Equipment and techniques have been developed to implement a method of photometric calibration of consumer video cameras for imaging of objects that are sufficiently narrow or sufficiently distant to be optically equivalent to point or line sources. Heretofore, it has been difficult to calibrate consumer video cameras, especially in cases of image saturation, because they exhibit nonlinear responses with dynamic ranges much smaller than those of scientific-grade video cameras. The present method not only takes this difficulty in stride but also makes it possible to extend effective dynamic ranges to several powers of ten beyond saturation levels. The method will likely be primarily useful in astronomical photometry. There are also potential commercial applications in medical and industrial imaging of point or line sources in the presence of saturation.

This development was prompted by the need to measure brightnesses of debris in amateur video images of the breakup of the Space Shuttle Columbia. The purpose of these measurements is to use the brightness values to estimate relative masses of debris objects. In most of the images, the brightness of the main body of Columbia was found to exceed the dynamic ranges of the cameras. A similar problem arose a few years ago in the analysis of video images of Leonid meteors. The present method is a refined version of the calibration method developed to solve the Leonid calibration problem.

In this method, one performs an end-to-end calibration of the entire imaging system, including not only the imaging optics and imaging photodetector array but also analog tape recording and playback equipment (if used) and any frame grabber or other analog-to-digital converter (if used). To automatically incorporate the effects of nonlinearity and any other distortions into the calibration, the calibration images are processed in precisely the same manner as are the images of meteors, space-shuttle debris, or other objects that one seeks to analyze.

The light source used to generate the calibration images is an artificial variable star comprising a Newtonian collimator illuminated by a light source modulated by a rotating variable neutral-density filter. This source acts as a point source, the brightness of which varies at a known rate. A video camera to be calibrated is aimed at this source. Fixed neutral-density filters are inserted in or removed from the light path as needed to make the video image of the source appear to fluctuate between dark and saturated bright. The resulting video-image data are analyzed by use of custom software that determines the integrated signal in each video frame and determines the system response curve (measured output signal versus input brightness). These determinations constitute the calibration, which is thereafter used in automatic, frame-by-frame processing of the data from the video images to be analyzed.

This work was done by Robert Suggs of Marshall Space Flight Center and Wesley Swift, Jr., of Raytheon Co. MFS-32090-1.