Light-sensing system could show distant galaxies in unprecedented detail | 5/16/2019 | Staff
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Researchers at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering have developed an ultra-sensitive light-detecting system that could enable astronomers to view galaxies, stars and planetary systems in superb detail.

The system works at room temperature—an improvement over similar technology that only works in temperatures nearing 270 degrees below zero Celsius, or minus 454 degrees Fahrenheit. A paper detailing the advance is published today in Nature Astronomy.

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The sensor system detects radiation in the terahertz band of the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes parts of the far-infrared and microwave frequencies.

The system produces images in ultra-high clarity, and it can detect terahertz waves across a broad spectral range—an improvement of at least 10 times more than current technologies that only detect such waves in a narrow spectral range. Its broad range capabilities could allow it to do observations that currently require several different instruments. It identifies what elements and molecules—for example, water, oxygen, carbon monoxide and other organic molecules, are present in those regions of space by seeing if their individual telltale spectral signatures are present.

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"Looking in terahertz frequencies allows us to see details that we can't see in other parts of the spectrum," said Mona Jarrahi, a UCLA professor of electrical and computer engineering who led the research. "In astronomy, the advantage of the terahertz range is that, unlike infrared and visible light, terahertz waves are not obscured by interstellar gas and dust that surround these astronomical structures."

The technology could be especially effective in space-based observatories, Jarrahi said, because unlike on Earth, terahertz waves can be detected without interference from the atmosphere.

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