Introduction

In the age of CCD chips astrophotography is much easier than it was before. The main advantage of CCD chips compared with conventional emulsion based photography is the high sensitivity. The benefit is that deep-sky images can be obtained in a few minutes. Furthermore the images are processed on your own computer.

Alas: astronomy CCD cameras usually also have astronomical price tags. However, if you are a planetary observer, you can use the less expensive web cameras [Webcam], which sensitivity is sufficient for the major planets, Sun and Moon. Until recently these webcams could not be used for deep sky imaging, as these faint objects require longer exposure times that the standard webcams offer.
But the newest developments have changed this dramatically, as you will see!

In September 2001 a revolutionary webcam modification was invented by QCUIAG member Steve Chambers: several standard webcams can be modified by electronic surgery enabling longer exposure times, so that deep-sky objects can be imaged now!
To honour the inventor all webcams modified this way now bear the suffix SC. Look here to obtain full details about the modification.

Steve Chambers: THANK YOU for this great invention!

Please NOTE that Steve Chambers has the sole copyright of the above mentioned modification and all other modifications shown on his website! Here is the Steve Chambers copyright statement

You want to know if a particular camera is suitable for astrophotography or can be modified for long exposure imaging? Dave Molyneaux has the answer for you!

Here is how Matthias Meijer does the long exposure modification on a Philips SPC900NC webcam.

Steve Chambers has supplied the following modification identification overview:

IDAmp offDescription
SC1A basic long exposure modification
SC1.5A basic long exposure modification + amp switch
SC2A basic long exposure modification + amp switch + separate interlaced frame download
For some reason this version never got very popular; the supporting software DESIRE can be downloaded here
SC3.1A Replacement of CCD with a ICX424
SC 3.2A Replacement of CCD with a ICX424 + basic long exposure modification
SC 3.3A Replacement of CCD with a ICX424 + basic long exposure modification + 2x1 on chip binning
SC 4.1A Replacement of CCD with a ICX414 (Greg Beeke)
SC 4.2A Replacement of CCD with a ICX414 (Greg Beeke) + basic long exposure modification
SC 4.3A Replacement of CCD with a ICX414 (Greg Beeke) + basic long exposure modification + 2x1 on chip binning

The easiest way to verify that your SC3 camera is indeed working is to cap the camera so that no light falls on the CCD, then put it in long exposure mode and capture an image for say 90 seconds.
Note: make sure you have the camera running at 5 fps !
Then you should see hot pixels.
If you do not see hot pixels your camera is not working in long exposure mode, alas.
You can perform this test indoors, even during the day.

Philips Vesta Pro SC3 AMP OFF B/W and Colour
Sony ICX424AL/ICX424AQ
Please note the interchangeable adapters

I am the happy owner of a Vesta SC3.2A B/W and a Colour camera.
Both are cooled; the colour camera is fitted with an ICX424AQ CCD sensor and the black/white camera has the far more sensitive ICX424AL CCD sensor inside.
Both cameras have been fitted with a threaded ring, which ingeniously accepts an 1,25" nose piece or an M42x1 threaded adapter with filter thread inside.


After having used the cameras for several months suddenly the connection with the parallel port of my laptop computer gave big problems: Long exposure mode would not run and even in normal mode unexpected things happened: the preview screen suddenly became white, and after a while the normal preview image came on the screen, but that did not last long: the screen abruptly switched to black and after a while became grey. After a while it swapped to white and the cycle repeated.

I checked the long exposure cable and all was perfect; also I was running the camera at 5 fps.
I ran Windows/ME and my laptop has 3 parallel ports, with as addresses 0278, 0378 and 03BC.
With "LPTRead" [freeware that alas has disappeared from the internet] I saw that some program/utility on my laptop was changing the contents of ports 0278 and 0378, and when that happened I also saw the K3CCDTools preview change.
In K3CCDTools I selected port 03BC because a previous experience taught me that whatever program was messing with the settings of the parallel ports, 03BC was not interfered with.
In spite of my K3CCDTools setting at port 03BC the problems persisted. Obviously my system was not 'listening' to my K3CCDTools setting, but used port 0278/0378 instead.

Then a thought entered my mind: my laptop had been to a shop for repairs and maybe those guys had done something to my BIOS settings?
I fired up the CMOS/BIOS settings and noticed that the parallel ports were in AUTO select mode. I quickly modified the setting from AUTO to 03BC and my problems are over!!!

On February 18, 2004 Matthias Meijer came over and applied the RAW mode on my SC3a black and white camera via the WcRmac software made by the TWIRG Group; THANK YOU TWIRGERS !!!
The results were stunning, as you can see yourself in the following image:


Meanwhile I have also modified my SC3 a colour camera in the same fashion as my b/w camera was modified, with WcRmac
I used the newer macros from this page
Download these new macros and unzip them to the macro folder under the WcRmac software folder.
Just follow the instructions and you will get there!
Important: make sure that you start with saving the original firmware contents of your camera via the tab "Binaries".


Disaster struck !
When I came back from holidays [June 2006] I found to my dismay that my B/W camera had died: it did not react to light anymore, but it worked when I mounted the colour CCD, so obviously it was the B/W CCD: the Sony ICX424AL.
As this ICX424AL apparently is rather scarce I asked my QCUIAG friends for help: maybe somebody had such a CCD as a spare or maybe somebody knew a supplier who would have this CCD is stock.
I received quite a few responses from my friends: some even offered their own B/W camera for me to use until I would have found a solution: WOW!
Others directed me to several sources, one of them Eureca [Cologne, Germany]
As this supplier is not too far from where I live I asked them for a quotation, which I promptly received.
They offered CCD the ICX424AL-E, whereby the -E suffix stands for high(est) quality; the -F [offered then by Framos at a higher price] is of low(er) quality.
The pick-up price for 1 ICX424AL was Euro 82, including 16% VAT.
They speak English and German and ship worldwide, of course with additional costs for packing/posting/insurance.

Note: I understand that the market for CCD's is highly volatile and that the stock/price situation changes rapidly.
So: when someone needs a certain CCD I would recommend to contact several suppliers to get the best value for money.

Dark frame test result:
60 seconds exposure, RAW mode, ampoff, Brightness 50, Gamma 100, Gain 100, ambient temperature 27C, Uncooled.

Philips ToUcam Pro PCVC740K - standard model

This standard unmodified camera saw first light on August 16, 2003 and I intend to use this camera to image the main planets and the moon.

Philips ToUcam Pro PCVC740K

    CCD chip: SONY ICX098BQ (Type 1/4)
  • Image size: Diagonal 4.5mm (Type 1/4)
  • Number of effective pixels: 659 (H) 494 (V) approx. 330K pixels
  • Total number of pixels: 692 (H) 504 (V) approx. 350K pixels
  • Chip size: 4.60mm (H) 3.97mm (V)
  • Unit cell size: 5.6m (H) 5.6m (V)
  • Optical black: Horizontal (H) direction: Front 2 pixels, rear 31 pixels Vertical (V) direction: Front 8 pixels, rear 2 pixels
  • Number of dummy bits: Horizontal 16 Vertical 5
  • Substrate material: Silicon
  • Integrated lens: Diam. 6 mm, F2.0
  • Sensitivity: <1 lux

I thank Matthias Meijer who gave this ToUcam a flattened front which enables me to use my Vesta Mogg adapter.
Matthias also supplied the following pictures:

Philips ToUcam Pro PCVC840K - standard model

I bought this webcam on March 10, 2005 via a Dutch e-bay for Euro 40,00
Technically the 840K is identical to the 740K, as Matthias Meijer has explained on his website.
Currently this 840 ToUcam is just spare webcam for my ToUcam 740.

Philips ToUcam Pro PCVC840K

    CCD chip: SONY ICX098BQ (Type 1/4)
  • Image size: Diagonal 4.5mm (Type 1/4)
  • Number of effective pixels: 659 (H) 494 (V) approx. 330K pixels
  • Total number of pixels: 692 (H) 504 (V) approx. 350K pixels
  • Chip size: 4.60mm (H) 3.97mm (V)
  • Unit cell size: 5.6m (H) 5.6m (V)
  • Optical black: Horizontal (H) direction: Front 2 pixels, rear 31 pixels Vertical (V) direction: Front 8 pixels, rear 2 pixels
  • Number of dummy bits: Horizontal 16 Vertical 5
  • Substrate material: Silicon
  • Integrated lens: Diam. 6 mm, F2.0
  • Sensitivity: <1 lux