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New superconducting camera for astronomers

By John Mason
EDTN Europe
(01/13/02, 4:21 p.m. EDT)

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    Paris, France - Scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) have developed a camera that will revolutionise the way astronomers observe the Universe, and could have a major industrial application in the microchip industry.

    Called S-Cam, the new device's capabilities read like an astronomer's wish list. From now on, astronomers will know almost everything about starlight from one simple observation.

    S-Cam, which stands for superconducting camera, is the latest result of a decade-old project by ESA to develop the next generation of detectors for space missions. At the heart of S-Cam is a superconductor.

    "By 1992/93 we understood theoretically that superconductors would be sensitive in the optical and near infrared region of the spectrum," says Tone Peacock, Head of Science Payloads Technology Division. "Each photon could be detected, as well as its time of arrival and its colour measured."

    The ability to 'tag' each photon with its arrival time and color, coupled with the speed of the superconductor, is what makes S-Cam useful. Today, astronomers use CCD cameras to make their observations, devices also used in digital and video cameras.

    With the superconductor, as each photon arrives, S-Cam records when and where it hits the detector and its colour, then passes the information to a computer where it forms a comprehensive database about the celestial object being studied. With this information, astronomers can look for simultaneous variability in the brightness and color of celestial objects on time scales of just a few milliseconds.

    This allows them to study the large number of rapidly varying celestial objects whose details have so far eluded astronomers, such as the cataclysmic variable stars, the optical explosions associated with gamma-ray bursts and the visible light emitted by pulsars, the dead hearts of stars.

    At present, S-Cam works with just 36 pixels but the team are fabricating S-cams with hundreds and thousands of pixels. Eventually, they will rival the millions of pixels that CCDs now possess. Peacock envisages that they will eventually be taken up by the microchip industry.

    "I think the use of these chips to probe contaminants in silicon will become a major industrial application," he says. “One day,” he adds, “S-cams may even find their way into household camcorders.”


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