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Providing advanced imaging products, embedded systems and solutions

Active Silicon founder in front of the Subaru telescope in Hawaii

Imaging the world: The Active Silicon guide to the galaxy

September 8, 2021

We’ve supplied imaging components for some seriously cool projects in our 30-year history, and our frame grabbers, camera solutions and embedded systems are imaging the world in some really fascinating locations.

In the second part of our Imaging the World series, we look at where our high-speed frame-grabbers are supporting astronomical research and cutting-edge observatories. This feels particularly poignant at a time when the billionaire space race promises to push the geographical boundaries of tourism to extremes. But there are still plenty of stunning earthly locations to consider too!

Subaru telescope, HawaiiWe know that there are a few sweet spots on Earth for positioning telescopes which take advantage of clear skies and favorable weather conditions; locations which have plenty of cloud free days and nights along with minimal wind and thermal turbulence. One of these is Mauna Kea, the tallest peak on Hawaii’s largest and youngest island. In fact, including the bulk of the mountain below sea level, it measures 32,696 feet, making it the tallest mountain in the world. As a result, this dormant volcano is home to 13 telescopes – 9 for optical and infrared astronomy, 3 for submillimeter wavelength astronomy and 1 for radio astronomy. Every evening, visitors can drive to the top of the peak, 13,803 feet above sea level, and enjoy a free stargazing tour. However, tourists who have also been enjoying scuba-diving the coral reefs and wrecks of the Pacific Ocean around Hawaii are advised not to travel to the peak within 24 hours due to the vast differences in air pressure.

We’re proud to report that our frame grabbers are supporting the imaging capabilities of the Subaru telescope on Mauna Kea, including mapping satellites around the planets in our solar system and searching for new stars, nearby and at the edges of the known universe. Owned by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, this is an 8.2m optical infrared telescope with an overwhelming wide field of view compared to other large telescopes. Researchers at the site maintain nine high-performance imagers and spectrographs as well developing new instruments.

In the main picture above, you can see our founder, Colin Pearce, holding one of first orders in front of the observatory (just before feeling the effects of altitude sickness!) – that was back in 2003.

Canary Islands
SST Observatory, Canary IslandsWe’ve recently written an application story about our FireBird Quad CXP-6 CoaXPress and Camera Link 80-bit (Deca) frame grabbers which are pivotal in the extremely fast frame capture required for solar observation. They’re in use at the Swedish Solar Telescope in Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on La Palma, Canary Islands, where researcher Michiel van Noort is using one to grab frames from the latest generation of large format image sensors from AMS/CMOSIS (CMV 12000, CMV20000 and CMV50000) needed for a new type of high-resolution hyperspectral instrument.

Across the water on Tenerife sits the better-known Teide Observatory, home to Europe’s largest solar telescope, GREGOR. Both sites are operated by the Canary Islands Institute of Astrophysics and well worth a visit for anyone island hopping around the archipelago.

Based as we are, next to the world-famous Pinewood Studios in the UK, we like to know which other destinations also attract movie makers, and the Canary Islands are high up the list. Film crews for Star Wars, Jason Bourne and Fast & Furious 6 are all recent visitors, drawn by the spectacular and eerie landscape (and perhaps the 45-50% tax rebate on expenditures!)

Thai national observatoryWe’ve also sent our FireBird Camera Link 80-bit frame grabbers to the other side of the world to be put to work in Thailand. The MOSCAM project united expertise from Sheffield University in the UK and the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand (NARIT) with the aim of discovering faint stars. For this project, our frame grabber and a high-speed camera from Hamamatsu were mounted to the telescope in the Thai National Observatory, which, situated on Thailand’s highest mountain Doi Inthanon, enjoys views from 8,000 feet above sea level. The system performs perfectly at the maximum 80-bit (Deca) acquisition speed even within the sometimes electrically noisy environment.

From the natural beauty of the Erawan Falls to the Phimai Historical Park, the largest Khmer temple built in the 11th century, Thailand offers some truly amazing sites and experiences. However, make sure you don’t go adventuring without being properly attired – it’s illegal in the country to leave home without underwear or drive without a shirt.

California, USA
Big Bear Solar Observatory, CaliforniaAnother solar astronomy project has also benefitted from our expertise in the USA where our CoaXPress frame grabber has helped enable a break-through in the development of advanced adaptive optics. The cameras in the vision system produce more than 1500 frames per second with 992 x 992 pixels and, together with our CXP frame grabbers, researchers at the National Solar Observatory (NSO) have been able to guide a system of three deformable mirrors that change shape and position in order to correct the aberrations in the wave path. The mirrors are placed at three different altitudes, and when used in combination, capture distortion-free images. The full story can be seen here.

The Big Bear Solar Observatory, where the solar radio telescopes are housed, is on a small island near the north shore of Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains in southern California. It’s located in the lake to reduce image distortion which occurs when the sun heats the ground, producing convection currents. California is also the location of the world’s first message between two computers in 1969. Sent via ARPANET, the first computer network which later developed into the Internet, the message just read “Lo”. It was supposed to read “Login” but the system crashed after the initial two letters!

The sky’s no limit
Scientific balloon launchingOur innovative imaging products have even made it to the edge of space. Two of our Phoenix PC/104-plus frame grabbers were launched on a scientific balloon as part of the exoplanet research project known as PICTURE-C (Planetary Imaging Concept Testbed Using a Recoverable Experiment – Coronagraph), undertaken by The University of Massachusetts‘ Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology. The frame grabbers were components within the acquisition system of a low-order wavefront sensor, in a wavefront corrector which will modify time-varying aberrations such as pointing jitter. You can read more about the project in our previous blog article.

The concept of space tourism has really hit the headlines recently as Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos have made flights to suborbital space, and Elon Musk is booked to do so on Branson’s Virgin Galactic. It’s not new though, the Russian rocket, Soyuz, took American millionaire Dennis Tito to the International Space Station in 2001, for an alleged price of US$20m, organised by the travel agency with a difference, Space Adventures. A few more lucky souls made it to the ISS before missions were scaled back in 2009, but Space Adventures are currently planning to team up with Musk’s SpaceX to put earth’s orbit back on the list of tourist destinations for those brave (and wealthy) enough to try it.

But Elon’s dreams don’t end here – the SpaceX website is currently touting trips to Mars. Making it sound like an easily achievable day out, the marketing states that “It is a little cold, but we can warm it up. Its atmosphere is primarily CO2 with some nitrogen and argon and a few other trace elements, which means that we can grow plants on Mars just by compressing the atmosphere. Gravity on Mars is about 38% of that of Earth, so you would be able to lift heavy things and bound around. Furthermore, the day is remarkably close to that of Earth.[1]” Definitely one to add to the bucket list after Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal!

Products for global projects – and beyond
Our technology strives to meet the ever-changing demands of a modern and expanding world. After all, in the rather cheesy words of Country music star, Paul Brandt, “Don’t tell me the sky’s the limit when there are footprints on the moon.” We think it won’t be long before an Active Silicon imaging product makes it there too.

Our frame grabbers are already playing their part in enhancing our understanding of the sun, moon and stars. Get in touch to see what our world-class imaging products could bring to your research project.

[1] https://www.spacex.com/human-spaceflight/mars/index.html