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Orion Parsec 8300M: does Orion's newest CCD camera live up to claims that it's the company's best model yet for deep-sky photographers?

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Orion Parsec 8300M

U.S. price: $1,999.95

Orion Telescopes & Binoculars

OrionTelescopes.com; 800-447-1001

Orion Telescopes & Binoculars continues to grow its presence in the world of astronomical imaging. Today the company boasts nine models of electronic cameras. It also has a full range of imaging telescopes, equatorial mounts, and astrophotography accessories, making it the only North American manufacturer to offer all the major components necessary for a serious deep-sky setup. In the past I've reviewed Orion's StarShoot II camera (April 2008 issue, page 32) and the StarShoot Pro (February 2009, page 34). This time I had a chance to put the company's newest flagship CCD camera--the Orion Parsec 8300--through its paces.

The Parsec is built around Kodak's 8.3-megapixel KAF-8300 chip, which features 5.4-micron pixels and an imaging area measuring 14 by 18 millimeters. The small pixels make the Parsec attractive to users of short-focus refractors and Newtonian reflectors. The chip has anti-blooming protection (to prevent streaks on bright stars), high sensitivity, and low dark current, which is further reduced by a regulated, two-stage thermoelectric cooler that can bring the chip to as much as 35[degrees] C below ambient air temperature. The camera is Orion's first to have a mechanical shutter, so you can make dark frames without having to manually cover the telescope's aperture--a major convenience.

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The Parsec is offered in two models. The 8300C is a "one shot" color camera, while the 8300M is a monochrome camera, which can be used with the optional Orion Nautilus Motorized 4" x 2" Filter Wheel ($449.95) and 2-inch Orion LRGB Imaging Filter Set ($349.95) to produce color images. Both cameras must be controlled by external computers via USB 2.0 connections (the Nautilus filter wheel also requires a USB 2.0 connection).

Since many astrophotographers prefer the greater sensitivity and versatility of a monochrome camera, S&T borrowed the Parsec 8300M and Nautilus filter wheel for this review. I tested them in my backyard observatory with a 33-year-old 12 1/2-inch Classical Cassegrain, working primarily at the telescope's f/4 Newtonian focus. The setup included a Baader MPCC coma corrector and covered a field slightly more than 3/4[degrees] wide at an image scale of 0.88 arcsecond per pixel.

The camera comes with a 60-day trial version of Maxim DL Pro, which runs on Windows XP, Vista, and 7 operating systems. When the trial period ends, Parsec owners are entitled to a $100 discount on the purchase of a permanent license for the software. Maxim has many advanced features for capturing and processing images, including the ability to automate the imaging process, which is especially desirable for color work.

The Parsec requires 12-volt DC power with a maximum draw of about 2 amps. It comes with a wall transformer as well as a cable for powering it with a car battery. While the USB cables for the camera and filter wheel are about 9 1/2 feet long, the transformer cord is less than 6 feet, and required me to use an AC extension cord for my observatory setup.

The 2 1/4-pound (1-kg) camera is roughly 4 inches square and 3 inches deep, and the front aperture has standard female T-threads (a 2-inch nosepiece is supplied). There's a convenient 1/4-20 tripod socket on the camera body as well as another on the filter wheel. I used the one on the camera to attach a "safety cable" between it and the telescope to prevent a disaster should the camera slip from the telescope's focuser.

Orion recently introduced adapters that allow you to use the Parsec with Canon and Nikon camera lenses. This is an extremely welcome accessory for those of us who want to do wide-field imaging. Unfortunately, the adapters only work with the camera alone, since the added back focus required for the Nautilus filter wheel places the lenses too far from the CCD to reach focus. There's no problem focusing without the filter wheel, but some provision would need to be made for adding an infrared-blocking filter, since most camera lenses perform poorly when used without one on astronomical CCD cameras.

The only problem I had getting everything set up and working involved the filter wheel. While it comes with stand-alone control software that worked fine, you must install a separate ASCOM driver for the filter wheel to be controlled by Maxim. I had initial problems with Maxim "seeing" the filter wheel. I never did get to the bottom of the problem, since I found a relatively straightforward workaround that involved unplugging the Nautilus USB cable and then reinserting it at the start of each imaging session after all the software was running.

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Under the stars

I only needed to look at the first raw images as they downloaded from the Parsec to realize that this camera delivers on its promise of high resolution, low dark current, and high sensitivity. My first deep-sky exposure of the large spiral galaxy NGC 253 bested anything I had ever shot on film with this telescope.

Downloading a full-resolution image takes about 20 seconds in the "normal" readout mode and 14 seconds in the "fast" mode. Binning the pixels 2-by-2 boosts the camera's sensitivity and speeds up the download time, at the expense of lower image resolution. I found binning useful for composing shots and achieving rough focus. A mouse-selectable subframe and the fast download setting allow short focusing exposures to be read out rapidly. Maxim can display large digits for a selected star's peak pixel values and its "full-width half-maximum" diameter, making it relatively easy to achieve critical focus, even when you're watching the monitor from several feet away.

I had used a "light" version of Maxim for my review of an earlier Orion camera, but the full version is far more advanced, and, accordingly, there was far more for me to learn. I certainly recommend that people new to the software spend time doing indoor tests before venturing outside in the dark. I had the relative comfort of working in a domed observatory with a desktop computer, but becoming comfortable with the software and learning to configure the camera for automated LRGB imaging sequences still took a few nights. Maxim can control two cameras at once, allowing one to be used as an autoguider, though I used my 20-year-old SBIG ST-4 to autoguide my test images.

The Parsec 8300M created the most impressive deep-sky images I have ever made with my old 12 1/2-inch scope, assembled from commercial parts in 1978. The high-resolution chip brought the vintage telescope to a new level. Maxim is an ideal platform to drive the Parsec and well worth the discounted $399 cost for a permanent license when the 60-day trial ends. This would bring the combined price of the Parsec, filter wheel, LRGB filters, and permanent license to a little less than $3,200. That's still very attractive for such an advanced camera-control and image-processing package.

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The Parsec is a compact camera that takes full advantage of the capabilities of Kodak's KAF-8300 chip. Anyone who has been shooting with cameras having smaller chips will be immediately impressed by the Parsec's large, detailed images.

WHAT WE LIKE:

Outstanding image quality Maxim DL software (trial version) included Attractive price

WHAT WE DON'T LIKE:

Orion's camera-lens adapter won't reach focus with the filter wheel

Longtime newspaper photo editor and astrophotographer Johnny Horne used the Parsec 8300M as an excuse to upgrade his telescope for advanced CCD imaging.
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Title Annotation:S&T Test Report
Author:Horne, Johnny
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Article Type:Product/service evaluation
Date:Jun 1, 2011
Words:1258
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