One of my previous project ideas, stemmed from an article in Astronomy magazine, was to use my low cost webcam (Phillips SPC 900NC) to take high quality images of the moon and other objects. I have recently been putting more time into this, but have been frustrated by an inability to focus properly. I had intended to use my TeleVue Pronto refractor, however this will not be possible. When used together, the scope is unable to focus on objects more than about 30 meters away. Hardly far enough to focus on anything useful. I think the problem arises because there is no lens in front of the CCD sensor to allow the correct compensation. If my thinking is correct, a telescope with a longer focal length should be able to allow proper focus at astronomically reasonable distances.
So hopefully I’ll be able to make use of another telescope soon, so that i can at least get some images to play with.
Edit (12-27-2008): As noted below, the problem is solved by using the camera adapter that goes with this particular telescope. I do have it, and it does work as intended, but time constraints have prevented me from following my initial plans. Maybe after graduation I’ll have some time to spare…
In researching information about using a webcam as a low cost camera for astrophotography, many people recommended the Philips SPC900NC camera due to its use of a good quality 1.3 megapixel CCD sensor at a decent price. I bought mine from ebay, but its also available on Amazon and Newegg. My first attempt at playing with this camera was on my main desktop running Windows XP x64. This proved useless, however, as the drivers will not work. The Philips software will install fine but it cannot recognize the camera. Windows detects that a USB device is plugged in but can’t do anything with it because of the incompatible driver. I currently do not have a 32 bit version of Windows XP, so the next course of action was obviously Linux.
My laptop currently runs Ubuntu (was running Xubuntu until yesterday, just did a little swap of GUI’s) and was a prime choice. The camera did not work “out-of-the-box” as can be expected, but a little searching netted me a working driver for the camera, known as pwc. The pwc driver works for many Philips cameras, including the SPC900NC that I’m using. Installation is very straightforward for anyone who has compiled programs. Once the driver was installed, Camorama didn’t have a problem detecting the camera and capturing images from it. Next step is to work on capturing video from the camera, which mplayer may do for me.
Since the camera is working, I took a few pictures to test it out. Image quality is pretty good and should work perfectly for my astrophotography plans. Here is a picture of my Tele Vue Pronto refractor that I’ll be using for this project:
An article in the December 2006 issue of Astronomy magazine about using cheap webcams for astrophotography got me quite interested. After doing some research this evening, it seems like it can be a cheap and fun project to undertake. I think I have my heart set on a Philips SPC900NC webcam, which goes for about $50-$70 on ebay. It would require a telescope adapter which goes for $20 shipped on ebay. My plan is to use this webcam and experiment much more fully with astrophotography than my past musings, which consisted mostly of taking an occasional film photograph of the moon or other easy targets. By shifting to a digital medium, I’ll be able to experiment a lot more without the guess work of traditional film, plus the webcam is cheap compared to specialty cameras.
My first target will most likely be the moon, as its easy and provides a good starting point to developing the techniques, starting with single pictures, and then moving on to mosaics. Images are captured by taking an AVI video for a length of time, using software to turn the AVI into a series of stacked images, and then combining the stack to reduce noise and provide a much clearer image. I’ll be able to provide more details once I get going with the project, but two popular programs used for this kind of photography are K3CCD ($49.00 after 35 day free trial), and RegiStax (free!). I hope to use my dad’s 8″ Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope for most of the images, however I’ll probably have to use something a bit smaller (like a Tele Vue 76) most of the time. This might have to turn into a spring project to take advantage of warmer weather…