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.
Described in Optics Express, the camera consists of sensors made from superconducting nanowires, which can detect single photons. 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.
The nanowire detectors also have the lowest dark count rates of any type of photon sensor, meaning they don’t count false signals caused by noise rather than photons. This feature is especially useful for dark-matter searches and space-based astronomy. But cameras with more pixels and larger physical dimensions than previously available are required for these applications, and they also need to detect light at the far end of the infrared band, with longer wavelengths than currently practical.
NIST’s camera is small in physical size, 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. 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 the requirements of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
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