A team of physicists and astronomers have created the world’s most advanced camera called Darkness. The suitcase-sized device is not created for taking images but for spotting planets around the nearby stars and look for alien life. It is not easy for the Earth-based laboratories to look for exoplanets since the light from celestial objects becomes distorted as it passes through the Earth’s atmosphere and when it reaches us from exoplanets it is completely faint. Benjamin Mazin, a physicist at University of California, said, “It’s technically very challenging because the star is at least a million times brighter than the planet.”
The bright starlight tends to wash out the light from exoplanets. Ray Jayawardhana, a professor of physics and astronomy at York University Canada said, “It’s like trying to pick out a faint ember next to a brilliant searchlight from many miles away.” Darkness can overcome both the problems by filtering the light from the individual stars and compensating for atmospheric distortion using a special mirror which changes shapes thousands of times a second to correct the troublesome atmospheric blurring.
Bruce Macintosh, a Stanford physicist who was not involved with the project said, “It’s pretty impressive technology. What’s powerful about directly detecting these planets is that we can measure their light and see the composition.”
Since the challenges were with ground-based observatories, the search for exoplanets has relied mostly on space-based observatories like the Kepler Space Telescope and the newly launched Transiting Exoplanets Survey Satellite (TESS). These satellites detect exoplanets by scanning the cosmos for transits. These are the periodic dips in a star’s light which occurs when a planet passes in front of it. The light from an exoplanet will help astronomers to determine whether its atmosphere contains hydrogen, methane or other chemicals which suggest that planet might be able to sustain life. According to Jayawardhana, apart from helping astronomers to see exoplanets, Darkness also “offers the prospect of revealing whole new exoplanet populations that are normally beyond the reach of other detection techniques.”
Darkness was built for the Hale telescope at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego. Mazin said that the camera is capable of detecting Jupiter-sized exoplanets. He said that the camera may eventually be able to spot aliens planets as small as Earth. The ultimate goal of the team is to build an upgraded version of Darkness for the Thirty Meter Telescope which will be in a huge observatory on the top of Mauna Kea, a volcano on the island of Hawaii. The observatory is expected to start working in 2027.