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CCDs - The Garden Variety
by Robert Purvinskis
June 2001
At an ASSA astrocamp a few years ago, I held a short workshop on CCDs and
how they work. The followng analogy is based largely on that talk.
Imagine you have a large paddock and you want to measure the rainfall on it.
For the moment we have to assume one thing - rain doesn't fall evenly, and in
fact its the pattern of the rainfall we're trying to measure (that's one large
One approach would be to divide the paddock up into squares and measure the
rainfall in each square. In fact, we could place a very large number of buckets
(say I million or so, in a 1000 x 1000 grid) at regular places across the paddock,
and measure the amount of rain falling into each.
Of course, I'm not really interested in rainfall (though I do swear occasionally at
the clouds!) But the situation I've started to describe above is very similar to the
basic idea behind a CCD. Charge coupled devices, or CCDs, are fast becoming
one of the mainstream pieces of amateur astronomical equipment,
revolutionising backyard astronomy in a similar way to the advances they help
create in professional circles about 15 years ago. They have a number of
advantages over film: linear response, high sensitivity to light and digital output
being among the more obvious. We'll come to a couple of these soon.
Getting back to our rainy paddock, the CCD is also bathed in a constant drizzle of
photons, coming from the faint astronomical objects in the sky. Each photon can
interact with the silicon in the CCD sensor to produce a single charge (electron)
in the device. This process is not usually very efficient (usually only 50-80% of
the photons hitting the silicon produce a charge), but it is far better than the
case in photographic film (typically only a few percent efficient). This high
quantum efficiency is essential in any device designed for detecting low light
levels. Like our paddock, the CCD is divided up into collecting areas, known as
pixels, which allow charge to be built up during the exposure. To find out how
much charge is in each pixel, a form of readout circuitry, and a way of recording
the data is required.
First however, consider the buckets (pixels) themselves. Each has a finite
capacity before they overflow (known as, strangely, full well capacity,
continuing the liquid analogy). The wider the pixel dimensions, the higher the
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Capacity. Smaller pixels, while sometimes convenient, will fill sooner. When a
pixel overflows, it is said to be saturated, and sometimes the charge in it will
overflow into an adjacent bucket in a process known as blooming.
So how do we find out how much 'water is in the bucket', so to speak? If we have
a team of people, we could ask each one to look in the bucket, measure the
amount, and yell it out. With one million buckets, we'd rapidly get a very
confused, noisy paddock! A simpler system is to have just one person doing the
counting. If a conveyor belt is installed at one end of the paddock, we could pour
the water from the end row of buckets into a row of buckets. The conveyor is
then activated, and each bucket on the conveyor is weighed to find out how
much water is in it. The conveyor, in the case of the CCD, is known as a shift
register, and the person weighing the buckets, the analog to digital
converter (ADC). Numbers, (bucket weight) are then stored in a computer
memory for later processing.
To synchronise the 'bucket brigade' a CLOCK signal is used throughout the chip
to ensure that the charge moves from pixel to pixel at the correct time, and is
read out correctly. There is a trade off between the speed of the ADC and the
amount of internal readout noise, (readout errors), it produces. This ultimately
limits the speed at which the pixel charge is measured, and the amount of time it
takes to read the data off the chip (and hence the clock rate).
In addition to readout noise, there are several other forms of noise in a CCD. To
return to our paddock, imagine a competing farmer holding a sprinkler nearby,
attempting to bias our results.
Water from the sprinkler will fill the buckets the same way our rainfall does, and
there is no way to tell them apart. If we waited until it stopped raining, we cold
measure the signal due to the sprinkler. Or, we could cover the paddock with a
tent to keep the rain off but let the sprinkler continue to fill the buckets. There
may also be other ways of affecting the 'rainfall signal', such as trees shielding
some of the buckets.
In a CCD, too, noise from the chip itself can contribute unwanted signal. In fact
this sometimes dominates the data received on the chip! Such dark current is
unavoidable due to the temperature of the chip, but can be reduced by cooling
the chip, or by carefully measuring the dark current and subtracting it from the
sky signal. By taking dark frames and subtracting the data from such an image
from a 'dark + sky' frame, we yield the true sky image. The optics between the
sky and the chip (similar to the trees) also make variations in the sensitivity of
the chip. Dust can shadow light hitting the chip, or scattered light in the optics
can also influence the image. This is removed by taking a 'nonsky' image
through the optics, known as a flat field. Again this is later subtracted to
provide an image with a suitably uniform background.
Already we can see the importance of the digital data provided by a CCD in
processing the data. It is possible to do similar processing with film (e.g. unsharp
masking) but the precision of a computer allows the data to be processed such
that the image is a true numerical representation of the light hitting the chip.
This, together with careful imaging procedures, allows astronomers to make real
CCDs - The Garden Variety http://www.assa.org.au/articles/ccds/
2 oI 3 16/05/2011 10:46 PM
measurements of object, providing accurate numerical data about an objects
brightness and position. The availability of PCs now makes such measurements
even possible for the careful amateur.
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