This new camera could detect extraterrestrial life

The scientists of National Institute of Standards and Technology – NIST recently created one of the highest performing cameras ever made up of sensors that count single photons or light particles.

Scientist Varun Verma at the NIST Development Lab.

The camera is made up of sensors made of superconducting nanowires, which can detect single photons. Scientists say the camera could be used on future space telescopes, looking for chemical signs of life on other planets, and on new instruments designed to search for the elusive dark matter. It is believed to constitute most of the ‘things’ present in the Universe.

Interestingly, nanowire detectors have the lowest dark count rates of any photon sensor. In the meantime, they can ignore false signals generated by noise. This feature is especially useful when searching for dark matter.

The size of the camera is 1.6mm in length. It has 1,024 sensors (32 columns by 32 rows) to create high resolution images.

Scientists used a complicated process to develop this camera. The nanowires, made from a tungsten and silicon alloy, are about 3.5 millimeters long, 180 nanometers wide and 3 nm thick. The wiring is made of superconducting niobium.

The main challenge was figuring out how to collect and get results from so many detectors without overheating. Experts have expanded a “read” architecture they previously demonstrated with a smaller 64-sensor camera that includes row and column information, which takes a step toward meeting NASA’s needs.

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NIST Electronics Engineer Varun Verma said:

My main motivation for manufacturing the camera is NASA’s Origins Space Telescope project, which is studying the use of these arrays to analyze the chemical composition of planets orbiting stars outside our solar system. Each chemical element in the planet’s atmosphere would absorb a unique set of colors.

The idea is to observe the light-absorbing spectra that pass the edge of an exoplanet’s atmosphere as it transits in front of its parent star. Absorption signatures tell you about elements in the atmosphere, particularly those that can start life, such as water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. The signatures of these elements are in the mid-far-infrared spectrum, and there are no large-area photon-counting detector arrays for this region of the spectrum yet, so we received a small amount of funding from NASA to see if we can help solve it. this problem.

Camera performance was measured by Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. The JPL has the necessary electronics due to its work in deep space optical communications. The work was supported by NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Results are reported in the journal Optic Express.


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