Science and Technology @ UCSB
Somewhere in the vastness of the universe another habitable planet likely exists. And it may not be that far — astronomically speaking — from our own solar system.Distinguishing that planet’s light from its star, however, can be problematic. But an international team led by UC Santa Barbara physicist Benjamin Mazin has developed a new instrument to detect planets around the nearest stars. It is the world’s largest and most advanced superconducting camera. The team’s work appears in the journal Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.
The group, which includes Dimitri Mawet of the California Institute of Technology and Eugene Serabyn of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, created a device named DARKNESS (the DARK-speckle Near-infrared Energy-resolved Superconducting Spectrophotometer), the first 10,000-pixel integral field spectrograph designed to overcome the limitations of traditional semiconductor detectors. It employs Microwave Kinetic Inductance Detectors that, in conjunction with a large telescope and an adaptive optics system, enable direct imaging of planets around nearby stars.
“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.
Funded by the National Science Foundation, DARKNESS is an attempt to overcome some of the technical barriers to detecting planets. It can take the equivalent of thousands of frames per second without any read noise or dark current, which are among the primary sources of error in other instruments. It also has the ability to determine the wavelength and arrival time of every photon. This time domain information is important for distinguishing a planet from scattered or refracted light called speckles.
“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 …