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NASA and other space agencies use telescopes floating in space or spread across arid deserts to spot extrasolar planets orbiting distant stars, but you can do much the same with a DSLR and a few extra bits of equipment. All you need to look for is a brief drop in brightness from a star. This project requires a fair bit of experience with electronics and some basic science, but it’s the same basic technique astronomers are using.
Whereas Kepler could watch a huge number of stars for signs of an exoplanet, the low-tech DSLR method probably won’t be detecting any new planets. The stock 18-55mm lens that comes with most DSLR kits probably won’t be good enough, but a telephoto lens costing a few hundred dollars should be sufficient to zoom in on your target. However, that only shows you a small patch of sky. To make this work, you need to find a star that has a known exoplanet you can observe. In the video above, a planet orbiting HD189733 was used as a test, which is about 63 light years away.
So you have a camera and a 300mm or better telephoto lens, now what? You can’t just point the camera skyward and snap photos. Even a tripod isn’t good enough. The camera’s field of view needs to track the stars across the sky as the Earth rotates. Otherwise your exposures will be blurred and unusable. There are motorized star trackers you can attach a camera to in order to get clear images, but they’re rather expensive–a few hundred dollars, and you won’t get much use out of them unless you’re into astrophotography. You can build your own version called a barn door tracker with some plywood, an Arduino, a stepper motor, and a few assorted bits of hardware.
Once you get everything put together, you need to identify a candidate star like HD189733 hosting an exoplanet with a known orbital period. When the time arrives, start snapping photos and export them to a computer. Using any number of programs, you can measure the apparent brightness of the star over time. When the transit stars, the brightness dips, When it’s over, brightness returns to normal.
Congratulations, you just detected an exoplanet with a digital camera. A few decades ago, that would have earned you a Nobel Prize. Now it will only win you the admiration of your nerdier peers.