Star or Comet?Yesterday was a very long day at work. I was stuck in meetings with our collaborators for over 6 hours! To make it worse, we spent the entire time discussing a single topic. I even wrote my last paper on it. What could possibly be so captivating, you ask?
Remember the solar wind I wrote about a few weeks ago? This stream of protons does more than create comet tails and aurora, it also destroys all of those fancy electronics we work so hard to put into orbit.
The protons streaming from the sun carry a lot of energy, and they leave a lot of this energy behind as they pass through satellites and astronauts that don’t have the Earth’s atmosphere to protect them. The energy released wrecks havoc on the system, throwing electrons and atoms around like a game of ping-pong. This is one form of radiation damage.
Definitely a comet!
This radiation damage is harmless over short periods of time, much like an occasional X-ray at the dentist. However the solar wind becomes a problem for something like the Hubble Space Telescope or our proposed satellite SNAP which are exposed for many years.
To understand how a telescope degrades from exposure to radiation, let me give an extremely quick explanation of how we gather astronomical images. A telescope is very similar to a camera you buy in the store. The large mirror is equivalent to the lens on your camera. The part that suffers the most radiation damage is the Charge Coupled Device, also known as a CCD.
The CCD is essentially the same as the 8-megapixel chip in your digital camera. This serves as an electronic version of film, recording the image through the photoelectric effect rather than through a chemical reaction. If you can still remember how photography was in the days of film, I’m sure you can appreciate the relief of going digital. Astronomers realized this early on and were pioneers in the use of CCDs.
The photons from the subject of the photograph collide with electrons in the silicon of a CCD, knocking them free from their parent atom. The free electrons are then collected in a well near the site of the collision. Once the exposure is complete, charge is moved one well (or pixel) at a time toward a transistor which then reports the number of electrons found. This process is usually described through the analogy of a bucket brigade passing buckets of water from a reservoir to a fire.
When the CCD is brand new, the bucket brigade performs almost perfectly. If I want to observe a star, the image comes out crystal clear. However, after enough time in space and in the solar wind, the CCD begins to show its wear. The bucket brigade gets sloppy at work and has to contend with an increasingly difficult obstacle course, spilling a little bit of water (or electrons) during each transfer. That same star now leaves a trail of charge behind and begins to look more like a comet.
Now, if I am observing a star, I want my image to look like a star, not like a comet. Is that really too much to ask? Unfortunately, the CCD will inevitably deteriorate in space and astronomers have to find ways to predict and correct for this deterioration. This is what we spent yesterday discussing. We passed around some pretty good ideas but still have a bit of work to do before we can prove a new method for correcting the images. I just hope we it figured out before our satellite launches in 2015!
Kyle S. Dawson is engaged in post-doctorate studies of distant supernovae and development of a proposed space-based telescope at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
latitude: 37.8768, longitude: -122.251