Micrograph of NIST’s high-resolution camera made of 1,024 sensors that count single photons, or particles of light. The camera was designed for future space-based telescopes searching for chemical signs of life on other planets. The 32-by-32 sensor array is surrounded by pink and gold wires connecting to electronics that compile the data.
Credit: V. Verma/NIST

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have made one of the highest-performance cameras ever composed of sensors that count single photons, or particles of light.

With more than 1,000 sensors — or pixels — NIST’s camera may be useful in future space-based telescopes searching for chemical signs of life on other planets, and in new instruments designed to search for the elusive “dark matter” believed to constitute most of the “stuff” in the universe.

The new NIST camera could efficiently capture light from atmospheres of extrasolar planets that possibly harbor life.

Superconducting nanowires

The NIST camera consists of sensors made from superconducting nanowires, which can detect single photons. According to a NIST statement, they are among the best photon counters in terms of speed, efficiency, and range of color sensitivity. A NIST team used these detectors to demonstrate Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance,” for example.

NIST’s camera is small in physical size: It is a square measuring 1.6 millimeters on a side, but packed with 1,024 sensors (32 columns by 32 rows) to make high-resolution images.

Credit: NASA

NASA requirements

The main challenge was to find a way to collate and obtain results from so many detectors without overheating. The researchers extended a “readout” architecture they previously demonstrated with a smaller camera of 64 sensors that adds up data from the rows and columns, a step toward meeting NASA requirements.

“My primary motivation for making the camera is NASA’s Origins Space Telescope project, which is looking into using these arrays for analyzing the chemical composition of planets orbiting stars outside of our solar system,” NIST electronics engineer Varun Verma explains. Each chemical element in the planet’s atmosphere would absorb a unique set of colors, he points out.

The new camera was made at NIST’s Microfabrication Facility in Boulder, Colorado. The work was supported by both NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

NIST researcher Varun Verma explains how a new NIST camera, made of nanometer-scale wires, could efficiently capture light from atmospheres of extrasolar planets that possibly harbor life. Go to this video at:

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