Detector technology could help NASA find exoplanets

Earth-like planets on scientists’ agenda

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Photo courtesy of NASA

Artist concept of one of five planets orbiting the star 55 Cancri. The goal of future exoplanet missions is to directly image Earth-like planets around Sun-like stars 
like 55 Cancri.

The hunt is on for Earth-like planets outside of our solar system. Since the 1990s, astronomers have detected more than 450 extrasolar planets—mostly large Jupiter-sized bodies—around nearby stars. Advances in technology are fueling the quest to find smaller, rocky planets resembling Earth and, possibly, evidence of life.

RIT scientist Don Figer is developing detector technology funded by NASA’s Technology Development for Exoplanet Missions Program and designed to directly image and characterize exoplanets. The two-year project will result in a detector array that can withstand the radiation in space, count individual photons or light pulses and characterize exoplanets in one-third the time it takes using existing methods.

“If you can detect something much more quickly, you can search many more systems,” says Figer, director of the Rochester Imaging Detector Laboratory and professor in the College of Science. “A three-year mission becomes a one-year mission, or you can detect three times as many objects in the same fixed time. That’s usually what astronomers like to do.”

To accomplish this “super” detector, Figer and his colleagues at Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory are adapting technology they are currently developing for ground-based applications, such as the Thirty Meter Telescope. That project, funded by the Moore Foundation, supports the development of optical and infrared megapixel zero-read-noise detectors. Both initiatives build on detector technology originally invented at Lincoln Laboratory.

Scientists at Lincoln Laboratory will fabricate the 256 by 256 pixel array for the NASA project, while the RIT team will focus on testing the detector’s performance in high-energy radiation environments. 

“One of the potentially most dramatic applications of zero-read noise technology might be when you’re required to make quick measurements at very fine time intervals,” Figer says. “But when you make quick measurements with detectors the noise is higher. For a detector that doesn’t have read noise but detects individual photons, the noise would be zero regardless of how fast it is reading out.” 

“I think, if it’s successful, it will pervade many applications in many fields,” Figer adds. “In particular, for space astrophysics it would become a new standard.”