NASA’s historic space telescope features revolutionary UH-designed sensors

James Webb Space Telescope. Photo courtesy: UH

After NASA launched the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on a landmark mission this month, scientists are anticipating their first glimpses of the most distant objects ever seen in the universe.

Technology developed and tested at the University of Hawaii Institute of Astronomy and Maunakea is behind the telescope’s ability to look deeper into space than ever before, according to a press release from the ‘UH.

Sixteen near-infrared sensors known as the HAWAII-2RG are part of JWST’s scientific instruments, enabling it to capture near-infrared light from deep space, far exceeding the capacity of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

These sensors are the culmination of years of research and development by scientists and engineers at the Institute of Astronomy (IfA). The first prototypes were developed and tested by UH astronomers Don Hall, Klaus Hodapp and Doug Simons, as well as IfA instrumentation engineer Shane Jacobson.

NASA selected IfA’s HAWAII-2RG sensors for use on the highly anticipated “next generation” space telescope after decades of testing and refinement. These detectors met all design requirements and provided additional functionality that made it easier for NASA to build JWST’s three near infrared instruments, which have very demanding deep space environmental needs.


An integral part of the testing process was the ability to mount the sensors on the 88 inch UH telescope operated by IfA on Maunakea, allowing rapid and efficient evaluation of the detectors and testing over long periods of time to avoid any surprises on the next one. mission.


“The extremely dark skies and the exquisite image quality we get from Maunakea allow us to really push the technology to its limits and explore its limits in terms of astronomical research potential,” said Simons, Director of IfA .

The telescope’s NIR detectors are the culmination of advances made by UH and its industrial partner, Teledyne Imaging Sensors. Hall, who died in March 2020, pioneered sensors, which are characterized by their unique combination of the metals mercury, cadmium and tellurium (HgCdTe), producing semiconductors of extremely high sensitivity. The sensors come from a line that the IfA has called the HAWAII (HgCdTe Astronomical Wide Area Infrared Imager) matrices.

“I have absolute confidence in our technology and the capabilities of NASA, but it’s an extremely complicated business,” Hodapp said. “For those of us involved with JWST, these are months of nervous anticipation, from launch to deployment a million miles into space, deployment of the instrument and eventual successful activation of the telescope. ”


IfA has demonstrated leadership in the development of sensors and adaptive optics technology, which has helped expand research capabilities in the field of astronomy. Many ground-based telescopes in Maunakea and around the world use H2RG detectors in their instruments.

The predecessor of H2RG, called H1RG, is also widely used in ground observatories and in Hubble. IfA has also contributed to the development of the latest generation sensors, the H4RGs, which have 16 million pixels compared to the previous generation’s 4 million, and are expected to expand the technology rapidly in the future.

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