Astronomy

Sensors Designed at UH Institute for Astronomy to Be Aboard NASA Space Telescope

December 19, 2021, 3:00 PM HST
* Updated December 19, 10:08 AM
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Technology pioneered at the University of Hawaiʻi Institute for Astronomy will allow astronomers to peer even farther into the universe.

After NASA launches the James Webb Space Telescope on a historic mission this month, scientists anticipate their first glimpses the most distant objects ever seen in the universe. Groundbreaking sensors developed and tested at the Institute for Astronomy and on Maunakea will give the telescope the ability to look deeper into space than ever before.

Sixteen near-infrared sensors known as HAWAII-2RGs are part of the James Webb Space Telescope’s science instruments, enabling it to capture near-infrared light from deep space, far surpassing the capability of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

“I have absolute faith in our technology and NASA’s capabilities,” said UH astronomer Klaus Hodapp, “but this is an extremely complicated endeavor. For those of us involved with (the James Webb Space Telescope), it’s months of nervous anticipation from launch to deployment a million miles away in space, to the unfolding of the instrument and eventual successful activation of the telescope.”

NASA selected the HAWAII-2RG sensors for use on the next generation space telescope after decades of testing and perfecting. These detectors not only met all design requirements, they also offered bonus features that made it easier for NASA to build James Webb Space Telescope’s three near-infrared instruments.

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These sensors are the culmination of years of research and development by Institute for Astronomy scientists and engineers and and their industrial partner Teledyne Imaging Sensors.

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Early prototypes were developed and tested by UH astronomers Don Hall, Hodapp and Doug Simons, along with IfA instrumentation engineer Shane Jacobson. Hall, who died in March 2020, pioneered the sensors, which are characterized by their unique combination of mercury, cadmium and tellurium, producing semiconductors with an extremely high sensitivity.

An integral part of the testing process was the ability to mount the sensors on the Institute for Astronomy-operated UH 88-inch telescope on Maunakea, allowing for rapid and efficient evaluation and testing during long periods of time to ensure no surprises on the upcoming mission.

“The extremely dark skies and exquisite image quality that we get from Maunakea allows us to really push technology hard and to explore where its limits are in terms of astronomical research potential,” said Simons, who serves as director of the Institute for Astronomy.

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The Institute for Astronomy has demonstrated its leadership in sensor development and adaptive optics technology, which has helped expand research capabilities in the astronomy field. Many ground-based telescopes on Maunakea and around the world use the H2RG detectors in their instruments.

The institute also helped develop the latest generation sensors, H4RGs, which have 16 million pixels compared to the previous generation’s 4 million, and is expected to rapidly expand the technology into the future.

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