Celestial delight


POSTED: Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Hubble Space Telescope's cameras are taking stunning images of celestial phenomena with technology developed by University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy researchers in Hilo.

While celebrating the orbiting telescope's spectacular images after a recent upgrade by shuttle astronauts, the IFA infrared sensor technology group got more good news—a National Science Foundation grant of nearly $7 million to develop a more advanced 16-megapixel infrared sensor. Infrared sensors scan the skies for heat or infrared light rather than visible light because many celestial objects are invisible except for the heat they give off.

The first 16-megapixel infrared camera—an array of four 4-megapixel sensors—is in use on the UH 88-inch telescope on Mauna Kea. The proposed new sensor will be a single chip, nearly 2.5 inches square, “;one of the largest integrated circuits in existence,”; said Donald N.B. Hall, the leader of the sensor technology group.

A megapixel is 1 million pixels or picture elements.

“;The availability of these huge infrared sensors at manageable cost is crucial to the science programs of telescopes such as the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) planned for Mauna Kea,”; Hall said.

IFA Director Rolf-Peter Kudritzki said the IFA Hilo infrared detector group's work “;is a true story of success. The results accomplished with the development of a series of the world-leading detectors, which are known in the world as the 'Hawaii detectors,' are outstanding and the scientific perspectives for the future are breathtaking.”;

The Hubble space telescope has two powerful cameras—a Wide Field Camera 3 and its earlier workhorse at optical wavelengths, an Advanced Camera for Surveys.

The Wide Field Camera is using a sensor for infrared observations developed by the Hilo group about 10 years ago, Hall said.

Hall said the IFA infrared sensor program over 20 years has developed five generations of increasingly larger and more powerful infrared sensors.

Hall was IFA director from 1984 to 1997, then moved to IFA Hilo to focus on astronomy research and technology development.

His team includes astronomer Klaus-Werner Hodapp and research associates Fred Hee and Shane Jacobson. Hall and Hodapp worked for nearly 10 years with the Rockwell Science Center in California to develop larger and more powerful sensors.

“;The superb quality of the early images and the caliber of the science already being done with them are a source of great pride to the group and our industrial partners, Teledyne Imaging Sensors and GL Scientific,”; Hall said.

GL Scientific, located in Kaimuki, was founded by Gerard (Gerry) Luppino, formerly with the Institute for Astronomy. Teledyne Scientific and Imaging formerly was Rockwell Scientific Co.

The advanced 16-megapixel detector is the biggest he can foresee for a long time but larger ones can be built by putting them together like tiles in a mosaic, Hall said.

Luppino's company is a world leader in that technique, which the IFA group plans to use to develop a 64-megapixel sensor. It initially would be used for ground-based telescopes, Hall said.

Hall's group also developed infrared technology under a 2000 contract for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble's successor, scheduled for launch in 2014.

Astronomers want to use it to study the early formation of the universe and the first stars 13.7 billion years ago after the Big Bang.

The IFA infrared sensor technology program has attracted more than $15 million in grants, including the latest award.

The group's “;Hawaii detectors”; also are in use on other telescopes on Mauna Kea and Haleakala.