Wouldn't it be cool to discover a planet circling a lonely star light years away from Earth? Maybe you'd even get to name it. Actually exploring deep space is hard, but as IEEE Spectrum's David Schneider points out, detecting exoplanets is pretty simple, simple enough that a basic DSLR and a telephoto lens can do it.
The way you detect exoplanets is by watching for a flicker in the light from a far away star. That flickr is the planet passing between the star and Earth, temporarily blocking out some of the light. A DSLR sensor is actually capable of detecting this flicker if you take enough clear photos of a star. To make his planet-detector, Schneider simply rigged a Canon EOS Rebel XS DSLR with a 300mm Nikon telephoto lens with the help of an adaptor.
From there, he built something called a barn-door tracker, a device that cancels out the motion of the Earth rotating so that you can take clear pictures of stars. It's basically just a plywood base as a tripod with a slanted mount for the camera. Then there's a little computer-powered engine that makes the whole rig rotate. This is the complicated part since you'll need to track down a threaded rod, gear from ink-jet printer, and an Arduino processor—among other things.
The technical details get a little more complicated from there, but Schneider explains it all pretty well in a blog post at IEEE Spectrum. So if you get a little overwhelmed during the holidays and need a break from visiting family, just go hide in the garage and with this project. If your Aunt Sally asks why you aren't playing Monopoly, tell her you're trying to discover a planet where people will leave you alone. One way or another that ought to get her off your back. [IEEE Spectrum]
Image and video by David Schneider