Custom Zynq/CMOS Camera Unlocks Astrophotography

Around here we love technology for its own sake. But we have to admit, most people are interested in applications–what can the technology do? Those people often have the best projects. After all, there’s only so many blinking LED projects you can look at before you want something more.

[Landingfield] is interested in astrophotography. He was dismayed at the cost of commercial camera sensors suitable for work like this, so he decided he would create his own. Although he started thinking about it a few years ago, he started earnestly in early 2016.

The project uses a Nikon sensor and a Xilinx Zynq CPU/FPGA. The idea is the set up and control the CMOS sensor with the CPU side of the Zynq chip, then receive and process the data from the sensor using the FPGA side before dumping it into memory and letting the CPU take over again. The project stalled for a bit due to a bug in the vendor’s tools. The posts describe the problem which might be handy if you are doing something similar. There’s still work to go, but the device has taken images that should appear on the same blog soon.

Along the way, the project shows you a lot about the interfaces between both the sensor and the FPGA, and the FPGA and the onboard ARM CPU. The writeups are way beyond a blink the light tutorial, but that’s a good thing if you have the will to dig through them. One interesting hack is that the build uses a 754 CPU socket to hold the image sensor.

We’ve looked at hacking film cameras to digital lately. If you prefer your telescopes in the cloud, there’s always the unfortunately named Skynet.

20 thoughts on “Custom Zynq/CMOS Camera Unlocks Astrophotography

  1. A common problem I’m sure many have run into is difficulty of securing proper documentation from manufacturers. From NDAs, to having to be a multi-million dollar company to even get an interest. We’ve come far, but it still can be an issue for some.

    1. Yes indeed. I would love to prototype with certain image sensors that have global shutters, but good luck finding documentation. Even if I did manage to acquire sensors, how would I know how to initialize them, what the registers are and what they do?

    2. Now I know this is a general problem affecting other than image sensors…. however, there may be a particular problem for astro buffs and image sensors, especially the more interesting ones in the near and far IR range, FLIR for example wants to make you sign legally binding agreements that you will never point them at the sky. Ummm that’s kind of where the stars are.. … so there is another layer of BS when it comes to image sensors.

      That is fact, how good image sensors seem to be very tightly controlled, and protected with NDA and other strange seeming requirements, that appear to be other than commercial considerations. The speculation is why? Well I don’t know if you’ve been catching up with that recently breaking Chilean Navy unidentified object news, but that’s not an isolated occurrence, enthusiasts have been picking up IR objects for a while, similar behavior, re: running off to hide in clouds etc… anyway. After you’ve read about the Chilean footage, maybe take a look at this and give it some consideration.. http://infrared-aerial-phenomena-research.blogspot.ca/

      Anyhoo, I know high res and high sensitivity image sensors have overt military applications. However, “the enemies of the free world” whoever they are this week, have had no problems getting their hands on lower res and first generation night vision and IR equipment. I know the latest gen is more highly controlled, however, I am bemused by the focus of FLIR and others on apparently being more concerned that citizens buying the lower res, lower tech stuff now might point it at the sky than it get into “wrong hands” (Although they can already get it.)

  2. If you’re interested in cooled hi-res cameras for astronomy type applications, you can buy a camera with a 61mm square 4k x 4k cooled CCD for well under $1000, as part of obsolete Roche 454 Genome sequencers. These cost $500K when introduced 10 years ago, but the consumables are no longer made so the machines are useless and being scrapped, and appear regularly on ebay. See my Youtube channel for teardowns on this kit.

      1. Nothing inherently disreputable about ebay here – most sellers of this stuff are established recycling companies. That’s what feedback is for, but feel free to ask companies that take scrap gear from universities and labs, though they may be asking rather more. One joker on Ebay is asking $17K!
        You’re never going to get a guarantee & it’s always going to be a bit of a gamble,but $500-1000 for a camera that was maybe $100-200K new seems like pretty good odds., These are a good bet as at $500K new and $6K per use they would probably have been maintained during their life, and there is a solid reason for them being scrapped while still in working order.

    1. The advantage of CCD for astro cameras is becoming less clear over time. The newer high-gain, low-noise CMOS astro cameras like the ASI1600mm-cool or the QHY163M are starting to encroach on the lower end prosumer cameras.

      For example, the ASI1600 can do 30-90s narrowband exposures with better noise profile than a KAF6300 at much longer exposures (5+ minutes). And because the exposures are so short, star eccentricity is much better, and you can be more aggressive in throwing out bad frames because you collect so many.

  3. >> very tightly controlled and protected with NDA and other strange seeming requirements, that appear to be other than commercial considerations

    Yup. With a lot of this stuff you’re up against the fact that these are specialty items sold by small companies that are keenly aware that they could be accused of selling a product that could be classified “dual use” at the whim of some government official.

    It’s an issue with anything that could be “weaponized”. I’ve had it pop up over the years with things as exotic as solid-state IMU’s (we were finding local vertical to stabilize an aerial camera) to stuff as mundane as rotary encoders (One major manufacturer of encoders makes us sign non-export contracts. For encoders. Go figgure.).

    Many of these small specialty companies live in total fear of having someone, somewhere, do something with one of their products that ends up in the news and draws the attention of a regulatory body that decides their product has applications as a weapon.

    Hence, FLIR’s prohibition at pointing their sensors at the sky – which for most users would mean using them to image and track aircraft. In the eyes of some national security types that could be imagined as a steppingstone to being able to target aircraft.

    Imagine being a small company that has to envision the nightmare scenario of being called in front of a congressional committee to explain how it was that they sold product X to some bad actor who used it to weaponize a drone.

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