The untold story behind your smartphone camera

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[A shorter version of this article was originally written for Space Matters]

As a planet we take a lot of pictures. Like… A LOT a lot. Estimates are in and around the 1-trillion-per-year mark, the vast majority of which are taken by smartphones. Every day, millions of people are taking pictures with an ease that was unprecedented even 20 years ago. And one of the biggest reasons why this is so easy now is because space scientists invested in charge-coupled device (CCD) technology decades ago. But how did this story start? And why should you care? Let’s go back 50 years.

Back in 1969, two engineers, Willard Boyle and George Smith, created the CCD. At the time, they were looking for ways to store and read back data in better/faster ways. However, after inventing the CCD, they immediately recognised their new technology would be incredibly useful for imaging as well.* Up until that point, all cameras used film: light-sensitive material that, when exposed to light, would create a chemical reaction, leaving an image of the light behind. The stronger the incident light, the stronger the chemical reaction, and therefore the brighter the image. The largest and most productive telescopes on the planet used large, photographic plates to record their images.

But a CCD technology would allow the strength of light to be stored electronically, and then read off into a digital picture. This was revolutionary for many reasons, but one of those reasons was it meant no more changing photographic plates for each image of the sky you wanted to take!

Around the time the CCD was invented, the astronomical community and NASA had already begun talking about a large space observatory that would eventually become the Hubble Space Telescope. The idea of a space telescope is appealing because light that travels through Earth’s atmosphere is distorted by the turbulence of the air. Observing through our atmosphere is like trying to see a penny on the bottom of a pool. Even if the pool water is very still, the penny will still be somewhat distorted. The reason you put a telescope in space is because you are above the atmosphere, and thus your starlight is not distorted.

BUT, if you put a telescope in space, and all you have to take pictures with is the equivalent of camera film, how do you retrieve the images? And how do you put new film in the telescope? The scientists developing Hubble actually toyed with various answers to these questions, including sending astronauts up to retrieve the photometric plates and insert new ones.

Luckily, astronomers recognised that the new CCD technology was a game changer for imaging. The pictures could be saved on hard drives, and beamed back to Earth via RADAR. However, CCD technology was very new and not ready to be used for high-end science just yet (or really any other applications). So universities, labs, and private companies around the world started invested millions in the technology, so that it could be used for their various purposes.

By making the technology useful for astronomers, scientists ALSO helped make it much more readily available for consumers. Big camera companies started creating the first CCD cameras and they started to become available in the mid to late 80s. And if you look around the world today, CCDs are in every telescope, every DSLR, and in many mobile phones.**

The entire reason we have this technology in our pockets is because we wanted to investigate space in a more efficient way. Fifty years ago, astronomers recognised the value of the CCD and put money, time, effort, and careers into developing that tech.

This is how investments in scientific research can have incredible impacts on our everyday lives. There’s even a much more current example; Remember when I mentioned how the Earth’s atmosphere can distort starlight, which is why you’d want a telescope in space? Well, it turns out that astronomers have been developing Adaptive Optics, a technology that can actively remove the turbulent effects of Earth’s atmosphere on starlight before it is recorded on the CCD. There are already other uses for this: medical scientists are using that technology to better image the eye’s retinas.

So the next time you reach for your phone to capture the moment, remember that the technology you're using is the result of investing in fundamental research — and is just one of the reasons why space matters.

*They also won a Nobel Prize for this research in 2009
**CCD technology was actually overtaken by CMOS technology around the 2012 mark

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Jesse Rogerson, PhD

Jesse is a passionate scientist, educator, and science communicator. As an assistant professor at York University in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society, he teaches three classes: History of Astronomy, Introduction to Astronomy, and Exploring the Solar System. He frequently collaborates with the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, and lends his expert voice to the Ingenium Channel. Jesse is an astrophysicist, and his research explores how super massive black holes evolve through time. Whether in the classroom, through social media, or on TV, he encourages conversations about how science and society intersect, and why science is relevant in our daily lives.