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

Weekly Project: Starry Sight--A DIY CCD Camera for Astrophotography
Time: 16 hoursCost: $18.27Difficulty: Moderately Hard, but Incredibly Delicate and DetailedA 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 a?˜er up

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

    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

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

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

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

    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

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