Don't be afraid of CCD
Professional CCDs (VI)
After have described CCD cameras used by amateurs, let's see what are the latest technologies used by professionals.
8k and 12k CCDs
In 1995, one of the first model was a 8192x8192 pixels device (UH8K) usually attached at the prime focus of the 2.2 m telescope. It was used to discover the first transneptunian asteroid.
In 2001, researchers ordered a 12k-pixels CCD of 15 microns (CFH12K). Its field reaches 42x28 arc-min at f/4 what means that is covers the entire Moon !
In this configuration its resolution was 0.206 arc-sec per pixel. In other words, even without doing high resolution, if astronomers enlarge the image they can detect features as small as 1 km wide on the Moon surface ! This is fine you will tell me, but where is the benefit ? This CCD camera is in fact the most powerful we have ever made in term of resolution and exceeds by a factor 10 the most sophisticated amateur CCD camera of that time !
Take an example comparing it to the SpectraSource Lynxx 2000. This latter uses a TC255 chip measuring 336x243 pixels of 10 microns each. Although its size is modest its offers an enviable resolution of 0.25 arc-sec per pixel on a 12" f/39 scope, near the one of the 12k-CCD. Only drawback, at this focal ratio the field does not exceed 87x63 arc-seconds, while at f/4 its resolution drop to... 1.8 arc-seconds per pixel, 9 times lower that the one of the 12k-CCD ! If the Lynxx creates images of 160 KB in size containing 4096 brightness levels, the 12k-CCD requires 200 MB of disk space to store each image ! Hard to beat professionals...
MegaCam, 340 megapixels
In 2003, CEA engineers built the MegaCam : 40 CCDs of 2048 x 4612 pixels each for a total of 340 megapixels ! This CCD covers a field 1 x 1° wide (the field of 4 full Moon) with a spatial resolution of 0.187"/pixel in order to sample correctly the signal when seeing is at best (CFHT where the MegaCam is installed reaches an average resolution of 0.7"). Drawback, the weight of the system that contains the MegaCam is 375 kg and measures 1.7 m of height for 1.2 m in diameter !
OmegaCAM, 268 megapixels
Since 2011, the summit of Mt Paranal where VLT telescopes are installed is complete with the VST (VLT Survey Telescope) of 2.65 m of diametre.
It is equipped with the OmegaCAM CCD of 16k x 16k pixels (26 cm on each size !) recording images of 268 MB. As VLT or the future LSST (see below), it generates 30 TB of raw images each year that are transmitted to ESO for processing.
Hyper Suprime-Cam, 870 megapixels
In 2012, the 8.2 m Subaru telescope has been equipped with the Hyper Suprime-Cam (HSC). Built by National Astronomical Observatory of Japan in collaboration with international academic and industrial partners, the systems includes CCD sensors, lenses, filters, and a shutter. The camera is at the scale of the telescope : the HSC camera is about 3 m in length, the first lens is 82 cm in diameter for a total weight of about 3 tons !
The HSC camera includes a highly sensitive CCD offering a resolution of 870 megapixels and covers a field of 1.5° in diameter. This CCD matrix is installed inside a vacuum cryogenic dewar and is operated at -100°C where the dark current becomes negligible. Mechanical alignment of optics is ensured by six customized actuators.
Gigacam, 1.4 gigapixels
En 2007, IfA astronomers in collaboration with MIT Lincoln Laboratory engineers pushed the feat still further with the Gigacam GPC1 : 4096 CCDs offering a total resolution of 1.4 gigapixels. The image is 40 cm in diameter, the diameter of CCD opening measuring 56 cm !
The system is constituted of an array of 64 x 64 CCDs offering each a resolution of 600x600 pixels. CCDs are mounted in 8x8 array on a silicon chip called "orthogonal transfer array" (OTA) of about 5 cm2. Each CCD of each OTA can be controlled and read individually. In total, 66 OTAs are placed at the telescope focal plane (the 4 corners are omitted because they are too far of the optical axis). The system can record objects to magnitude +24 in 60 seconds of integration, or 10 million times dimmer than the weakest objects visible naked eye !
The GPC1 camera was mounted in August 2007 on the first of four 1.80 m PS1 (Pan-STARRS-1) telescopes currently installed on top of Haleakala on Maui island, Hawaii. The system has a 3° field of view with a spatial resolution of about 0.3"/pixel. PS1 can survey 6000 deg2 per night. The whole available sky as seen from Hawaii will be observed 3 times during the dark time in each lunar cycle.
Thanks in particular to its pipeline processor architecture ensuring the chain-execution of instructions, the computing infrastructure associated to this system can process the 6000 images recorded each night in 15 hours of processing. Data are thus practically immediately available to astronomers associated to this program.
Thanks to these telescopes at the cutting edge that rejoign those at Kitt Peak already operational, in 2010 astronomers had catalogued 90% of the largest NEO including PHA's potentially hazardous that might precipitate a global disaster.
Performance side, the night of January 29, 2016, thanks to PS1 astronomers discovered 19 new NEA. PS1 has also to its credit the discovery of several supernovae and new Trojan satellites around Neptune.
Today, four identical telescopes are equipped with the Gigacam and have for task to monitor trajectories of potential hazardous asteroids. They mainly work in the visible spectrum between 500 and 800 nm as well as in standard photometric G, R and I bands, including Z band, in which works SDSS, and in infrared in Y band at 1 micron, where by nature CCDs are always very sensitive.
LSST 3.2 gigapixels CCD
The future 8.40 m LSST synoptic telescope that will be partly operational in Chile from 2020 will be equipped with a 3.2 gigapixels CCD camera. The size of the CCD assembly is 1.65 m in diametre and its weight exceeds 3 tons. This system cooled down to -120°C will cover a field over 3° wide which surface is equivalent to 40 times the apparent size of the Moon.
As we see below, at the focal plane the diameter of the CCD area is about 64 cm. Thanks to this system, this telescope that will work between 400-1060 nm will be able to record images of 3 GB each 17 seconds, generating 30 TB of data each night.
The LSST mission will be to regularly take pictures of the sky to detect any change from one period to another in order to better understand the nature of the dark energy and the dynamics of the Universe.
But where will they stop ?...
One does not act as "CCD imagery guru" from one day to another. If you can master a CCD camera in a few hours, to get high resolution images using a CCD camera or achieving a quality stacking and image processing require experience that one can only acquire by a regular practice.
That said, being given the relative ease of use of preprocessing and postprocessing software, the apparent difficulty of the first contact with a CCD and image processing tools should not put off any amateur interested in the subject.
For more information
Books and specs
High Performance Cooled CCD Camera Systems (PDF), Apogee, 2011
A Beginner's Guide to DSLR Astrophotography, Jerry Lodriguss, 2014 (CD-ROM)
A Guide to Astrophotography with Digital SLR Cameras, Jerry Lodriguss, 2013 (CD-ROM)
Planetary Astronomy, C.Pellier et al., Axilone, 2015 (également en Français)
Lessons from the Masters: Current Concepts in Astronomical Image Processing, Robert Gendler (eds), Springer-Verlag, 2013
Adirondack Video Astronomy, Astrovid, 2010
Capturing the Stars: Astrophotography by the Masters, Robert Gendler, Voyageur Press, 2009
Digital SLR Astrophotography, Michael Covington, Cambridge University Press, 2007
The Handbook of Astronomical Image Processing, Richard Berry, Willmann-Bell Publishing, 2006
The Image Processing Handbook, John C.Russ, CRC Press, 1999/2006
Introduction to Digital Astrophotography, Robert Reeves, Willmann-Bell Publishing, 2004
Astrophotography: An Introduction to Film and Digital Imaging, H. J. P. Arnold, 2003
Photoshop for Astrophotographers, Jerry Lodriguss, 2003
The New CCD Astronomy, Ron Wodaski, New Astronomy Press, 2002.