NASA’s Roman Space Telescope Selects 24 Flight-Quality Heat-Vision ‘Eyes’

A technician holds one of Roman's detectors.

A technician holds one of Roman's detectors. (Image: Chris Gunn via NASA)

NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope team recently flight-certified all 24 of the detectors the mission needs. When NASA’s Roman Space Telescope launches in the mid-2020s, these devices will convert starlight into electrical signals, which will then be decoded into 300-megapixel images of large patches of the sky.

These images will allow astronomers to explore a vast array of celestial objects and phenomena, bringing us closer to solving many pressing cosmic mysteries. John Gygax, the focal plane system manager for the Roman Space Telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said:

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“As the telescope’s eyes, Roman’s detectors will enable all of the mission’s science. Now, based on our testing results, our team can confirm these infrared detectors meet all the requirements for Roman’s purposes.”

Each detector has 16 million tiny pixels, providing the mission with exquisite image resolution. While 18 detectors will be incorporated into Roman’s camera, another six will be reserved as flight-qualified spares. Greg Mosby, a research astrophysicist at Goddard who is helping assess the performance of Roman’s detectors, said:

“The heart of Roman’s detectors are millions of mercury-cadmium-telluride photodiodes, which are sensors that convert light into an electrical current – one for each pixel. One of the reasons we chose this material is because by varying the amount of cadmium, we can tune the detector to have a specific cutoff wavelength. That allows us to focus more precisely on the wavelengths of light we’re trying to see.”

To make the detectors, technicians at Teledyne Imaging Sensors in Camarillo, California, built up the photodiodes on the base of the detector layer by layer. Then, they secured the detector to a silicon electronics board that will help process the light signals using indium — a soft metal that has roughly the same consistency as chewing gum. The pixels were glued down using a tiny drop of indium for each one.

This photo shows 18 detectors of NASA's RomanSpace Telescope mounted in an engineering test unit of the mission's focal plane array.
This photo shows 18 of Roman’s detectors mounted in an engineering test unit of the mission’s focal plane array. The focal plane array will be incorporated into Roman’s Wide Field Instrument — a 300-megapixel camera that will capture enormous images of the cosmos. (Image: Chris Gunn via NASA)

The drops were meticulously placed just 10 microns apart — about the width of a typical cotton fiber. If we scaled one of Roman’s detectors up to be as long as an Olympic-size swimming pool, the indium blobs would be less than half an inch apart. This precise alignment ensures that each of the sensors will operate independently. Mosby said:

“The Roman team has spent years identifying an optimal recipe for the mission’s detectors. It’s gratifying to see the team’s hard work pay off on this crucial technical aspect of the mission. We can’t wait to see how the images from these detectors transform our understanding of the universe.”

NASA’s Roman Space Telescope, Hubble’s wide-eyed cousin

Combining so many detectors and pixels gives Roman its wide field of view, enabling the mission to create infrared images that will be around 200 times larger than Hubble can provide while revealing the same level of rich detail. The spacecraft is expected to collect far more data than any other NASA astrophysics mission before it. Scientists had to develop new processes that will compress and digitize the mission’s downpour of data. Goddard engineers also pioneered novel testing methods to ensure the detectors will meet the mission’s needs.

Greg Mosby holds one of Roman’s detectors (left) and an entire cell phone camera (right) for size comparison.
Greg Mosby holds one of Roman’s detectors (left) and an entire cell phone camera (right) for size comparison. The best modern cell phone cameras can provide around 12-megapixel images, while each of Roman’s detectors contains 16 megapixels. Since Roman’s camera contains 18 detectors, it will capture 300-megapixel panoramas. The mission will conduct sweeping cosmic surveys with the same sharp resolution that the Hubble Space Telescope provides. (Image: Chris Gunn via NASA)

Roman requires extremely sensitive detectors to see faint signals from far across the cosmos. But it isn’t easy to create detectors that meet the mission’s strict quality requirements. The team knew that not all of the detectors would pass their stringent tests, so they ordered more than the mission requires and will use the best ones. But the extra detectors won’t go to waste — some are destined to serve as the eyes of other telescopes that have more lenient requirements, while others will be used for additional testing on the ground.

Staying cool

Roman will create enormous, high-resolution panoramas of the infrared universe, building on the Spitzer Space Telescope’s groundbreaking observations. Viewing space in infrared light is like using heat-vision goggles, helping us spot things we wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. But doing so requires precise and extremely cold detectors. Dominic Benford, the Roman program scientist at NASA Headquarters, said:

“Space is very dark, and everything gives off infrared light according to its temperature. Roman’s telescope, camera, and detectors all have to be cooled so that they are darker than the universe they’ll be looking at.”

Since we can detect infrared light as heat, Roman’s detectors will have to be supercooled to a frigid -288 degrees Fahrenheit (-178 degrees Celsius). Otherwise, heat from the spacecraft’s own components would saturate the detectors, effectively blinding the telescope. A radiator will redirect waste heat from the spacecraft components away from the detectors out into cold space, ensuring that Roman will be sensitive to faint signals from distant galaxies and other cosmic objects.

The combination of Roman’s fine resolution and enormous images has never been possible on a space-based telescope before and will make the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope an indispensable tool in the future.

Provided by: Ashley Balzer, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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