The Most Advanced Camera In the World Was Created to Find Alien Life


In a team effort, physicists and astronomers from different countries have worked together to create the best camera on the planet. However, it’s not for regular use in panoramas or selfies on Earth. It will look at planets outside our solar system, and perhaps find alien life.

Dark-speckle Near-infrared Energy-resolved Superconducting Spectrophotometer – DARKNESS

The camera has quite a long name for its size; it looks like a suitcase!

Observatories on Earth had a hard time to look at exoplanets. One of the reasons is that our planet’s atmosphere distorts the light from the stars . There’s also the issue of faraway exoplanets that are fainter than the stars they orbit.

Benjamin Mazin is a physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the leader of the team that built the camera:

“It’s technically very challenging, because the star is at least a million times brighter than the planet.”

A professor of physics and astronomy at York University in Toronto, Ray Jayawardhana, was not involved in the project, but he also knows how difficult it is to see an exoplanet:

“It’s like trying to pick out a faint ember next to a brilliant searchlight from many miles away.”

But DARKNESS can achieve the goal by filtering the light from stars. It will compensate the distortion from the Earth’s atmosphere by using a special mirror that has to change its shape thousands of times to correct the ‘blur.’

Physicist Bruce Macintosh (Stanford) was not involved in the project, but he’s also impressed by the new technology:

“What’s powerful about directly detecting these planets is that we can measure their light and see the composition [of their atmospheres].”

Looking Outside Our Solar System With Kepler, TESS and Now With DARKNESS

So far, detecting exoplanets was mostly done through observatories in the space, like the Kepler Space Telescope and now with the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

Unlike TESS, DARKNESS will use something else that doesn’t require scanning the cosmos for transits. TESS does this only to spot exoplanets and determine if the atmosphere in them contain the substances needed to support life.

DARKNESS will, according to Jayawardhana, offer “the prospect of revealing whole new exoplanet populations that are normally beyond the reach of other detection techniques.”

The camera can detect exoplanets the size of Jupite. But in the future, Mazin believes that it would also be able to spot planets the same size as Earth. DARKNESS is now part of the Hale telescope, at the Palomar Observatory close to San Diego.

In 2027 the team will start building a better DARKNESS model. It will be used on the Thirty Meter Telescope which will be built on top of a dormant volcano in Hawaii – the Mauna Kea.


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