CCD Astro Imaging for the Budget Minded Novice
- Part I
CCD Astro Imaging for the Budget Minded Novice
Jim Chung, BSc (Hons), DDS
Part I: Build
your own ultrafast and ultracompact refractor for under $30
My original concept was to present an alternative and inexpensive method of
CCD imaging along with useful tips to implement it. As I collected thoughts
and images it occurred to me that I could expand the topic into a broad discourse
about astronomy on a budget for ambitious amateurs. This became a three part
article of which the last part has not yet been written.
I am both a cheap and ambitious amateur astronomer who really started in earnest
with the 2004 Venus transit. My Dad purchased my first scope. It was a discounted
K-Mart Tasco refractor with a fixed eyepiece and a fixed table top tripod.
It never even occurred to me to point it skyward. Ten years ago my wife bought
me a TeleVue Ranger 70 mm refractor for Christmas which we used as a spotting
scope to spy on sailboats and bald eagles. We were living just outside of Vancouver
on a peninsula known as the Sunshine Coast so the North Shore mountains shielded
us from most of the city's light pollution. In addition to dark skies we had
beachfront property and enjoyed a SW unobstructed horizon . During the first
few months of my son's life I recall the vivid spectacle of comet Hale-Bopp
from our driveway. In spite of all these circumstances I again failed to point
my scope skyward. Something was clearly wrong with me.
Fast forward eight years and I now
live in the heart of Toronto where
I have to drive an hour just to reach a moderately dark viewing site and my
personal time is forever diminishing.
This makes astronomy particularly well suited for the family man because
the entire night becomes free as the household lies subdued in bed, at least
until the teenage years.
While putting away my son's Sherlock Holmes costume I came across his 4" acrylic magnifying glass which I reasoned could act as an objective cell if
I cut off the handle. PVC and ABS drainage pipe couplers were purchase from
Home Depot to act as the optical tube and dew shield and required no modification
as drain pipe is standardized at 4" diameter.
Other plumbing pieces made up the visual back and a focusing drawtube. Duct
tape was wrapped around the 1 1/4" chromed metal pipe to create a friction
fit within the 1 1/2" brass pipe. A dove tail mount was created using
bed frame hardware and attached to a Manfrotto tripod. I had a spare erecting
prism but you could mount the eyepiece in prime focal fashion which is popular
amongst Japanese enthusiasts.
Using high school physics I determined the focal length to be 335 mm which is
so short that I only needed one PVC coupler to act as the optical tube, I had
bought several thinking I needed to duct tape them together to create the necessary
length. The aperture is 93mm for a fast focal ratio of f/3.6. Ultrafast and
In the field it does suffer from lack of baffling and significant internal reflections/glare
arising from the polished brass drawtube. Images are not refractor sharp due
to the poor optical properties of the lens and I suspect significant chromatic
The scope serves as a starting point for further refinement and to demonstrate
the feasibility of building a supremely compact, rugged large aperture unobstructed
scope for DSO viewing ? on the cheap. My son no longer feels left out either!
Part II - Firewire Webcam Astroimaging with a Mac and a TeleVue
Webcam astroimaging has been popularized over the past decade with Phillips
Toucam and Logitech Quickcam Pro models often with home brewed hardware modifications
to prolong exposure. All effective webcams use some variant of Sony's 1/4" ICX098BQ CCD due to its excellent low light sensitivity. There certainly
is no cheaper way to implement CCD imaging.
Early webcams communicated via parallel interfaces later supplanted by faster
USB. Apple in the mid 1990s developed the six pin IEEE 1394 protocol ("Firewire")
to replace the SCSI parallel interface and allows data transfers of 400 Mbs
(megabits/s). This is effectively faster than even USB2 and Firewire 800
is already in the marketplace. This has become the standard for DV editing
and can be found on all Macintosh laptops. It has not become commonplace
amongst Wintel machines which is another reason I wanted to write this article.
The importance of fast data transfer is that it allows both uncompressed image
data transfer and high frame per second exposure rates (> 30 fps) to coexist.
Raw data does not suffer from image detail loss due to compression and high
exposure rates allow one to capture the maximum number of frames during brief
periods of exquisite seeing and thereby increases the number of stackable
images which in turn reduces the level of random noise in the image. One
can literally produce an image better than what can be seen visually through
Astro IIDC is wonderful piece of software written by a fellow Canadian specifically
for astroimaging with firewire cameras. By communicating directly with the
camera (hence no camera specific drivers are required) the software is able
to coax cheap webcams to exposure in excess of 1 full second. More expensive
industrial firewire cameras used for machine vision applications are able
to expose for scores of minutes. Most importantly this is achieved without
any hardware modification. Astro IIDC also comes with the easiest and most
intuitive stacking utility that also auto aligns each frame and is so code
optimized that I can process 15,000 frames, select the number of the sharpest
frames I want to keep and stack them into a final image within fifteen minutes.
Since Apple announced a few months ago a switch to Intel CPUs, there are already
Wintel machines running a hacked version of Apple's OSX operating system.
I suspect that legitimate OSX licences will be an option for PCs shortly and
Astro IIDC will be available for all to appreciate.
Enough with the preamble. Let me describe my setup which once again reflects
decisions based solely on value for money.
Precise Focus - No amount of post processing or optical
quality will compensate for a poorly focused image. Purists will opt for
the mechanically elegant two speed focuser such as a Feathertouch or
a purpose made helical focuser installed in series with the scope's standard
focuser. The cheap alternative is JMI's venerable Motofocuser - a reduction
geared electrical motor running off of a 9V battery allowing incremental
fine control of the stock focuser.
Without it everytime time you rotate the focuser you jar the scope and the
images slips right off the laptop screen.
Steady Mount - I prefer Alt Azimuth mounts to GEM because it's
cheaper and faster to setup. It's conceivable that a mechanical AltAz with
slow motion controls could be used by a sufficiently talented individual but
I think a motor driven mount is necessary to keep the target centered on that
very small CCD chip. Regardless of the mounting style it must be stable and
able to dissipate vibrations quickly and also be able to support the weight
of scope. You do not want to compound atmospheric turbulence. My mount is
a decapitated Synta AZ3 tripod attached to a Meade DSX Autostar enabled single
sided fork. I fashioned a mounting plate from a piece of scrap metal and
the tall DSX fork allows my refractor plenty of room to swing to the zenith.
The Autostar Goto system can automatically track my target with the occasionally
manual correction. This is a budget compromised fork system than will exhibit
much more error then a good polar aligned EQ mount and is not suitable for
Instead of the customary two star align method I use this shortcut. Level
the scope, then center the image target, select the object in the Autostar menu
then direct sync on the object. It's not perfect and requires periodic manual
correction but it's fast and gets you imaging sooner which is what counts.
High Quality Optics - Over the years I traded up from
my TV Ranger to the now defunct 76 mm TV Oracle which boasts a true apochromatic
triplet element lens. There will always be a debate as to which design of scope
is the optimal and perhaps the truth is that there is no perfect scope. However,
the most appropriate scope is the one that will see the most use and in this
there is no substitute for a compact and fast apo refractor that allows you
to view both wide field DSO and planetary without waiting for cool down and
is rugged enough to throw in your backpack without worrying about collimation
issues. No other design is able to produce high contrast and pinpoint star
images either. In Part III, I do take some exception to this opinion only in
regards to imaging. In this special circumstance the old adage that aperture
rules really does apply.
Viewing chair - Someone once equated the use of a viewing chair
to having an extra inch of aperture. Being able to sit relaxed at the proper
height for viewing is vital because it allows you to concentrate on the fine
motor control required for focusing and image targeting. I made mine from
Internet plans during one summer evening and the only modification I made was
to simplify the design by replacing the hinge brace with a length of rope in
the fashion of an artist easel.
Flip Mirror and Reticle Eyepiece : Absolutely necessary because
it lets you quickly align your astronomical target onto that tiny CCD chip.
With my short focal length refractor I required the use of a Televue 5x Powermate
to increase the size of my images which reduces the FOV so greatly that you
don't know which direction to move the scope to see the image. With experience
you learn where to place the target relative to the reticle crosshairs. Even
with the reticle and flip mirror the first time out it took me more than an
hour just to get my target onto the CCD.
IR blocking filter - planets tends to emit a great deal of IR
radiation and CCD tend to be very sensitive to this spectra. Without a filter
the red color channel will become supersaturated and the image blurred. The
B+W 486 IR/UV blocking filter doesn't block UV/IR wavelengths through absorption
but by the interference of its multicoatings so there are no transmission losses.
For the same reason it's best to image at prime focus and not via eyepiece projection.
Firewire Webcam ? There used to be half a dozen firewire webcam
manufacturers but the introduction of Apple's own iSight eliminated the rest
of the field. Paradoxically the iSight cannot be used with Astro IIDC because
it does not conform to industry standard protocols. Used or NIB webcams can
still be found. I adapted the Unibrain webcam to fit 1 1/4" eyepiece diameter
by unscrewing the original lens element and screwing in an electrical conduit
coupler - also from Home Depot.
To date I have only been doing planetary imaging of Mars and the Moon and
only over the past month. My initial mistakes involved focusing issues and
overexposing my images. It is better to underexpose because surface details
are lost with overexposure. My next target is Saturn. One could image DSOs
by summing multiple one second exposures to get the equivalent single long exposure
but I suspect that the increased noise would make it unacceptable. A more expensive
firewire camera and mount are probably required.
All items were bought online and
second hand through two websites familiar to all readers. The cost breakdown is as follows:
AZ3 tripod legs $50
DSX mount with Autostar $140
Rini 25 mm reticle eyepiece $30
B+W 486 filter $30
Vixen flip mirror $30
Unibrain Fire-I webcam $35
Astro IIDC software $50
JMI Motofocuser $40
JMI adaptor kit for Oracle $45
Chair materials $50
Next.. Part III ? Astroimaging with Budget Optics -Chinese Maksutov Cassegrain