For a very long time, scientists have been on a lookout for exoplanets — Earth-like planets outside our solar system that might be inhabited by alien life.
However, distinguishing a planet and its parent star has been a challenge because of the sheer amount of light emitted by stars making them practically invisible.
But things are going to be much easier now with the introduction of DARKNESS — shorthand for Dark-speckle Near-infrared Energy-resolved Superconducting Spectrophotometer.
Equipped with a 10,000-pixel camera, it is going to be the largest and most advanced superconducting camera built till date.
What does DARKNESS superconducting camera do?
DARKNESS can capture images at thousands of frames per second without getting disrupted by ‘read noise’: an interference that causes incorrect reading of photons.
It is an integral field spectrograph which uses Microwave Kinetic Inductance Detectors to determine the position, wavelength, and expected arrival time of every incoming photon.
This information will be quite helpful in differentiating exoplanet photons from the ‘speckles’ that occurs when light from stars get refracted or scattered. Thus, DARKNESS will overcome the limitations of traditional semiconductor detectors.
Scientists, who took three years to develop this superconducting camera, are confident that the telescope can spot planets 100 million times fainter than the stars they orbit.
This will help in detecting exoplanets that do not emit their own radiation but only reflect light from the host star.
DARKNESS camera has been designed for the 200-inch Hale telescope at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, where the instrument has already been tested several times.
But before venturing out on a galactic hunt for exoplanets, it will help scientists learn more about those that have already been found. They are going to use the telescope for investigating stars within an approximate range of 30 light-years.
With the developmental work going on to build more powerful telescopes in the next ten years, DARKNESS, along with others, could help in achieving significant breakthroughs in discovering habitable zones in the neighboring galaxies.