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world’s most advanced camera enhancing the search for alien life.
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world’s most advanced camera enhancing the search for alien life.

by nepbytesMay 22, 2018

An international team of physicists and astronomers has created what’s being billed as the world’s most advanced camera.

Known as Darkness (for Dark-speckle Near-infrared Energy-resolved Superconducting Spectrophotometer), the suitcase-sized device is designed not for taking big panoramas or snapping selfies but for spotting planets around nearby stars — and enhancing the search for alien life.

It’s proven hard for Earth-based observatories to detect exoplanets both because light from celestial objects becomes distorted as it passes through Earth’s atmosphere and because the light that reaches us from exoplanets is extremely faint compared to that from their host stars. “It’s technically very challenging, because the star is at least a million times brighter than the planet,” said Benjamin Mazin, a physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the leader of the team that built the camera.

That bright starlight tends to wash out the light from exoplanets. “It’s like trying to pick out a faint ember next to a brilliant searchlight from many miles away,” said Ray Jayawardhana, a professor of physics and astronomy at York University in Toronto, Canada, who is not involved with the Darkness project.

Darkness gets around both problems by filtering out the light from individual stars and compensating for atmospheric distortion via a special mirror that changes shape thousands of times a second to correct the troublesome atmospheric “blurring.”

“It’s pretty impressive technology,” said Bruce Macintosh, a Stanford physicist who isn’t involved with the Darkness project. “What’s powerful about directly detecting these planets is that we can measure their light and see the composition” of their atmospheres.

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