretty dang dark, you could clearly see the shadows cast by Jupiter, and even read (large print) by the light of the Milky Way. I was honestly somewhat surprised at how little effect the green phosphor screen had on my night vision. It affected it, but just a few minutes after viewing my night vision returned to normal.
With the dark areas of the planet disappearing, there's no doubt in my mind that more and more observers will eventually be observing via - "electronic assistance", and in it's ability to view two eyed, the BIPH looks to be a milestone along that path. I look forward to spending some more time with one of these in the not so distant future.
- Uwe Pilz, UpnightsTX, darronbrown and 1 other like this