Weekly Project: Starry Sight--A DIY CCD Camera for Astrophotography





Introduction: Weekly Project: Starry Sight--A DIY CCD Camera for Astrophotography

Take last year's 4 megapixel digital camera castoff and refit it as a sleek, electronically cooled astro-camera that is ideal for snapping some stellar shots of stellar sights through a telescope.

Who's soul isn't stirred on a warm summer's eve while the stars and planets dance overhead? Gee, if only you could capture and hold onto that moment. Well, if you have a telescope and a discarded 2 to 4 megapixel digital camera, then you're already halfway there--halfway towards owning and operating one of the premiere cameras used in astrophotography; the CCD or Charge-Coupled Device astronomy camera.

Starting at prices of over $400 and typically costing more than $1,000, these professional-grade CCD cameras are the ideal tool for snapping pix of distant nebulae or grabbing a memorable Martian moment. Remarkably, beating inside almost every advanced amateur digital camera is a CCD heart.

You can resuscitate your old discarded digital camera and repurpose it as a kick-ass CCD astro-cam--dubbed myCCD. Most DIY CCD builders opt for converting Webcams into viable astro-cams. While these CCD Webcams are a wonderful project for those who use a telescope that is tethered to a personal computer, for the rest of us, we prefer to do our celestial viewing au naturel; unencumbered by computers, power cords, and distracting operating system glitches. Just warming our souls on distant starlight radiating from a CCD through an LCD inside myCCD.

Step 1: How to Make MyCCD

Time: 16 hours
Cost: $18.27
Difficulty: Moderately Hard, but Incredibly Delicate and Detailed

A used "Spanish edition" Konica Minolta DiMage Z2 digital camera was used for this project.

Parts List

  • A Discarded 2-4MP Digital Camera in Working Order Equipped with a CCD Sensor (FREE; or, B&H Photo/Video is a source for purchasing used digital cameras)
  • RadioShack 1 3/8" Insulated Alligator Clips (270-1545; $3.49)
  • RadioShack "AA" Battery Holder (270-409; $1.89)
  • 30mm Square Thermoelectric Heat Pump Peltier Junction (All Electronics PJT-5; $9.75)
  • Heat Sink (All Electronics HS-141; $.65)
  • RadioShack SPST Switch (275-0406; $2.49)
  • 4 "AA" Rechargeable NiMH 2100mAh Batteries
  • 9V Battery

NOTE: While the steps towards building your own CCD camera for astrophotography look deceptively easy, this is meticulous, tedious work that demands a high degree of itsy bitsy, intricate work. If wires the thickness of a human hair break when you look at them or M2 machine screws get lost in the whorls of your fingerprints, then this project is not for you.

Step 2: Open €˜er Up

Easier said, than done. You must find all of the screws that are holding the exterior case halves together. Some screws might be hidden underneath a piece of exterior trim. As you remove 'em, thoroughly document where every screw is located.

Step 3: Poke It's Eye Out

As you slowly separate the two exterior case halves, you might notice some resistance. You are tugging against the numerous ribbon cables and wire plug restraints that connect all of the internal electronics together. Each of these cables and plugs must be gently disconnected from their corresponding connectors. For example, the LCD, can have one to four cables and plugs holding it to the main circuit board. Make sure that you find and release all of the connectors prior to pulling the case halves apart.

Once you've gained access inside your digital camera, you must disconnect and remove the lens assembly. In most digital cameras, you must retain the lens and leave it connected to the camera--dangling on the outside of the camera. And that's where myCCD can get physically ugly. Most digital cameras need the lens for the proper execution of the camera's startup sequence. Basically, the camera "expects" to receive some feedback from the lens (e.g., did the lens extend, is the shutter OK, is the aperture OK, etc.). Without this feedback, the camera goes stupid and becomes a brick. So remove the lens, but keep it attached to the camera.

Step 4: Chill This Martini

One unfortunate derivative of CCD photography is the buildup of "noise" or stray illuminated pixels due to long exposures. This buildup becomes more dramatic and less desirable as the CCD heats up. One way to reduce this heat-generated noise buildup is by cooling the CCD. The best method for reducing heat is with a thermoelectric solid state cooling heat pump--the Peltier Junction. Ideally, the cold surface of the Peltier Junction should be affixed directly to the backside of the CCD carrier circuit board. If this position was impossible with your camera, externally mount the Peltier Junction directly below the CCD circuit board.

Step 5: Power to the People

Another source of unwanted heat in a digital camera comes from the on-board battery pack. Just relocate the batteries outside the digital camera and enjoy a significant reduction in heat.

Step 6: The Universe Is Your Oyster

When your CCD camera has been reassembled, it's time to give it a test. Try some simple daylight tests with a refractor telescope before you commit to a session of late night deep space photography.

Wishing you clear skies and a cool CCD camera on the cheap.



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21 Discussions

Has anyone thought about using a webcam or camera ccd as a portable night vision scope?? & would it work??

4 replies

Nope that approach is pretty much useless for astronomy as you need illumination in IR. However it's possible to BUILD a REAL NV scope using a military surplus NV amplifier tube along with lenses from old 35mm cameras or "c" mount from surveillance cameras. I built mine for under $300. It could be done for about $200 but I wanted a zoom telephoto lense. I used a surplus NV Gen 3 tube from an M1 tank. I am very happy with the results. There are NV tubes available from the U.K. which are excellent as well and cheaper ($75) but shipping is a killer at about $30, still cheaper overall and results are outstanding.

Excellent Instructable! Yes a webcam will work. As poor as it is, I modified a Labtec webcam to a 4" Orion reflector telescope. (I have read that the Phillips SP70 or 90 has a very high pixel density for great video and can be purchased from Sam's or Walmart for about $54.) You can get some striking shots of the moon as in this Instructable. If you try to shoot Jupiter the moons don't show up and you need to use one of the programs that stacks the multiple frames of video and adds the week light to produce Jupiter with it's moons. Some of the programs are available on the web as FREEWARE others can be purchased at various prices.

nope. to have good nigh vision you need to work in the IR spectrum. some cameras can do this but you need a powerul IR source to see any distance. also looking at a lcd at night will cause your pupiles to shrink, this reduces your night vision. your best bet unless you want to spend 2000$+ is to use a flashlight.

all digital cameras can see ir light. most of them just have an ir filter that is easily taken off. take your digital camera and take a picture of the light in a tv remote when you click a button. you cant see it with youre eyes alone, but when you look at the picture on the camera display, you will see a dim purpley light coming from the ir light.

Well nice try nice techniques but i dont see any good results... i mean look at the photo its blurred out of focus ... Why dont you just try to connect the camera to the telescope with some custom built supporting frame?? You will get better results and it doesnt have to be 2MP...

1 reply

+1.. I don't want to make a bad comment but I took better pictures of the moon just by placing my cell phone camera at the eye piece of my telescope..

This is the Flintstones DIY chilled camera .. good luck. Here's the Jetsons version. CCD sensor needs to get down around -50C to give eliminate dark current i.e. black-as-coal night skies : ) It's all about delta T. Important to cool the hot side of the peltier cooler. Important to prevent large heat flux into sensor from side and front. Use reasonably insulating plexiglas front cover. Stack TEC coolers (two of em) place cool side on back of sensor chip. Use silicone grease (plumbers supply) to get good contact ... stuff area under chip sensor with silicon grease too .. don't use zinc-based heat transfer compounds (electrically conductive - zorg). Possibly Dremel through circuit board to allow for grease to grease contact. Mix silica-microspheres in with silicon grease - apply around everyhere else to provide some degree of thermal insulation. Have hot side of Peltier stack in contact with copper slug with possible water cooling. Cooler you keep that slug - the lower the ultimate delta T value. Nice to maintain insulative N2 environment - gas feed? This to preclude condensation on pretty chilly sensor surface. Experiment with dime-a-dozen b/w (or color) brick-style bank ceiling cams.

Well, popsci.com sucks. I mean, you put an instructable here, very vague, and missing important steps, and not helping people. Just putting an instructable with some sense of humor is not enough, but please help others commenting on your work.

Hi, I am trying to do this to an olympus c-2040z camera. I've got it so it has 2 ribbon cables with a couple of little motors and sensors hanging out, but I haven't been able to get it to start up in camera mode (preview mode still works fine, I can browse the memory card..) Have you had any luck bypassing/tricking the sensors? Any tips would help... Thanks Clear skies -chuck

1 reply

It is because you put the zoom barrel apart and even though motors are there, little switches informing the camera are not behaving properly with the startup. Camera is expecting a series of switches to close and open. Cheers, K.

oh one problem with digi cams and stuff is white balance.... add light pollution and for some reason exadurated red shift you end up with a minor prob never with huge ISO film though (even 800 is bad for stargazing) however I use a fujifil S5600 I got cheap as a castoff model with no mads and it does great at 0 zoom but I'm getting the lens adapter for extra panorama and light ( eg zoom in on the moon)

In reply to some of the earlier comments, it does make sense but you need to know what he's doing first! The basic instruction are that you take a digital camera and remove the lens assembly so it has no lens. You cant remove it totally (step 3) as there are electronics in the camera which means if you do the camera may not start up, so you simple place it at the side of the camera. If possible, you can just remove the glass components and leave the rest of the lens assembly in place. So how does it work if it doesn't have a lens? That's step 6. You use a film canister with the end cut off to make a tube which is then used in place of an eyepiece in a telescope. The telescope lens/mirror replaces the camera lens and you focus it by using the eyepiece adjuster.
Removing the IR filter as stated earlier is a good idea in principle (there are lots of other instructables for this- seeing in the dark cameras) but it will then produce blurrier pictures as the IR is focussed at a different point to the other parts of the spectrum if you are using a lens based telescope (ref http://www.cloudynights.com/item.php?arch=1&cy=2003&cm=6&cmn=June&item_id=139). I don't think putting the peltier on the case will have much effect. The Peltier cooler will need to be thermally bonded to the CCD to have any real effect and perversely could effectively warm up the camera area, not cool it down. Finally, don't do this with a valuable camera- I've wrecked a few doing stuff like this- it's very fiddly stuff and usually one way!

So what did this instructable accomplish? You remove the lens assembly in step 3, then in step 6 you say "When your CCD camera has been reassembled, it's time to give it a test." What the heck?!?! I think you skipped over something important. You have a cooled CCD chip and an external battery pack, but how do you get light focused on to the CCD for taking pictures? I don't see that I would gain anything but a broken camera.

Indeed! Any advice/links on modifying firmware? I am limited to 2 seconds exposure on my Fuji Finepix, which is pretty much worthless for imaging deep sky objects.

Yep, that's really a good question. One will need some camera firmware tweaking skills. Otherwise all you can catch will be the Sun, Moon, bright planets, and some bright stars (last two will look like just some bright dots). All of these objects are easy targets for your camera without any modification necessary. Just shoot through a wide angle eyepiece with your camera lens front surface right after the eye lens (you can make a DIY bracket system to keep them all safe and centered). I've made one for my ETX - works very well (will post some instructables soon). But a video camera will work even better (using the special postprocessing software)

oh dear, you poor soul, lololololol. It must be terrible. Well, me too and then i hit the bit that refers to fine wires and teeny screws and looked at my hands and thought, "Sigh, ah well". i can make a milkshake just by holding the milk carton. But the thought of Jupiter, Mars, Venus, et al and all taken by me, well it was a brief but very nice dream . I keep wondering about DIY macroscopy as well. May you succeed brilliantly rocketbat.

Another good step after No. 3 would be to remove that reddish piece of glass over the CCD window. It's IR filter which is a must for terrestrial imaging, but noticeable reducing the sensitivity of CCD in celestial applications.