Saturday, February 27, 2010

Permanent Mounting for the Meteor Camera

Finally I have a permanent mounting for the camera, complete with a custom made bracket. The mounting allows the camera aim to be adjusted, which is handy during installation. I don’t intend to move it once it’s in position.

I decided to point the camera at the South Celestial Pole (SCP) for several reasons:
- There will always be reference stars in the FOV
- There is no risk of the Sun shining directly into the camera
- Light pollution from the Moon is minimised

Using the scintillation mask once more from UFO Capture, I was able to exaggerate the stars that could be detected by the camera in the following image. That allowed me to identify the stars and pin point where the camera was aimed at.

White dots circled in red are actually hot pixels, determined from a dark frame image shown on a previous post. The camera is pointing slightly off from the SCP but it’s good enough for what we need. I used Starry Night Pro 4.5 to manually identify the stars in the image. I first tried overlaying multiple layers of the Starry Night image and the actual image from the camera but found that I could not match them 100%, I suspect that there is slight image distortion from the glass and perspex lens of the housing. Nevertheless, the image is close enough to accurately match the star patterns.

Note that the the faintest star that was masked consistently by the scintillation function of UFO Capture was at an  apparent magnitude of  6.12, identified as HIP109584 (circled in dark blue in the image). Hopefully this means that I can get consistent meteor detections down to an apparent magnitude of 6 all year round, weather and seeing conditions permitting.

I also used Starry Night to measure the angular separation between a few reference stars to get a feel for the FOV and these are drawn as yellow lines in the image.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

And then there were meteors...

I setup the temporary tripod arrangement one more time, pointed it in the same direction as before and was awarded with my first two meteor detections! In the following images, the stars are exaggerated due to the UFO Capture scintillation filter which masks out  fixed points of varying light.

Meteor 1

I actually watched my first meteor pretty much live as it occurred early in the evening and I had UFO Capture open in a window on my desktop. UFO Capture was set to play a sound to alert me which it did.

Meteor 2

This one was a lucky capture as the meteor streaked across the top of the field of view, just above the encroaching cloud cover.

I was now looking forward to permanently mounting the camera system and automating the equipment. Running the camera on a tripod meant running data and power leads out the window, across the garden and to the camera and the risk of tripping over it at night is always there...

Friday, February 19, 2010

First Light

For the first nights inaugural test I set the Fireball camera up on a tripod and pointed it approximately west, the only spot where I could get a clear view of the sky from ground level.

Almost straight away I was able to capture moving things such as birds and planes. UFO Capture can produce a few different snapshot images as well as a movie of the event. One of the snapshot images is a ‘hit mask’, basically an image of the scene with the total movement track of the object over the capture period, highlighted in cyan.

Here are a few examples of birds. You can see their random movements create some cool track effects.

The Flapper

Track left by a bird that crosses past the lens relatively closely. The 'bumps' are the bird flapping its wings.

High Altitude Flock

Multiple tracks caused by many birds flying together relatively far away from the camera. Not sure where they are all going?

Love Birds

One bird chasing another bird. There are three tracks because at the very end of the video one of the birds flies back down the frame at high speed...obviously she was not impressed with the first bird.

Speed Demon

This smudge track occurs when a bird flies extremely fast and close past the lens.

Another hazard to avoid are planes. Planes usually go in a straight line and some have flashing lights that cause the track to ‘pulsate’.

Flashing Plane

A typical track of a flashing plane right across the image. You can see the regular flashes on the track. Thanks for wasting my disk space buddy.

Another pest to the camera are insects.

Crazy Bug

Insects move like no plane or bird can...all over the place!

Rods - Inter-dimensional Insects

That's what some people in planet Earth think these kind of captures show. When an insect such as a moth flies very close to the camera it leaves a distinctive track and looks like a tube creature with wings. There was even a Monster Quest episode on it. Google "Rods" and you'll be entertained for a few hours.

Of course it rained towards the end of the first night...but that’s Melbourne for you.

And after all that, no meteors!

Meteor Hunting Software – UFO Capture

The final piece in the puzzle is some meteor detection software. There is only one real meteor detection software that I could find that allows real detection and analysis of meteors to be performed. The software is called UFO Capture and comes from a company in Japan called Sonotaco ( There is a great community of meteor capture enthusiasts that actively participate in the forums and the support from Sonotaco is second to none.

UFO Capture is extremely tailored to the capturing of meteors and other atmospheric events, such as lightning or sprites etc. There are many parameters that you can set including filters for noise and masks to avoid slow moving objects or flickering objects. Additionally the software can even email you when it captures something which is extremely handy for a remote setup like mine.

The software can also be set to only detect at certain times, based on the Sun rise and Sun set times that are automatically updated daily by the software. That’s great for saving power and avoiding birds in the morning. You would be surprised how many birds fly over the camera filling up your precious hard disk space (and inbox!).

In the following screen shot of UFO Capture, the camera was placed inside a dark box to take a 'dark frame'. Turning on the scintillation mask exaggerated hot pixels that are remain on after long exposures (the hot pixels are not really that big in size). You can see that there are about 10 in this camera. The remainder are just random noise. It is not unusual for a CCD to have hot or dead pixels and these shouldn't cause an issue for meteor detection.

UFO Capture Main Detection Screen - Dark Frame

Digital Video Converter

I also required an analogue video to digital video converter as the camera outputs a standard analogue video signal. For this I chose a Canopus ADVC-55 DV Converter ( The ADVC-55 plugs into the FireWire (IEEE 1394a) port of the PC and is self powered when using a 6-Pin FireWire cable. Windows should pick it up as a DV device.

FireWire Problems

As expected, no installation involving a PC ever goes smoothly and this one was no exception. The built in FireWire ports on my Gigabyte GA-965P-DQ6 (rev 2.0) motherboard just would not detect the ADVC-55 DV Converter.

I tried all available FireWire drivers, from the legacy Windows drivers to the latest Windows FireWire drivers and no luck. Gigabyte didn’t seem to have any FireWire drivers to download for this board so they were no help. In the end I had to install an old PCI Sound Blaster Audigy card that just happened to have a FireWire port on it. Bingo – it worked straight away!

I wonder if others have problems with FireWire and Gigabyte GA-965P-DQ6 (rev 2.0) motherboards, it was just lucky that I could work around the problem relatively easily. One day there might be an update and I can use the native FireWire ports and remove the Audigy card, but it isn’t really an issue so will run with it for the moment.

All Working

Once I had it running I used Windows Live Movie Maker to test the video signal. Everything was OK so the system was ready for an initial test.

Canopus ADVC-55 DV Converter sitting on top 
on my Meteor Hunting PC.

Meteor Hunting PC

To accompany my new Astrovid Fireball Camera I needed a reliable PC system to drive the meteor detection software. The meteor detection software comes from a company in Japan called Sonotaco ( and I’ll elaborate more on the software in later posts.

The new meteor detection PC needed to be fairly powerful to cope with the video processing and storage. Video manipulation is one of those areas that still pushes PC requirements way beyond that of say, Microsoft Word or playing Solitaire.

Video files can take up a lot of space, particularly considering that the system will be detecting meteors every night. I had just upgraded my main PC system and had a few spare parts lying around that could go towards building a PC that would fit my needs.

Additional to the parts that I already had, I decided to replace the following:
Power Supply – I wanted a new one for clean reliable power
Hard Disk – Ample space on a new 1TB Hard Disk
Case – I really needed a better air cooled case to cope with those hot 30 degree nights in Melbourne! The massive 200mm fan on top of the Antec Nine Hundred case should help :)
Monitor – I finally had an excuse to ditch the 20KG 19” CRT monitor for a much brighter, lighter and larger LCD. It’s amazing how cheap LCD’s are these days compared to what large CRT’s used to cost.
I installed Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate for what would hopefully be increased stability. Rarely a day goes by where I don’t crash Windows XP or Vista. Actually I also crashed Windows 7 a few times with a blue screen of death, it’s quite hard to do and requires a special talent, but that’s another story.

The final PC specs follow:

Computer Name - Meteor
Operating System - Windows 7 Ultimate
CPU Type - Intel(R) Core(TM)2 CPU 6600 @ 2.40GHz
Motherboard - Gigabyte GA-965P-DQ6 (rev 2.0)
System Memory - 2,048 MB DDR2
Power Supply - Antec 550w Basiq ATX Power Supply
Case - Antec Nine Hundred, Black, ATX, Top Mounted 200mm Fan
Video Adapter - NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GTX
Monitor - Acer H243H (DPMS)
Disk Drive - SATAII Device 931 GB
Optical Drive - HP DVD Writer 1270r ATA Device

Not only are the PC specs quite adequate, but the PC itself turned out to look pretty cool with bright blue LED’s in all fans, including the massive 200mm fan on top.

My Meteor Hunting PC. The silver box on top
 is a Canopus ADVC-55 DV Converter.

The PC was ready to hunt meteors.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Astrovid Fireball Camera Arrives

My Astrovid Fireball Camera has arrived. Of course I couldn’t wait to pull it apart and take a look at the components inside. I was happy to see that it is solidly built and well constructed. Attention to details like cable placement with appropriate cable ties make for a professional product. The supplied documentation was also good.

The Astrovid Fireball Camera is weather proof and the housing is heated and cooled. If you look at the pictures you can see a small fan used for cooling and some kind of thermal pad to heat the front, presumably to keep of the dew in winter. Note that although the unit has a fan, there are no holes in the housing so it is 100% water proof. That’s a good thing as this camera will be mounted on the roof of my house and will be exposed to all of the harsh weather conditions in Melbourne.

Inside the housing sits a Watec WAT-902H Ultimate CCD camera with a Tamron lens with auto-iris mounted to it. The Tamron lens is 3 – 8mm range with 1:1.0 aperture. The auto-iris will automatically adjust to the lighting conditions.

For more details on the Astrovid Fireball Camera see

My new Astrovid Fireball Camera fits in my hand. Nice and compact design.

The main clear flat window is covered by another
dome shaped clear window to allow water to run off it.

Left front view of the inner assembly. The inner assembly slides out easily and is held in by one screw. When you re-insert the inner assembly, a rubber o-ring inside the outer assembly fits neatly into the metal groove that can be seen at the back. This ensures that the unit is water proof once again after re-assembly.

Right side view. Note the Watec WAT-902H Ultimate camera.

Close up of the cooling fan at the back of the inner assembly.

Close up of the Tamron camera and inner heating pad at the front of the inner assembly.