DIY Exoplanet Detector Using a DSLR

Your DSLR can do much more than just take a few nice portraits or the occasional vacation photos – with some DIY magic you can actually turn it into a device which can detect planets outside our solar system – something that 20 years ago was impossible even with the most sophisticated telescopes.

So how can you achieve this? David Schneider who you can see in the video above was able to use his Canon EOS Rebel XS (a.k.a Canon 1000D) camera. With old manual-focus 300mm Nikon telephoto lens he got from eBay for under a $100 with a $17 adapter

After he had his camera setup Schneider needed a way to track stars in a very precise way. There are of course very expensive options that you can buy, However as a DIY enthusiast he decided to create something on his own based on a device called a barn door tracker (a relatively simple device that will allow you to shoot longer exposures and track the stars to compensate for the Earth’s rotation).

Looking online you can find many different designs for creating a barn door tracker  (see for example here and here) – some are very basic and manual and some are more advanced and use a computer – which is exactly what Schneider decided to do (using arduino) – costing him another few dollars (including an inexpensive power adapter that can run his camera for hours).

Buying and building the hardware you see in the video was actually the easy part. The hard part was finding a way to look for a target star, track it and be able to measure the brightness of the star changing as a planet passes by it. Now it is important to realize at this point that the star chosen for this task – called simply HD 189733 (about 63 light-years away from us in the constellation of Vulpecula) is known to have an exoplanet orbiting it since 2005 – so Schneider did not actually discover a planet outside our solar system but was “only” able to confirm its existence. However given the very basic and inexpensive equipment he used – this is still a pretty impressive achievement. Finding a new expoplanet this way will probably require a lot more patience but it might not be impossible if you have the right information from other observations of the same region of space.

All this makes us wonder if NASA can actually do something that will significantly improve our ability to detect expoplanets and cost a fraction of any existing observatory. By funding a competition between companies and entrepreneurs to create a low cost but functional hardware that will be sold at a relatively low price to the consumer (say below $300 or so) and use any DSLR with a telephoto lens and a simple distributed computing software along the lines of SETI@home or Orbit@home that will coordinate worldwide efforts to locate, track and confirm the existence and orbits of exoplanets – it can drastically improve the rate in which we discover and confirm the existence of planets outside our solar system (and help raise a new generation interested in Astronomy).

Astrophotography is nothing new of course and we have covered the topic in the past including How To Photograph The Milky Way (or Die Trying) and PBS: The Beauty of Space Photography.

VIA: IEEE spectrum (where you can read Schneider’s full report).

16 comments

  1. We should start an astronomy club to do so. We could come up with the right equipment and purchase it as a club at wholesale prices so that everyone could become a planet finder. The same equipment could also be used to find comets and asteroids. What you are looking for is a variation in brightness.

  2. To do this DIY style like Schneider you will need quite a bit of know-how and skill (otherwise this would have been done before). Our idea was that a body such as NASA will help make the whole thing more accessible. Now it’s clear that NASA will not build something like that themselves, however they love to run competition with prizes for the business sector and this might be a great opportunity for young resourceful companies to do a kickstarter-style” campaign to create such a device – it should be simple enough so that anybody with a DSLR/Tele lens and a computer will be able to use it and come with an open source SETI@Home kind of software that will make all of this into a collaborative effort and not just one guy individual fun with no scientific goal.

  3. remember you are not discovering new planets, you are confirming transits of known or suspected exoplanets. Not only you need a clear line of sight to the target star, it also has to have a transit happening during the observing session. Really cool stuff, many astronomy clubs are doing this and also you could rent time in an internet telescope and look at the star from your living room, while recording everything.

  4. Pfff. To quote Blank Frank from the 1990s:

    Interfaces matter. You need mathematical bones; engineering muscle; but you
    won’t replicate without beautiful skin. Bits, transistors, wires, code,
    gummint velveeta is free. Will is expensive. Gutenburg. Smith. Ford. Moore.
    Postel. Steam engines were neat. Steam engines pulling trains were amazing.
    Computers were neat. Computers networked were amazing. Warning grunts are
    useful. The ability of a charistmatic speaker to fuck with your head is
    disastrous. –Blank Frank(anonymously)

    Ok, Frank had a bit of trouble sticking to a point, Speeling wasn’t his strong suit either, but the point, or rather *A* point is that a device alone can do cool stuff, but a bunch of devices together can do some AMAZING SHIT.

    NASA can’t do this sort of thing, but they *can* provide specifications and connectivity.

    More importantly they could publish a “priority list” and help organize the hunt.

    Off the top of my head 4 or 6 cameras working together around the world can watch one star constantly for years. 100s of cameras pointing at the top 15 would produce some interesting results. 10000 of cameras pointing at the top 1500 could produce a PHENOMINAL amount of data, the sort of data that only NASA could processes. Well, maybe not even NASA. Might need to do a SETI like thing.

    1. We can only hope that somebody from NASA is reading this.
      We had a chance to speak with quite a few people from the agency over the years and they are generally pretty open to new ideas (what they will or will not do in this case – I can’t really say…).

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