See below an Updated version!-————————–
Here I will describe how I adapted a High Definition (720p) web cam to a reflector telescope. The telescope is described in another section.
There are various things to consider before you buy a webcam to capture video or take pictures with your telescope. You will excuse technicalities but everything will be simpler later on:
- Video or Photo?
- Webcam quality: VGA, XVGA or HD?
- Image size and resolution: How many megapixels?
- Webcam Video sensitivity: CCD or CMOS?
- Manual, electronic or auto-focus?
- Image control: to control or to not control?
If you ask a professional astrophotographer, the list goes on and on.
It may be easier first to try to capture video, because with most webcams and the appropriate software you will also be able to take pictures, although not as crisp as dedicated photo cameras. So I would recommend video first.
Most cheap webcams are still VGA quality of video, however HD is becoming very common and reasonable cheap. So I would recommend HD with at least 720p resolution.
And that sets the megapixels issue: HD 720p means an screen aspect ratio of 16:9 (16 horizontal units versus 9 vertical units), thus implying a resolution of 1280 × 720, which is about 0.9 megapixels or about 1 million pixels. That is not bad. A HD 1080p means 1920 x 1080 which is about 2.1 megapixels, just a bit more than double of 720p. HD 720p webcams retails for about $40 – $80, whereas 1080p webcams retail for about $80 – $120.
In the past the essence was to have a CCD (Charge Coupled Device) video camera for telescope photography. Problem has been that not many are manufacturing CCD webcams anymore. There may be still some but the resolution is not so good.For example, the most popular has been the Logitech QuickCam Pro series. They are very sensitive CCD webcams, but their resolution is VGA that is 640×480 or 0.3 megapixels.
Most new webcams, either VGA or HD are based on CMOS devices. In the past they were not as sensitive as CCDs. However that has been changing. Many sensitive CMOS HD devices rival that of good old CCDs. And their resolution is by far better. Some webcams come with sensitive CMOS HD sensors, just look carefully at their specifications.
High resolution and fast capturing CCD video cameras are expensive and hard to adapt, like the ones used for surveillance. You may find high resolution and fast CCD cameras dedicated to astrophotography from telescope manufacturers or specialty manufacturers. For example, Orion, Mead and Celestron have several mid to high end CCD cameras and they range from $200-$2000. So they are more expensive than most educational or amateur telescopes and the top ones are about the price of high end amateur telescopes. So it is your choice and also your budget.
Some webcams are usually fixed focus devices, which is in part due to the fixed iris they have with their lenses. But the lens will have to be removed in many cases so the focus will depend on your telescope setting. So try to avoid Auto-focus cameras, they may come with a electronically controlled lens that may not be easy to remove. Some Auto-focus cameras may use external devices which will be part of the board or will be part of the sensing device and you many not even be able to disconnect or disable it easily. So, the simpler, the better.
And for image control there are a few HD webcams which has image control via software. These will be good because it may allow you to adjust brightness sensitivity and other aspects to take better pictures.
In the end I chose first to try a HD 720p webcam, the Microsoft LifeCam HD-3000. I was a bit guided by another blog, but I found too little guidance and almost ended up damaging the camera.
So here is my adaptation.
I started with the Microsoft LifeCam HD-3000. The LifeCam HD is a family of webcams (HD-3000, HD-5000, HD-5001, HD-6000, Studio, Cinema) based on CMOS sensors that they seem more reliable and better built than others, and had the support of Microsoft -until you take it apart of course-. The picture is from Microsoft, since I forgot to take a picture before taking it apart.
- Motion Video: 1280 X 720 pixel resolution
- Still Image: 1280 X 800
- Up to 30 frames per second
- 68.5° diagonal field of view
- Digital pan, digital tilt, vertical tilt, swivel pan, and 4x digital zoom
- Fixed focus from 0.3m to 1.5m
- True Color, 24-bit color depth – Automatic image adjustment with manual override
- 16:9 widescreen
And its cost was $39.95 at my photo video store. Mail order may be a bit cheaper, but when you add S/H is about the same. A good alternative is the HD-5000, which is $10 more expensive.
Disassembling the camera
Before you start you need to gather some materials:
- One 35mm film case with cap, preferable black or even grey. Transparent one will need to be painted black flat.
- A set of jeweler’s Philips screwdrivers #0 and #1 or of 1,0 mm to 1.2 mm. Flat one of 1.2 mm to 1.5 mm may help too.
- Epoxy glue kit of 5 minutes (60 sec ones may dry too fast)
- Black gasket sealant or rubber cement
- Pencil soldering iron (25 W is fine)
- Exact-o or other small box cutter, sharp
- 3M or similar electrical tape, black
You many need to look at your storage and find a plastic case and cap for an old 35mm film roll. It happens to be the best option to insert a camera on most telescopes. There may still some stores that sell 35mm film roll and there may be some people selling them in bulk in Ebay.
In the blog mentioned the author simply said “Prise open the outer case”. I tried and almost broke the camera. Actually I broke two little stands inside which may become hand to reassemble the case. I preferred to keep the case.
So here is a better option. Take the case and look where the tilting grabbing base enters the camera body.
The base turns around and inserts a tongue with a pivot inside the camera. If you tilt the base you will see two tiny screws on each side.
Unscrew these two screws. Then with a flat screwdriver, or a plastic flat knife, pry open the case. There is a notch in the lower part of the camera if you face it from the front, between the side of the camera and where the flip grab base gets into the camera body.
My photo shows damage because I tried opening the body without knowing at first about the screws on the base.
Once opened you will see the camera board with the lens, and the microphone attached to the cover you just took apart. Take the mike out from its hole on the cap, do not cut the wires of the mike.
There is a small metal clip keeping the grab base handle attached to the body. Slip that clip out at the base of the camera, and take away the plastic pivot keeping the base attached. The base will just slide off the camera body.
Now, looking at the board of the camera, locate the two screws that hold the camera board to the body. Unscrew them gently.
Take the board apart from the body. You will see the cable harness on the bottom of the camera body. It has a plastic twist-lock. You may turn it to loose the cable from the body. Do not destroy the body of the camera, you may have to put all back again. In this adaptation I use the body back again to put the camera in, others destroy the body altogether.
I loose the harness but do not take out the cable too much, to allow for some flexibility in handling the board. The camera board is covered with a plastic sheet. Take it out carefully avoiding damage to the cables or their connections to the board.
On the back of the board there are two other screws holding the lens.
Unscrew them but be careful not to drop the lens fixture. Once unscrewed, turn the camera board and you will be to see the sensor below the loose lens. I took the lens off to inspect the CMOS sensor. Be very careful, do not touch with your fingers the sensor; your finger will deposit salt and other mineral that may render the sensor unusable.
The CMOS sensor connectors are protected with an adhesive plastic insulator. Leave it attached. Put the lens cover again to protect the sensor from dust and debris as well to avoid touching it. Tight again the cable harness on the back inside of the body. Then put the camera board back inside the body. Screw back again the camera body to the body. In the final assembly you will take the lens fixture off the camera, but for now leave it on.
Preparing and refitting the camera cover
It is time to work on the cover of the camera. The cover comes with a rectangular relief inner hood. In the center there is a circular hole. This hole needs to be made rectangular. One may use an Exact-o knife or box cutter to take out the plastic.
One also may use a soldering iron to melt the plastic, but eventually you need the knife or cutter to smooth out the edge.
Now the 35mm film box needs to be cut too. A round hole of about 1/2″ or more is cut out from the bottom and from the cap. The camera cover will be fitted with the cutted film box cap. The film can will fit inside the eyepiece adapter of the telescope.
The camera cover, as seen on the webcam picture from Microsoft, has a plastic chrome bezel. That needs to be removed to be able to adapt the film plastic can cap to the camera cover. There are eight melted points that below to the struts holding the chrome bezel.
One can melt them with the soldering iron or use the Exact-0 knife or box cutter to take them out. Once out the bezel should come off, if not, use a #0 screwdriver to push the struts out.
Now you proceed to open the hole on the film can cap using a soldering iron and a knife to smooth the edge. Take out the necessary area to cover the camera cover and grab the film plastic can. Once done, you present the cap onto the camera cover, and mark the circle form with the hole on top of the cover. Cut away the plastic part of the camera cover that is covered by the film can plastic cap. Make nice round cuts. I use a soldering iron to melt away the plastic and then a knife to smooth the edges.
Present the cut film can cap on the camera cover. Smooth any rough edge until the cap fits snugly onto the camera cover.
One should test that the film plastic can also fits snugly onto its cap as is fitted to the camera cover. Next step is to glue together the camera cover and the film plastic can cap. I use a 5 minute epoxy mixture but you can use the best glue you have to attach hard plastic to soft plastic.
Once the film case cap glues to the camera cover, on the inner side of the camera cover one can see various holes. They need to be closed or covered. I use a black silicone gasket sealant to cover fissures and holes so no light gets into the camera board, except the light from the telescope.
Reassembling the camera
Once all is dry, one now assembles back the camera, attaching the mike on its hole and putting back together the camera body. You need to take out the lens fixture before putting all together.
The camera assembly with the 35mm film case cap is now assembled. In the case you did not damage the screw holders when prying out the camera body in the first place, you can use the saved screws to assemble the camera. The camera cover will snap into place and then you attach back the two screws. You just then need to attach the film case to the film case cap attached to the camera cover, and you are ready for astrophotography or videography.
If you damaged those screws sets when prying out the camera there is one solution I had to come up with. On the corners of the camera body I made two little holes with the soldering iron (a pencil tip one). Those holes reached the inner camera cover edges. Then I use the screws originally attaching the camera together behind the tilting support grab base, to grab the camera cover through the body.
One last element is the hole left by the removed tilting support base of the camera. I just tape some black electric tape to cover the hole left by the support base and that is it.
The Microsoft LifeCam HD-3000 is now ready for some astrophotography and astrovideography.
In the near future I may replace the plastic case of the 35mm film plastic case with a machined 1.25-in aluminum adapter to make it sturdy and durable.
The results will be shown in another section.
—Updated Version of the Astrocam based on the LifeCam HD-3000-—-
Here we are again improving our astro webcam.
I tested it with various reflector telescopes, in particular the ones I use in my Introductory Astronomy university class, and found that in not all cases I was able to focus it properly. Reason? The focal point was closer than the camera sensor position.
So I decided to get rid of the original cover and make a flushed face version. At one time I thought about machining it, but I found a simpler way to do it and keep the 35mm cutout cap and case, but made the case shorter.
I needed to make a new face plate cover for the camera. Guess what was great? The plastic sheet that comes in the box with the iPhone, the one that holds the phone! I took it and cut it to the shape of the inside of the webcam case. Then drilled four tiny holes: 2 to hold the 35mm cut out cap in which the case inserts, and 2 to hold the face plate to the body. Remember the holes and screw that closed the original camera? Only difference now you need larger screws that will tap in those holes.
So here are some of the pictures.
A face plate was made to flush with the border of the camera case. This plate was cutout from a plastic sheet that comes in the iPhone box.
The new face plate (A) needed a window for the camera sensor, (B), so I cut it out with a utility knife. Screws were added to attach the face plate with the holes of the case (see third picture above). The cutout cap of the 35mm case was then attached to the face plate with two tiny screws left from the other HD-3000 camera I assembled into a spectrometer. Below is a detailed picture of those face plate mounting screws.
Next is a picture of the updated webcam, comparing it to the original brand face plate and the firstly modified face plate did for this camera.
With this remake, the sensor can be now about 4mm closer than before. This gives room to spare. I test it with the reflector in which I could not focus well, and now I could focus really well and have some mm’s to play. Real test will be to retake pictures of Jupiter, Mars, Venus and so stars. I still keep the IR filter in, but I will probably remove it to allow more sensitivity to capture deep sky objects.
Lesson learned here: the simpler, the better.
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