Sunday, May 14, 2017

Alien Planet-Hunting Camera Successfully Tested on Space Station

CID camera installed on the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA

A university-built highly advanced and specialized camera has been recently successfully tested on the International Space Station (ISS). The instrument, known as the Charge Injection Device (CID), is designed to capture light from distant faint objects such as extrasolar worlds.

CID cameras, originally developed by General Electric Co. in 1972, measure light from individual pixels, without affecting the surrounding pixels. This enables acquiring pictures of scenes with extremely bright and extremely faint objects.

One of such CID cameras, built by the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT), was launched into space in February 2017 aboard the SpaceX CRS-10 mission. The shoebox-sized device was added to the space station’s Nanoracks External Platform (NREP) in late April. That platform was then placed in an airlock and moved by robotic arm to the Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility outside the ISS.

CID has started a six-month testing campaign and has already successfully captured and downloaded its first picture of a test pattern.

“The data we have so far received from the CID payload is incredibly encouraging. We know that the detector is operational and that the support electronics are holding the temperature where we would like it,” Daniel Batcheldor, lead scientist on the project at FIT told

Batcheldor heads FIT’s Department of Physics and Space Sciences. He is currently quantifying the detector performance and the initial results allowed him to confirm that the first tests were successful. However, full success will come when the continued operations will be concluded half a year later.

CID onboard ISS serves as a prototype of a camera that could be installed on future space observatories. Current tests will show how such an instrument works in space.

“The main goal of the CID camera onboard ISS is to demonstrate that this technology is robust to being deployed in the space environment. A successful mission will mean that CIDs can fly on future space telescopes as full science instruments,” Batcheldor said.

CID is able to capture images of very bright and very dim objects in a single scene. Therefore, it could be very useful to acquire images of exoplanets orbiting their bright host stars. Moreover, it could become a relatively simple and inexpensive tool for identifying potential Earth-like planets beyond our solar system.

“Humans have been desperately pursuing an answer to the question of ‘are we alone’ for millennia. We have recently determined that earth-like planets are a common feature around stars through indirect methods. The CID could be the technology that will allow us to directly image earth-like planets around other stars relatively simply and cheaply if part of an appropriate space telescope. The light from these earth-like planets will give us details about possible oceans, clouds, and maybe even advanced civilizations,” Batcheldor said.

The successful completion of CID tests on ISS is required by NASA to achieve the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of 7, what would give the instrument green light to fly on future planet hunting space observatories. Once the device gets TRL 7, it will mean that it can work in the relevant environment and is acceptable to fly in space.

Batcheldor also noted that the ongoing commercialization of space is essential for the development of such highly advanced low-cost instruments like CID. It enables universities to gain access to space at a fraction of the cost when compared to the Shuttle program.

“The commercialization of space is going to be a fundamental driver in the increased rate of technology development like our CID payload,” he concluded.

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