Active Silicon co-operates in exoplanet exploration

  • Published November 2017

NASA regularly launches scientific balloons high up into the Earth’s atmosphere to aid research on such fundamentals as the origins of our universe, cosmic rays, black holes and other planetary and space investigations. Launched from a variety of sites from Antarctica to Sweden and Hawaii to Australia, flights generally last from a few hours to a few days; earlier this year saw the launch of a mission designed to run for more than 100 days using a Super-Pressure balloon. The balloons are generally over a million cubic meters in volume and can carry payloads up to the equivalent to three small cars.

Of course, capturing images and using this data to further scientific understanding is a primary function of many of these balloons. Active Silicon is proud to report that two of our Phoenix PC/104-plus frame grabbers will be launched using one of these balloons as part of the exoplanet research project known as PICTURE-C (Planetary Imaging Concept Testbed Using a Recoverable Experiment – Coronagraph), being undertaken by The University of Massachusetts‘ Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology. The mission will use a 60cm off-axis unobscured telescope and a high-contrast coronagraph launched in a high-altitude balloon floating approximately 40km above the earth’s surface.  The aim is to directly image debris disks and exozodiacal dust around neighbouring stars in order to explore Earthlike planets orbiting Sunlike stars. This is the latest experiment in the PICTURE series, with previous sounding rockets having been successfully launched in 2015 and 2011. PICTURE-C will entail two flights, one scheduled for September 2018 and one in September 2019.

Our Phoenix frame grabbers will be used in the acquisition system of a low-order wavefront sensor, in a wavefront corrector which will modify time-varying aberrations such as pointing jitter. High-speed, low‑latency acquisition is essential to the success of the experiment – researchers are aiming for a framerate of 200Hz with a mean acquisition latency of less than 180μs – and our support team are actively helping the researchers prepare the critical equipment. The balloon’s payload used in PICTURE-C will include the Wallops Arc Second Pointer (WASP) gondola which was successfully tested in previous missions – this flexible system points scientific instruments at targets with arc-second accuracy and stability. Results from the experiment are due to be presented in January 2019 by the research team.

Active Silicon products are well suited to space exploration projects due to their robustness and high-reliability. We look forward to being part of the next exciting mission!