I am going to start this thread with a view to outline the testing of Astrel's 16200B (which uses KAF-16200 chip) over the next few weeks/months, provide the test results and my honest opinion of what I think about the camera - its strengths and weaknesses (as they pertain to me specifically, others will be free to make their own conclusions obviously).
I will be testing the mono version of the camera (which I believe uses a Class II KAF-16200 chip) with a 7 position filter wheel built in to the camera (I will be using either Celestron's OAG or ZWO OAG - both are M48 connection and the camera has a native M48 connection). I still don't have the camera in my possession, but I am hoping it makes its way over from Italy safe and sound over the next couple of weeks.
In this post, I am looking to provide some background, the reasons why I will conduct tests and what do I intend to test (at a high level). I still haven't fully flushed out a strategy for testing this camera, but I hope people in here can guide me through some of that.
Ever since selling the QHY16200A (7-position FW), I have been on the lookout for another brand of camera that uses the KAF-16200 chip. The reasons for selling the QHY16200A were mostly related to having to manually set gain - it is a cumbersome process (at least for me - one of the reasons I am not a big fan of CMOS cameras), so the intent was to look for a camera where gain would be set at the factory. I have also been looking at slightly more cost effective versions of the camera, thereby ruling out FLI and SBIG. The only remaining options then were ATIK and Starlight Xpress (even the SX version would have to be a used version to make financial sense of it).
I had not considered Astrel - for a couple of reasons 1) I believe Astrel came out with the 16200 camera only very recently and hence they were not even on my radar and 2) When I had taken a cursory look at Astrel's 8300 camera on OPT, it had thrown me off because they seem to be using 27mm filters and I am not sure who manufactures 27mm filters other than Astronomiks, certainly not Astrodon (Far Point Astro now) or Chroma. However, I recently saw a post here on CN where someone was asking about Astrel cameras and I went to their website and saw that they had a 16200 camera as part of their line up. As I explored more, I found out that the camera lacked ASCOM drivers for that particular camera (or at least at the time they were in the process of writing that piece of code). In lieu of the ASCOM driver, Astrel sells their cameras with optional components that allows controlling the camera without the need for an additional PC, however, it was my understanding that such a system would only work if the person imaging would be close to the set up and not in a fully automated setting. I remember posting in here and asking the question of anyone was using Astrel's 16200 camera in an automated setting - there obviously are not a lot of people doing that right now. However, that post drew the attention of Andrea - one of the owner's of Astrel and he responded to that post indicating that they had just released the ASCOM drivers for the camera (built on the ASCOM driver for their 8300 camera which apparently is widely used in remote/automated observatories). I immediately got in touch with Andrea to learn more and since then, both Andrea and Antonio (the other owner/founder of Astrel Instruments) have spoken with me via email and explained what they do and what separates their products from the rest. I won't go in to the details of those conversations, those details can be found on their website.
For me, there are two things that have me excited about this camera - 1) Initial cost of the camera. The camera is very decently priced (at least in Euros and from what I hear, there are no import duties on CCD cameras from Italy to the US - I have tried verifying this information from multiple sources and everyone seems to concur with the no duty aspect assuming one does not use FedEx or UPS - FedEx and UPS seem to add a huge handling fee, but that is not the discussion of topic here) and 2)Of all the 16200 cameras out there, Astrel is the only manufacturer that allows using 36mm filters for the KAF-16200 chip. Assuming that works, THIS IS HUGE! (the cost of 50mm filters from either Astrodon or Chroma adds significantly to the overall cost - yes, you can use other 50mm filters, but I am of the opinion that filters are probably a trifle more important than the actual camera for collecting better data overall - not by much mind you, just a bit more).Astrel sent me a couple of test images (attached is a single 10 minute Ha sub using a F4 and 1150mm FL scope that Astrel sent me) and there is very minimal (but uniform) vignetting on the corners (I will be using a F8 scope, more about that later in this post) - but if I can make this work for my set up, I imagine this to be a game changer for this particular chip for people seeking a cost effective 16200 camera.
I plan on conducting all testing using my Meade LX850 ACF 10in F8 scope. The scope will be mounted on an AP1200 mount using APCC Pro. All my equipment is/will be in a remote observatory (MaRIO) in the deserts of West Texas. I will be more than 1500 miles away from the equipment during some of the tests.
With regards to software that I have - I have PixInsight as my image processing software. Outside of that, I do have a copy of SGP and Prism for image capture automation. I don't have other image capture software, but I am assuming if the ASCOM driver works with SGP and Prism, it should work with the likes of CCDAP and ACP as well.
Testing Strategy - What to Test?
As part of my testing, I intend to test the following:
1) Camera: The most obvious test will be to ensure I can get the camera to work according to its specs. This will mean testing back focus, temperature regulation (being in West Texas, this will be interesting), electricity consumption, connectivity to other hardware (OAG, extension tubes, etc.), fixed noise, etc. Of primary importance to me, given that I will be using 36mm filters, is how accurate the filter wheel works in terms of being able to center on the chip every time I turn to a new filter. This is extremely important if there is any vignetting. I want the vignetting, if there is any, to be uniform and consistent.
2) Camera+Scope: While this is not necessarily a test of the camera per se, I do need to see if the Meade ACF F8 version produces a flat field with this particular chip. There is no real documentation around the image circle for the telescope, however, in seeing some of the images captured using this particular scope and a 8300 chip, it is clear that the telescope produces a flat field for the 4/3 sensor. I am hoping that is the case with this camera combination as well, however, if it is not, it won't be a ding against the camera, just a note to myself that I probably need a different scope! I won't be using a reducer or flattener with this scope, so apart from the flat field test, this combination will also help me test how bad the vignetting is at F8. Again, I am not so worried about vignetting per se (as long as it is consistent and uniform), the benefit of using 36mm filters clearly outweighs the dis-advantage of having to crop out some of the FOV if I have to. I think I can live with that.
3) Software Integration: This is by far the most important test as far as I am concerned, primarily because I don't believe Astrel has tested the ASCOM driver for this camera using a remote/automated setup. If ASCOM does not work, I cannot use this camera. Period. I will be working with Astrel Instruments to fine tune the drivers if need be (and Andrea has promised to work with me in this regard), but it will be a real shame if the ASCOM drivers are not up to snuff. From what I have been told, the drivers are based on their 8300 chip cameras and it should work (and I am assuming it should not be too big of a leap between the two cameras with regards to drivers), but it still needs to be tested and seen! The other piece that Astrel wants me to test is their image automation suite. I am not sure if I will be getting a camera that has those components, but if I do get it, I will try and test the camera to see if their software suite (especially their image automation software) can work in a remote setting without the need for ASCOM (although, I am not quite sure how that will work with APCC/PEMPro/PHD2 - those are critical elements in automating a remote set up using A-P mounts and I am willing to bet that their stand alone image automation tool cannot yet do all the things that a combination of those software can do). But, I will oblige and test however much that I can and provide my honest feedback to Astrel in particular and this community in general.
Assuming the ASCOM driver works well, I am going to hope that APCC Pro can pick up this camera - it will be important to run APPM (APCC's pointing model) and PEMPro (obviously not part of APCC, but it is my understanding that Ray has written major components of APCC and obviously PEMPro). Those two are critical for A-P mount's critical functioning and not being able to work with those two pieces of software will also throw a spanner. I hope Andrea is communicating with Ray to ensure this works smoothly! (Hint, Hint)!
What have I found so far?
I have exchanged a few emails with Andrea and two with Antonio. My initial feel is that they know what they are doing. They seem cordial to work with and the fact that Andrea volunteered to work with me to test the ASCOM driver, makes me feel a bit comfortable. The devil, as they say, will be in the details of course - but initial impressions have been positive.
There is one thing that I have to admit (and this is just me) - Astrel manufactures their cameras using what they call a "smart-camera" approach. What is shown on their website leads me to believe that the camera has a computer chip embedded on to the body of the camera. What is not clear though is, how would one really use that chip - can I install a lite OS on it (for folks wanting to leverage INDI drivers, this may be useful), can I use something like a headless monitor connection to take a peak in to what the OS can offer, etc.? Like I mentioned, maybe it is me that doesn't understand those nuances, so, if anyone using their cameras has clarity, please feel free to notate that as part of this post.
For now, I encourage people who have tested other products to chime in if I have the right constructs for my testing strategy and add to what I may be lacking. I would also like to hear from people what would they test, apart from the obvious of course.
A bit about the timeline - I won't be receiving the camera for at least 2 more weeks - so this post is a bit early, but I wanted to put this out so that I don't forget what I am trying to do with this camera. I am sure I can perform initial testing really quickly, even see how the vignetting is holding up given that I have the scope with me and not at the observatory. However, ASCOM testing and other software testing won't happen till I get my equipment to the remote observatory, which by the looks of it won't happen till Labor Day weekend (early September). I am hoping that once the equipment is out there, I will conduct initial testing rather quickly, but some aspects may have to be deferred to a bit later. I will also have to rely on Astrel Instruments and given that they are in Europe, it might be difficult to coordinate some of the hands-on testing with them, but we will see.
I am feeling excited about this camera, just because I can use 36mm filters with the 16200 chip. Hopefully, I am not building up my expectations too high!
PS: I will be purchasing the camera from Astrel-Instruments, I will not be using a "test" camera, but rather a camera that I will own from the get go. It does not change a thing about my testing philosophy or methodology, I hope to test with the same vigor as I would test a "test" camera. I should also mention that I am not affiliated with Astrel in any way other than being a customer.
Edited by dhaval, 30 July 2019 - 11:57 AM.