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Orbiting at 250 Statute Miles, Florida Tech Experiment Tested

Charge Injection Device Could
Help Find Earth-Like Planets      

MELBOURNE, FLA. — An instrument prototype from Florida Institute of Technology that may eventually help scientists spot Earth-like planets is being tested in the harsh conditions of space after it was successfully deployed from the International Space Station.

The charge injection device, a type of high-contrast camera designed by Daniel Batcheldor, head of the Department of Physics and Space Sciences at Florida Tech, successfully captured and downloaded its first picture of a test pattern this week and will continue to take test pictures for six months as a part of its technology demonstration mission.

The device, which is about the size of a shoebox, was added to the Nanoracks External Platform the last week of April. That platform was then placed in an airlock and moved by robotic arm to the Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility outside the space station.

One of the biggest quests in astrophysics is to find planets around other stars – places where life may exist. Regular telescopes are not good at directly imaging such small objects because a host star’s light generally drowns out the relatively dimmer light of a potential planet.

But this new development in space imaging may solve that vexing problem.

Batcheldor has demonstrated that a charge injection device, or CID, has the ability to capture light from objects tens of millions of times fainter than another object in the same picture. An exoplanet next to bright star is one such example. This ability is a result of how the CID is used as a type of camera: each individual pixel works independently and uses a special indexing system. Very bright pixels get addressed very quickly, while the faint pixels are allowed to carry on gathering the fainter light.

“If this technology can be added to future space missions, it may help us make some profound discoveries regarding our place in the universe,” Batcheldor said.

With a grant from the American Astronomical Society, Batcheldor and several graduate students first tested the CID at Florida Tech’s 0.8-meter Ortega telescope. They were able to pick out objects 70 million times fainter through the glare of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Those results were over one thousand times better than what could be achieved using an off-the-shelf astronomical camera.

With the CID prototype now fully functioning on the International Space Station, the instrument will go through a rigorous demonstration period to establish a technology readiness level, or TRL. TRL is required by NASA to show the equipment can work in the relevant environment and is acceptable to fly in space. If the CID achieves a TRL of 7 by mission’s end, the device will qualify for future space missions, either on a standalone satellite or as part of a space telescope. The latter is Batcheldor’s hope: he and his team will propose a telescope-based plan to NASA if the CID’s demonstration phase is successful.

Click here for NASA footage of the installation of the Nanorack bearing the Florida Tech experiment.

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