Thursday, March 20, 2008

Computer Assisted Telescope

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, most serious telescope viewing was done photographically. Astronomers (despite the popular cartoon image) didn’t peer through their telescopes in search of new and exciting information, but studied photographic plates instead. Photographic methods allowed astronomers to make longer observations, seeing many more faint details than could ever be distinguished with visual observing. In recent years, chemical-based photography has increasingly yielded to digital photography, which records images not on film but on CCDs (charge-coupled devices), in principle the same device at the focal plane of your camcorder lens. CCDs are much more sensitive than photographic film, which means they can record fainter objects in briefer exposure times; moreover, the image produced is digital and can be directly transferred to a computer.

Remember the sound of old-fashioned 12-inch, vinyl LP records? Even the best of them had a hiss audible during quiet musical passages, and the worst served up more snap, crackle, and pop than a popular breakfast cereal. CDs, recorded digitally, changed all that by electronically filtering out the nonmusical noise found at high frequencies. Analogous digital computer techniques can be used to filter out the “visual noise” in an image to improve its quality. The disadvantage of current CCDs is that they are relatively small. That is, CCD chips are much smaller than a photographic plate, so that only relatively small areas of the sky can be focused on a single CCD chip.

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