Researchers Build World's Most Advanced Camera to Help Astronomers Detect Exoplanets

The spectrophotometer would be the most powerful addition to current telescopes to date.
Shelby Rogers

Researchers are constantly on the hunt for finding signs of life outside of our own planet. While exoplanetary explorers like the Kepler Space Telescope and the soon-to-be-launched Tess spacecraft continue to discover these planets, physicists and astronomers still want all the help they can get. 

An international team of researchers led by physicists from University of California - Santa Barbara have developed a powerful new instrument in detecting planets. This device is the world's largest and most advanced superconducting camera, capable of distinguishing a planet's light from its star.

The camera is aptly named DARKNESS which stands for the DARK-speckle Near-infrared Energy-resolved Superconducting Spectrophotometer. It's a 10,000 pixel field spectrograph that gives researchers their clearest images to date. It uses Microwave Kinetic Inductance Detectors that allow the researchers to get a better picture of planets by their nearby stars. 

UC Santa Barbara physicist Benjamin Mazin spearheaded development on this superpowered camera.  

"Taking a picture of an exoplanet is extremely challenging because the star is much brighter than the planet, and the planet is very close to the star," said Mazin, who holds the Worster Chair in Experimental Physics at UCSB.


DARKNESS was specifically built to combat the most frustrating technical barriers found in other planetary detection systems. DARKNESS manages to make thousands of frames each second without a read noise or dark current. Those two elements are two of the biggest issues with any light-registering instrument. DARKNESS can also determine the wavelength and arrival time of every photon, according to a statement from researchers. This allows physicists to distinguish a planet by looking at the scattered or refracted light. 

"This technology will lower the contrast floor so that we can detect fainter planets," Mazin explained. "We hope to approach the photon noise limit, which will give us contrast ratios close to 10-8, allowing us to see planets 100 million times fainter than the star. At those contrast levels, we can see some planets in reflected light, which opens up a whole new domain of planets to explore. The really exciting thing is that this is a technology pathfinder for the next generation of telescopes."

DARKNESS was made to work in conjunction with other imaging technologies. The team designed it to pair with the 200-inch Hale telescope found in the Palomar Observatory in California. During its time at Palomar in the last year and a half, the researchesr used DARKNESS on four separate runs. The team plans on heading back to Palomar in May in order to gather more data and improve the contrast ratio of the images. 

"Our hope is that one day we will be able to build an instrument for the Thirty Meter Telescope planned for Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii or La Palma," Mazin said. "With that, we'll be able to take pictures of planets in the habitable zones of nearby low mass stars and look for life in their atmospheres. That's the long-term goal and this is an important step toward that."

The study was recently published in a recent issue of Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.


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