NASA, RIT Center for Detectors partner to help future spacecraft survive longer, harsher missions

The research is aimed at finding new discoveries in remote parts of the solar system


The Center for Detectors received two NASA grants to continue its work on CMOS detectors, pictured here, that will help future space missions visit remote parts of the solar system.

RIT’s Center for Detectors has been chosen by NASA for two research programs: Early Stage Innovations (ESI) and Strategic Astrophysics Technology (SAT), with the hope of helping future spacecraft find new discoveries in the vast universe.

Under the leadership of Center for Detectors Director Don Figer, the team will be advancing and characterizing single-photon sensing CMOS image sensors to determine if they can survive the harsh radiation environments in NASA missions. The intent is to fly these types of detectors on future missions to find life on Jupiter’s moons and throughout the universe.

The ESI is a targeted program under NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) while SAT is part of the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) and builds on SAT grants the center has received in previous years. In total, the Center for Detectors is receiving nearly $1.4 million from NASA for the research.

Digital detectors or sensors are used in all types of space applications and are essential to space instrumentation, enabling scientific discoveries. Space missions are lasting longer due to advancing technologies, so detectors are needed that can withstand harsher environments for longer periods of time.

“If you bring detectors into space they get damaged from radiation,” explained Figer. “We expose them to high energy radiation that would simulate a space mission that would last for many years. That’s what we’re working on for these two projects.”

RIT students have always been central to the center’s work. Center for Detectors Engineer Justin Gallagher ’20 (physics), ’20 MS (astrophysics and technology) worked on a previous SAT grant as a student and is excited to continue working in the field and to introduce new students to the work.

“One project looks at the performance of the sensor and the other project looks at how we can effectively increase the performance,” said Gallagher. “The work for the projects is very involved, and it’s great to have students working hands-on. I was a student who had students teach me how to do this, and now I can pay it forward.”

One student involved in the research is Nathan Hoon, a fourth-year mechanical engineering major from Claremont, Calif. After taking a class taught by Figer for his astronomy minor, Hoon became interested in the Center for Detectors and now finds himself working on these large NASA projects.

“I am working mainly with the mechanical mounts,” said Hoon. “My goal is to make sure that the detector has a physical place that I can set it and that we can test it. It’s fun to see the start of this project where there is a lot of planning, a lot of prepping.”

The team will expose detectors to high-energy radiation that will simulate a space mission traveling to the moons of Jupiter.

“It is a special location because it’s the most intense radiation field in the solar system,” said Figer. “Most missions wouldn’t be able to survive more than a few weeks. We think these detectors will survive for years.”

The longer space missions are able to last, the more possibility there is for discovery, especially in the harshest environments within the solar system, according to Figer.

Adds Figer: “Through this NASA-sponsored research, the team at the Center for Detectors is helping to bring about future space missions that will continue to advance our knowledge of life in the universe.”

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