“All of America is right here on the doorstep”

The James Webb Space Telescope has only been gathering revolutionary cosmic insights for less than a year, and a Dutch research team is already working on successor detectors. “No one can make it like us.”

George VanHall

Professor Jochem Baselmans has a device in his lab no bigger than a matchbox. Nevertheless, researchers from prestigious universities in the United States and employees of the space agency NASA want to fly to take a closer look at the matter.

‘All of America is here at the door because they can’t do this. In this we are miles ahead of the rest of the world. And when they get here, we can actually show something,’ he says with a nod towards the device in his hand. “Something we can prove works.”

Basselmans’ confidence in what he and his team are doing is as great as his pride in the position they hold in the international world of astronomical instruments. ‘Competition? No, we don’t really have that. No one can make it like us. At most, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena… but we’re working with them now,” he says.

About the author
George Van Hall writes about astronomy, physics and space travel D Volkskrant. He has published books on everything from the universe to the tiniest building blocks of reality.

Astronomy rocked

The collaboration takes place within the framework of the Prima Space Telescope, which is currently only on the drawing board. However, creators believe that he will further shake up astronomy just like pioneer James Webb.

Telescopes will soon be able to study how black holes and the galaxies they inhabit control each other’s growth, how carbon, nitrogen and oxygen in the still-young universe — the elements of life — collect deep in dusty galaxies and how planets form. . Our corner of the galaxy,” said JPL’s Matt Bradford. And there’s more: for example, PRIMA can map cosmic magnetic fields, help us better understand how stars form, and figure out where all the water on Earth comes from. “Then the most amazing results of such a space telescope are still unknown,” he says.

Whether Prima can achieve all of those cosmic goals depends on what Baselmans produces in his labs in Leiden, Delft and Groningen. “The detectors are really the single biggest challenge for Prima,” says Bradford. Those Mkids detectors (in full: microwave motion induction detectors) must first prove themselves in practice.

Jochem Baselmans: ‘We are now firmly working with three of the four groups working on the NASA proposal.’Image by Niels Bleckmolen

Baselmans’ detectors are made up of a grid of individual metering devices – ‘pixels’ in technical jargon, as each metering device accounts for one pixel in the final image. Those pixels are made of a superconducting layer that absorbs thermal radiation from the universe and then generates a signal, similar to how a digital camera detects light when it hits it.

Importantly, Mkids operate at much lower temperatures than conventional cameras and detectors at the James Webb Radio Telescope. Anyone who wants to collect thermal radiation from the cosmos needs to be very cold, and for the same reason a sensitive microphone shouldn’t make noise. Cooled to one-tenth of a degree below absolute zero – about 120 millikelvins – Mkids from Baselmans makes the Prima a billion times faster than its predecessors. ‘The detectors have a very good signal-to-noise ratio,’ says Baselmans.

Cheap in design

Because of this sensitivity, they can pick up subtle thermal radiation from cosmic depths that, in James Webb’s case, is still drowned in the background noise of the instrument. In this way, a space telescope equipped with such detectors could further colorize what the universe looked like in its youth. ‘Any such successor to James Webb is already well on the drawing board. We knew it was coming,’ says Baselmans.

The reason is that such a telescope is already capable of observing the universe in the infrared, as astronomers say Decennial Census, US Astronomical Multi-Year Strategy. NASA, which is supposed to build the device, in turn already has First Request for Proposals sent to the world. Logical: A space telescope is a multi-year project for which the first research and technological developments often take place a decade or two before launch.

In addition, the space agency is looking for a device that is slightly cheaper in design than famous telescopes like the Hubble or James Webb. Nevertheless, if Webb’s technology is significantly outdated by the time a successor is launched, it will almost certainly surpass the latter’s scientific capabilities.

The sensitivity of the detectors is measured with the test setup with the red tube on the left.  Image by Niels Bleckmolen

The sensitivity of the detectors is measured with the test setup with the red tube on the left.Image by Niels Bleckmolen

There should be such a telescope in ‘ten years’, and now every team from America working on a project has come to Srone to see our inventors. We are now working together with three of the four groups working on such a NASA project,’ says Baselmans.

That’s pretty remarkable, by the way. Because it was precisely NASA’s JPL that was the birthplace of the basic detection concept. “Kids detectors were invented here,” says Bradford. ‘We mainly make them for measuring instruments used in balloon flights and on the ground. Baselmans’ team has worked hard to make the KIDS technology more sensitive and robust, so that it is also suitable for space missions. What they do is the best available.’

Bradford Baselmans calls the collaboration with the team special because they exchange knowledge at a deep technical level. However, in general, he said, “it’s not unusual for JBL to work with partners outside of the United States.”

High speed

Before the Bradford-Basalmans collaboration Prima telescope goes into space sometime in the next decade, it must first survive NASA’s selection rounds. Telescope is one of four candidates for such a successor to James Webb. “We expect to submit our first proposal in October this year. “NASA won’t make a formal announcement before 90 days,” Bradford said. If the telescope survives that phase, NASA will fund an extensive preliminary study for nine to twelve months. The final selection for the space telescope won’t be made until late 2025.

Baselmans is also working on two other telescope projects. Salt And First of all. ‘Although we don’t have any scientific collaboration with those groups in the field of detector development,’ he says. Instead of developing it extensively together, the two buy Dutch detector technology separately.

Jochem Baselmans sees himself on his detector.  Image by Niels Bleckmolen

Jochem Baselmans sees himself on his detector.Image by Niels Bleckmolen

Baselmans believes that his inventions are so popular because of the way he and his colleagues conduct their research. ‘We can combine university research at TU Delft with the engineering environment at SRON, where people are experienced in making space instruments. As a result, we are developing this type of technology at a much faster pace than others who only operate in an educational environment.’

Goals achieved

According to Bradford, the first investigations into the Dutch Emkits detectors are off to a good start. Two goals have already been met, he says. First, the detectors appear to be sensitive enough for use in future space telescopes, as described by Baselmans and colleagues last year. In the magazine Astronomy & Astrophysics. Additionally, separate detectors have proven to work well together in experiments in both the Netherlands and the United States. In the ultimate space telescope, multiple detectors will look at the cosmos together. Not just from Baselmans, but US made variants too. ‘Those tests were still done with previous generations of detectors. “We are now building full prototypes of the Prima and testing them,” says Bradford.

The last remaining challenge is that detectors are designed to measure all possible wavelengths of thermal radiation. ‘We currently have a lot of experience with longer wavelengths, but initial performance measurements at shorter wavelengths are fortunately good,’ says Bradford.

Despite all this preliminary work, it’s still far from certain that the Mkids detectors will actually help unlock the universe’s secrets sometime in the next decade. For that, Baselmans says, people will have to wait for the verdict at NASA after all. “There is a lot of politics involved. The biggest danger for us is that the experts there decide that our technology is not ready yet. All we can do is ensure that the detectors achieve the required sensitivity and work properly. We have no influence over the rest.

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