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Meade Deep Space Imager

Posted by Max Corneau   01/20/2005 12:00AM

Meade Deep Space Imager
Bottom line up front: I’m very pleased with the performance of my Meade Deep Space Imager (DSI) and would make the purchase again. However, overall happiness did not come without some frustration. Like many, I waited nearly a month on the DSI backlog list. While awaiting delivery, I spent time on the Yahoo DSI user’s group. Here is where I first learned from fellow enthusiasts about the travails of Autostar installation, the imager not being recognized, hot pixels, the need for USB 2.0 to do just about anything, and the challenges of coloration and processing.

Back in the “early days” of DSIs in the field (Nov-Dec 2004) consumer anger began to build against Meade for it’s advertising claims, “Take pictures like these your first night out.” While showing striking galactic and nebular images from a “casually aligned Meade 8” LX200 GPS”. When user problems and complaints began to far outweigh satisfaction, I sought out the camera’s designer and invited him to address concerns to the user’s group. This seems to be the turning point in DSI history for shortly after the camera designer posted information, confidence in the camera began to grow.

What you get for $299
The DSI comes in a small box containing the following;
-Camera body
-IR blocker
-1.25” screw-on nosepiece
-USB 2.0 cable (it’s a short one, beware)
-RJ to DB9 adapter
-Autostar Suite Installation CD ROM (contains instruction manuals)
-2-sided “quickstart” instruction sheet
-6-wire and 4-wire RJ cables
-1.25” parfocal ring

The heart and soul of any CCD imager is the chip itself. The DSI boasts a “high sensitivity” Sony Super .HAD Color CCD array with 9.6x7.5 micron pixels. The array contains 510x492 pixels.

True to the advertisement, you’ll be able to start imaging your first night out. Well, this is true if you have the following;
-USB 2.0 on your computer
-focal reducer to get your scope down to a reasonable focal ratio or you’ll be imaging with the equivalent of about a 9mm eyepiece. My ETX-125 works nicely with a .5 focal reducer. On the USB 2.0 thing, don’t even try the camera unless you’re running 2.0. There are many reasons, but just go with 2.0. Tip #1 if you are upgrading your laptop through its PC card, please be sure you buy a “powered card” or you’ll be adding one more DC power source to your growing spaghetti-bowl. I recommend a card that has a power chord that takes power from the existing USB source. These can be found for around $50-$60 at the major electronics shops. Note in the photo above I included the CD and PC card for the USB 2.0 investment I had to make. This was an unpleasant element of the “DSI learning curve”.

Meade issued an autostar update for the DSI. This 2.66 MB update corrects the problem of the DSI driver not being recognized by the Autostar software interface. Actual patch installation is simple, however problems still occur on some operating systems.

One final gotcha is that Windows XP users must ensure they are running their OS with Service Pack 2 updates or the DSI software will not function properly due to persistent driver recognition errors.

Getting Started

If your camera came assembled with the nosepiece and IR blocker installed, please unscrew the nosepiece and check the blocker. If it’s a clear, glass circle with a small square glass IR Blocker element in the middle, do yourself a favor and call Meade Customer support and order a new one because yours just broke. Even if its’ not broken, it will break within about 10 hours of use. Believe me, this is true. Imagine designing something where the pressure barrier between two opposing pieces of screwed on metal is a piece of glass? Meade’s re-engineered solution is much better and provides a rubber gasket to hold the IR blocker in place. Figures two and three below illustrate the differences. Some people call these IR filters, while they actually block the IR.

Now you’re ready to actually get started.

The DSI manual recommends beginning with a terrestrial image. I don’t recommend this unless you normally do most observing in the daylight….wait, why did you buy a deep sky imager if you take daytime pictures? So start in your normal environment, the night sky classroom. Center up an image in your scope, remember that the DSI is like a 9mm eyepiece in its field of view, so center up is the key term here. Allow :15 minutes of outside time for the camera to cool to ambient temperature. Carefully place the nosepiece into the 1.25” ring and secure it. Beware the nosepiece has a lip and you may get a falsely secured camera the first few times.

The default “auto-contrast” setting will cause you to see a white screen of deathly pixels at first. Fear not. Uncheck auto-contrast and drag the histogram sliders to the right until things start to darken up. Recommend first sliding the bottom, then adjust the top. These are extremely sensitive so just ballpark the slider then use the scrolling function. Ensure “Live” is checked near the top left of the DSI control window. You should see something by now. Focus it. Now focus again. Adjust exposure time in the scroll window to the far left of the Live checkbox. Ensure the image process window to the right of the countdown timer reflects what you’re imaging i.e. Deep sky for deep sky objects. Don’t adjust gain and offset unless doing planetary images. Once you’re happy with what you see, find an alignment star, left click and box it. Two green lines should appear on the star. You’re ready to hit start. Remember that the lines don’t represent tracking, they represent image alignment for stacking. You should see your image build and improve with each exposure. The first five exposures are comparators used to judge remaining image quality.

Save the image in the format you desire. Next time take some dark frames and use them. Darks will significantly reduce electronic noise and allow you to improve image quality.

Processing Image

Once you’ve taken the image, the job is half-done. I recommend using Registax to stack if you save individual images and even if you let Autostar combine them, make several images and stack in Registax. Following this, do more work in Adobe photoshop and save a final image you can brag to your spouse about. Remember, usually spouses are not as impressed in our photos as we are.

My newly Supercharged Meade ETX-125 will hold a solid image for 8-second exposures. At f7/5 I’m turning in some very pleasant nebular and galactic images. From our astronomy club’s dark sky site in Oklahoma things are even better. For samples of my images go to The Yahoo Deep Sky Group is a great place to find up-to-the-minute information on the DSI And finally, Mike Weasner’s ETX site offers a good DSI resource

In summary, the DSI fills a unique niche in the astrophotography market. I will call this a crossover camera. The camera is simple enough for a beginner to “point and shoot” yet allows more complex operations that only a more experienced astro-imager might utilize. From Mike Weasner’s Mighty ETX user’s website one DSI user expressed it perfectly, I would say to anyone getting a DSI don't expect good images without some work! It is a bit more complicated than the LPI but with practice (and good conditions) it appears that the results can be excellent!!” Despite the travails during the early days, I’m quite pleased with the Meade Deep Space Imager.

Click here for more about the Meade DSI. -Ed.