NAM 13: Far sighted space technology finds practical uses on Earth
Technology developed for space missions to study the most distant objects in the Universe is now finding a host of practical applications back on Earth. QMC Instruments Ltd., in partnership with the Astronomical instrumentation Group at Cardiff University, has built instruments for many major space missions, including Herschel and Planck. Now, expanding on that experience they are developing KIDCAM, a kind of detector that could have applications in hospitals, factories and airports. Ken Wood will present the project at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno, Wales, on Tuesday 19th April.
The part of the Electromagnetic Spectrum including the far infra red and microwave is also called 'terahertz' radiation. Astronomers use this kind of radiation to study the Cosmic Microwave Background and the huge dust clouds where stars are born. The sensitive detectors they use will only operate at temperatures very close to absolute zero (minus 273C.) In Terahertz cameras like KIDCAM, those low temperatures are accessible in compact and less expensive ways using relatively new cooler technology. KIDCAM therefore has many potential day-to-day applications.
"We are all familiar with optical images of the surface of objects and X-ray images which penetrate through soft tissue to reveal bone structure. Terahertz observations give us something in between the two. For example, most clothing and packaging materials are transparent to Terahertz radiation, whereas skin, water, metal and a host of other interesting materials are not. This gives rise to some important day-to-day applications: detecting weapons concealed under clothing or inside parcels; distinguishing skin and breast cancer tissue; quality control of manufactures items and processes in factories. Our KIDCAM detectors are also very sensitive, and so we can look at the natural radiation emitted by the target. This means there are no safety issues like those associated with other imaging techniques which shine radiation, including X-rays, at the target," said Wood.
Until recently, there have been many practical obstacles to using terahertz detectors. Terahertz sources have only become available to the non-specialist in the last 10 years and cooling the detectors to very low temperatures using liquid cryogens is costly and complicated.
"The instruments aboard the Herschel and Planck satellites need to be cooled to temperatures close to absolute zero so that emissions from the spacecraft don’t drown out the faint signals that come from the very edge of the observable Universe," said Ken Wood. "For KIDCAM, we have developed a kind of detector that can be operated in electrical coolers and therefore without the use of liquefied gases. KIDCAM can be tuned to specific frequencies for specific applications, for instance to enhance the contrast between skin and plastic explosive for airport security scanners. Unwanted frequencies can be blocked to increase the camera's sensitivity. The experience that we gained working on astronomical missions has been invaluable in helping us do this. The race is now on around the world to produce devices that will realise the enormous potential of terahertz science and thanks to the ingenuity of UK astronomers we have made a great start."
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The Herschel and Planks satellites are used by astronomers to map the furthest reaches of the Universe. UK business partnerships could soon ensure that similar technology is used back on Earth to keep our airports secure or diagnose breast cancer. For images of the Herschel and Planck satellites and instruments, see:
NOTES FOR EDITORS
Bringing together around 500 astronomers and space scientists, the RAS National Astronomy Meeting 2011 (NAM 2011: http://www.ras.org.uk/nam-2011) will take place from 17-21 April in Venue Cymru (http://www.venuecymru.co.uk), Llandudno, Wales. The conference is held in conjunction with the UK Solar Physics (UKSP: http://www.uksolphys.org) and Magnetosphere Ionosphere and Solar-Terrestrial Physics (MIST: http://www.mist.ac.uk) meetings. NAM 2011 is principally sponsored by the RAS and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC: http://www.stfc.ac.uk).
The Royal Astronomical Society
The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS: http://www.ras.org.uk), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3500 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.
The Science and Technology Facilities Council
The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC: http://www.stfc.ac.uk) ensures the UK retains its leading place on the world stage by delivering world-class science; accessing and hosting international facilities; developing innovative technologies; and increasing the socio-economic impact of its research through effective knowledge exchange. The Council has a broad science portfolio including Astronomy, Particle Astrophysics and Space Science. In the area of astronomy it funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Southern Observatory.
Venue Cymru (http://www.venuecymru.co.uk) is a purpose built conference centre and theatre with modern facilities for up to 2000 delegates. Located on the Llandudno promenade with stunning sea and mountain views; Venue Cymru comprises a stunning location, outstanding quality and exceptional value: the perfect conference package.