Far-infrared instrument to map star formation in the universe

Far-infrared instrument to map star formation in the universe

Close-up of a Schottky diode, showing the air-bridge that
connects the anode. Credit: NASA

Questions about how and when stars are formed continue to tug
at human curiosity. Star formation is governed by gravity and
heat. Gravity causes molecular clouds to collapse and
eventually form stars and planetary systems, but to complete
the process, heat needs to be continuously removed from the
cloud. Hence, ionized carbon and neutral oxygen—the two major
coolants of the interstellar medium (ISM)—are the best
indicators of star-forming regions. New technology is being
developed that will allow spaceborne telescopes to make
high-resolution multi-pixel maps of the universe, which will
help scientists understand why star and planet formation is
common in some regions of the universe, while other regions
are dormant.

The utilizes state-ofthe- art
Schottky diodes that enable a space telescope to observe and
map deep-space regions. The Schottky diodes work at the
frequencies required to detect and neutral oxygen—1.9 and 2.06
THz respectively. The smallest feature of these diodes is less
than one micron (a human hair is typically 50 microns in
diameter).

To date, only a single-pixel receiver has been flown in space.
The multi-pixel technology NASA is developing allows tens and
hundreds of these Schottky diodes to be packaged in metal
enclosures, which will allow scientists to map large areas of
the sky simultaneously. In 2016, NASA researchers demonstrated
the first 16-pixel camera that worked at 1.9 THz. To implement
multi-pixel THz cameras, the development team investigated a
concept for packaging the diodes in very precisely machined
thin metallic plates that are then stacked. To create a
16-pixel source, five metal plates—each about 5 mm thick—must
be machined very precisely to obtain alignment tolerances
better than 10 microns.

Far-infrared instrument to map star formation in the universe

This 16-pixel module is made with 5 metal plates that are
precisely machined to achieve alignment tolerance better than 10
microns. Credit: NASA

This multi-pixel far-infrared technology will enable NASA space
telescopes to take “pictures” of the universe that will allow
scientists to better understand the chemical and physical
processes involved in the birth of new stars.

Now that the first 16-pixel camera has been demonstrated, the
NASA team is working to increase the sensitivity and pixel
count so that the technology can be used on future NASA space
missions.

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