Newly built camera captures images of a photon 400-times better than ever before

It can help capture faraway planets and also the signals in your brain.
Ameya Paleja
Studying photons would help us map the early universe
Studying photons would help us map the early universe


Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado, have built a superconducting nanowire single-photon detector (SNSPD) that can capture images at a resolution of 400,000 pixels. This is sufficient to capture the image of a single photon, reported.

Photons are the basic unit of light and have no mass or charge. Even microwaves, infrared light, and X-rays are made up of photons. All that we know about the universe today is because of photons that have traveled at speeds of 186,000 miles per second through space and reached us.

Photons also play an important role in Einstein's theory of relativity, for without them, we would not know the importance of the speed of light or have an understanding of the time and space interaction it produces. Studying photons opened up the field of quantum particles, and we have been able to measure energy at a quantum scale.

Capturing the photon

To further improve understanding of the basic unit of light, scientists have intended to capture it for quite a while. More than two decades ago, researchers at Moscow University discovered the technology, but technical obstacles prevented the use of the method beyond research laboratories.

Researchers from NIST, the University of Colorado's Department of Physics, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology collaborated in the making of the SNSPD, which is also the largest array of a photon camera ever made.

The pixel array is 400 times larger than the previous largest photon camera and can capture light in frequencies ranging from infrared to ultraviolet and capture images at high-speed rates, as little as in picoseconds.

Applications of a photon camera

The technology can be deployed in space exploration, where researchers face the challenges of spotting smaller exoplanets against giant stars. Planets can be a million times fainter than the stars they revolve around, Sarah Steiger, a doctoral student working with high-speed photographic tools, told The SNSPD could help in the detection of that little light that emerges from the exoplanet that could potentially support life.

Newly built camera captures images of a photon 400-times better than ever before
Spotting exoplanets could become easier with the SNSPD

Far away from exoplanets and back on Earth, the SNSPD could also peer into our brains and help us study signals inside our neurons without actually disturbing living tissue. Researchers have developed multiple approaches for optically mapping the brain, but the signal processing of the output is complex, and we do not fully understand the impact on signal quality.

In comparison, a nanowire sensor opens up a myriad of possibilities for investigations without concerns of compromise; radiology experts told The researchers had to overcome a host of difficulties arising from electrical noise, readout speed, and environmental temperature to achieve the photographic precision and speed that the SNSPD delivers.

"These detectors operate at very low temperatures and generate a minimum of excess noise, making them ideal for testing the non-local nature of reality, investigating dark matter, mapping the early universe, and performing quantum computation and communication,” the researchers wrote in a pre-print paper published on arXiv last month.

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