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Fastest astronomical camera will produce out-of-this-world pictures

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June 23, 2009

The CCD220 detector is the heart of an ultra-fast camera that takes 1500 high precision im...

The CCD220 detector is the heart of an ultra-fast camera that takes 1500 high precision images a second (Photo: Credit: P. Balard/INSU-CNRS/ESO)

While the twinkle of stars may delight poets and lovers, for a scientist it’s simply evidence of the atmospheric disturbance that blurs and distorts detail in deep space images. Combining an incredible 1500 exposures a second capability with an extremely sensitive CCD220 image sensor, the OCam camera is able to analyze and correct these distortions, enabling pictures taken through Very Large Telescopes (VLT) on Earth to be as sharp as those taken from space.

In recent years, the science of adaptive optics has significantly overcome the problems caused by the Earth’s atmosphere in taking pictures of deep space. But while a high speed camera is essential to make these real-time corrections, it also necessarily leads to a reduction in sensitivity. Which, in turn, makes it extremely hard to capture the faint light of distant star systems.

Developed by British manufacturer e2v, the 240 x 240 pixel CCD220 image sensor at the heart of the new Ocam manages to solve all these difficulties. Not only is it the fastest astronomical camera in the world, but it also is extremely sensitive - meaning it can capture the faint light of distant stars even at these high speeds. At the same time, it also has a readout noise ten times smaller than those currently used.

“This breakthrough camera is without an equivalent anywhere in the world. It will enable great leaps forward in many areas of the study of the universe,” said Norbert Hubin, head of Adaptive Optics at the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

OCam will be part of the second-generation VLT instrument SPHERE which, from 2011, will take images of giant exoplanets orbiting nearby stars. It’s also expected the OCam will be used in ESO’s planned 42-meter European Extremely Large Telescope.

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