Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Colours of the Stars

As I mentioned in my previous post about The Eight Moons of Saturn , one of my favourite Summer projects is imaging double stars using a Digital SLR camera.

According to Alan Dyer [1], " single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras have several key features that make them particularly desirable for nighttime photography. First and most important, their large sensors offer much lower noise and cleaner images than do compact point-and-shoot digital cameras, especially at ISO 400 and higher". Dyer's investigation is targeted at long-exposure astrophotography, but the previous sentence made me believe that DSLRs might do a better job at imaging double stars than conventional webcams, particularly around colours. There is one problem. A large sensor implies a large Field of View (FOV), which is the linear dimension of the portion of the sky captured by the camera, but the most popular double stars are usually less then 1 arc-minute wide, with more than half separated by less then 15 arc-seconds [2]:

The FOV of a DSLR camera at prime focus (attached directly to the focuser of the telescope: in this configuration the telescope itself is the lens of the camera) is determined by the following formulae:

FOV (horizontal) =
206265 x Sensor size in horizontal direction in mm/ focal length in mm (1)

FOV (vertical) =
206265 x Sensor size in vertical direction in mm / focal length in mm (2)

For example, the sensor size of my Canon XSi (a very popular DSLR) is 22.2mm x 14.8mm. The focal length of my 10" Newtonian is 1200mm. If I used my DSLR at prime focus, the camera sensor would be able to image a portion of the sky 3815 x 2544 arcseconds wide, more than 100 times wider then the typical separation of the components of a double star. The conclusion is that the large sensor size of DSLRs make double star appears very small, especially when the camera is used at prime focus of telescopes of relatively short focal length.

One way of boosting the effective focal length of an optical system is to use a technique called Eyepiece Projection. In Eyepiece Projection the camera lens is removed, but the eyepiece is left in place. A special adapter is required to connect the camera to the focuser and to hold an eyepiece at the same time, as shown in this image:

My adapter is a 1.25" Variable Universal Camera Adapter sold by Orion. In Eyepiece Projection the effective focal length is given by:

Effective FL = Telescope FL ×Amplification Factor (3)

Where the amplification factor of the telescope-eyepiece-camera system is given by the following formula:

Amplification Factor = S / Eyepiece FL - 1 (4)

S is the distance from the eyepiece to the CCD chip and Eyepiece FL is the focal length of the eyepiece.
For example, if I use my Orion adapter with a 10mm eyepiece, then S = 95mm and according to (4) the amplification factor will be 8.5x. That means that the effective focal length of my setup when I use my 10" Newtonian f/4.7 will be 10,200mm. The FOV will be reduced in both directions by the amplification factor. So the prime focus FOV is reduced (in thise case) by 8.5 times and for my Canon that turns out to be: 449 x 299 arcseconds. Still a little too big, but a Barlow 2X or 3X should solve the problem.

Here’s an image of Albireo obtained using the Eyepiece Projection method with a Canon XSi, a 10mm Plossl eyepiece, a Barlow 2X and a 8in Newtonian f/4.9. :

Notice that the design of the Orion adapter is such that the eyepiece does not slide inside the focuser; the eyepiece sort of “hovers” on top of the focuser. That increases the amplification provided by the Barlow lens, boosting it to 3.2X. The effective focal length of the optical system is then 1200mm x 3.2 x 8.5 = 32,640mm and the focal ratio f = 32,640mm/254mm = 128!! The image above (obtained with my 8" Newtonian f/4.9) is not cropped and the field of view is about 168” x 112” (Albireo’s separation is 34”).

Here's a list of double stars that I imaged over the last two year using the technique outlined above:

In some cases (Almach and Achird) I experimented with higher magnifications, in others (Double-Double) I had to stitch together two frames. I usually collect a number of frames and then align and stack them in Registax. The number of frames vary, between 20 and 60 typically. The exposure time is between 0.5 and 3 seconds, depending on the brightness of the target as well as the angular separation and the magnitude difference of the two components. ISO is usually set at 800, although I experimented at 400 and 1600 on a couple of occasions. During processing I saturate the colours a bit, but that's pretty much it. The main enemy is seeing as always when imaging at high magnifications. What I noticed (so far) is that resolving angular separations smaller than 2" is very challenging: that's what the seeing allows most of the time from my backyard in Edmonton, AB.

The same technique can be employed on small objects like the outer planets. Here's an image of Uranus, for example.

The goal of this year is to get better at processing stacked images, particularly around reducing "flaring" caused by mediocre seeing. At the moment I got to the point where I can use eyepiece projection with a DSLR consistently which is the starting point to get better.

The new season has started. More gems to come!



[1] Alan Dyer, Cameras in head-to-head showdown, SkyNews: 14-16, 37



  1. Hey Massimo, nice post. I really enjoy observing double stars, the higher colour contrast the better. It's a city-friendly form of observing, certainly you lose a little but not a lot. For colour contrast I prefer the evening twilight to full darkness in any event. We on the Sunday night crew have done quite a lot of that at the observing deck over the years, mostly with the 7-inch Astrophysics refractor.

    One system we looked at last Sunday was 24 Comae Berenicis, which wouldn't look out of place on your list. Yellow and blue, mags 5.2 and 6.7 as I recall, about 20" separation so easy for small telescopes. As always (or so it seems) the yellow star is the brighter of the two.

    Another beauty gold and blue pair is Izar (gamma Bootis), very nicely placed in evening twilight all summer long, up above Arcturus at the centre of the asterism I call the "Martini Glass".

    One more for your list is 95 Herculis, which is exceptional in that it is a colour contrast pair ("cherry red and apple green" according to William Henry Smyth, to me more like bronze and silver) of very close to equal magnitude, something like 5.0 and 5.1.

    I enjoy viewing colourful doubles through a spectroscope, where for each star the spectrum appears brightest around the "true" colour of star. Might be interesting to try to image that.

  2. Hi Bruce,

    thank you!
    I will certainly take a look at 24 Comae Berenices. 20" is perfect. I tried to image Izar, but that's mighty challenging. It's a close double and my eyepiece projection system requires good seeing for separations less than 3". I will keep trying, though. Ah, 95 Herculis! That's a real gem, I concur.

    Thank you for the suggestion about spectroscopy. I do own a grating spectrograph and I certainly would like to try that, too.