Scientists hope to get glimpse of adolescent universe from revolutionary instrument-on-a-chip

Jun 30, 2011
The MicroSpec instrument (onto a silicon wafer measuring just four inches) could provide a picture of how the cosmos developed into the kind of place that could support life like that found on Earth. Credit: NASA

Scientists know what the universe looked like when it was a baby. They know what it looks like today. What they don't know is how it looked in its youth. Thanks to technological advances, however, scientists hope to complete the photo album and provide a picture of how the cosmos developed into the kind of place that could support life like that found on Earth.

They plan to gather these never-before-obtained insights with a potentially "game-changing" instrument that is expected to be 10,000 times more sensitive than the current state-of-the-art.

The instrument is being designed to gather data of objects so distant from Earth that they no longer can be observed in visible light, only in the infrared bands of the . In particular, this instrument, called a spectrometer, will measure the properties of the infrared light to identify the object's composition and other physical properties.

Just as impressive, the aptly named MicroSpec would be able to perform these highly sensitive observations from a very small platform -- so small, in fact, that all its components would fit onto a silicon wafer measuring just four inches in diameter.

Now under development by engineers and scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., the instrument is a strong contender for future flight missions in astrophysics and Earth science, said Harvey Moseley, who is leading the instrument-development effort. "It's quite a new and, we think, revolutionary concept," he said. "If we can prove it, everyone will want it."

Stars to Hemoglobin

Although the technology could help answer a plethora of science questions, it is ideally suited for studying the evolution of the universe and by extension, humanity's place in it.

Past NASA missions, including the Goddard-developed Cosmic Background Explorer and the Wilkinson Microwave Anistropy Probe, studied the infant universe. They gathered information about the primordial light created during the universe's creation. Both detected tiny temperature differences, which pointed to density differences that ultimately gave rise to the first stars and galaxies formed 400,000 million years after the Big Bang.

However, scientists have yet to study these objects with great precision. They also have not studied light emitted by the life-sustaining elements created in these first stars and later distributed across the universe in stellar explosions.

"Right after the Big Bang, the only elements that were really present in any abundance were hydrogen and helium," Moseley said. "The formation of stars and the nuclear reaction that took place inside these first stars have created essentially all the elements that constitute the things that we see around here -- the carbon in our bodies and the iron and hemoglobin in our blood. All these elements were formed in the many generations of stars that have been born and have died since the Big Bang."

By building an instrument like MicroSpec, and studying this specific era in the universe's nearly 14-billion-year history, scientists will "get a very clear picture of how the universe developed into the kind of place that could support life like us," Moseley added.

Unprecedented Instrument

Not only is the science unprecedented, so is the instrument, said Wen-Ting Hsieh, a Goddard Detector Development Laboratory engineer who has been working with Moseley since 2009 to advance the technology in preparation for a future mission. "The most important thing is it is small and it's super-sensitive."

In essence, Moseley, Hsieh, and their NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and CalTech University collaborators have found a way to dramatically shrink the size of the instrument. Compared with traditional spectrometers, which typically are table sized, the entire MicroSpec package of components, including its detectors, optics, and filters, would all be arranged on a thin silicon wafer measuring about 400 microns in thickness -- four times the width of a human hair -- and four inches in diameter.

"The idea was to get everything closely integrated and you get devices that are higher performing," said Carl Stahle, a Goddard technologist and the new business lead for the Instrument Systems and Technology Division at Goddard. And because the components are assembled on silicon, MicroSpec can be mass-produced, just like the silicon chips used in computers and other electronic equipment.

Therefore, NASA could produce multiple devices and assemble them as one compact instrument. In addition to providing increased sensitivity, MicroSpec would reduce the amount of time to observe objects in the sky because more light-detection capabilities would be built into the instrument. "The key is understanding what you can do on the silicon wafer. That's your instrument on a chip," Stahle explained.

Also contributing to MicroSpec's increased sensitivity -- estimated to be 10,000 times better than current state-of-the-art instruments -- is the degree to which it would be cooled. To detect far infrared light, instruments must be cooled to frigid temperatures to prevent instrument-generated heat from swamping the faint infrared signal. Therefore, the colder the instrument, the better the signal it receives. Moseley and team plan to employ an advanced Goddard-developed cooling system that would chill MicroSpec to just a tenth of a degree above absolute zero (-459.67 degrees Fahrenheit).

The future looks good for MicroSpec, Stahle said. Its sensitivity and small size make it suitable for all types of missions, everything from large observatories, like the Hubble Space Telescope, to suborbital missions carried out on balloons and aircraft. "It's very flexible, adaptable. Any time we can get a factor-of-10 improvement in power, mass, and volume, we think it's great. But this is promising orders of magnitude performance. That's almost unheard of. I think anyone would say that's extraordinary."

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User comments : 9

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Smellyhat
2 / 5 (1) Jun 30, 2011
It's interesting to read about MicroSpec, but somewhat disheartening that the article writer seemed to believe that it was the first spectrometer ever.
omatumr
1.6 / 5 (7) Jun 30, 2011
Right after the Big Bang, the only elements that were really present in any abundance were hydrogen and helium"


No, there was no Big Bang (BB).

BB is no more scientific than BC (Biblical Creation).

Observations and measurements suggest that the universe is infinite and cyclic ["Is the Universe Expanding?" The Journal of Cosmology 13, 4187-4190 (2011)].

http://journalofc...102.html

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel

Cube
5 / 5 (1) Jul 01, 2011
either the author doesn't know what 4 inches is or that guy has really big hands =)
kevinrtrs
1.6 / 5 (8) Jul 01, 2011
Scientists know what the universe looked like when it was a baby.

This statement is highly misleading: No one knows what it looked like in it's infancy because no one currently living was there, neither was the appearance recorded in history by some of our ancestors.
This is simply speculation which cannot be evidenced one way or the other.
In fact, the model that's currently being adhered to gets falsified almost daily but the adherents continue to disbelieve and deny their own eyes / observations and continue with the staunch, religious belief in the Big Bang.
it is ideally suited for studying the evolution of the universe and by extension, humanity's place in it.

Now if and when this instrument gets put into use and it shows that the galaxies in the furthest reach of space are an almost homogenous mixture of young and old instead of being exclusively young, will they still adhere to the Big Bang or will someone stand up and exclaim enough is enough, time for recap?
BrusierTDS
4 / 5 (4) Jul 01, 2011
omatumr:
Give it a rest as your posts get old always going against every article. Not to mention that you only link one site or article on what you are arguing instead of an overwhelming amount of articles.

I am all for not conforming and going against what the norm is, but I do not think your method is working to change anyone's mind.
Noumenal
5 / 5 (1) Jul 01, 2011
Is 'omatumr' a troll, a bot or a freak of nature? Her posts come up in so many threads, and every time she seems to spout madness.
LKD
not rated yet Jul 01, 2011
Oliver posts often, and despite the near spam nature, I don't mind them. It's like waiting for the noisy Harley driving neighbor to ride by your house each morning. Some like the sound of a motorcycle, most don't. But it is what it is.
FrankHerbert
0.9 / 5 (51) Jul 01, 2011
In fact, the model that's currently being adhered to gets falsified almost daily but the adherents continue to disbelieve and deny their own eyes / observations and continue with the staunch, religious belief in the Big Bang.


Why are the religious so quick to ridicule ideas they disagree with as religious? Isn't this hypocritical?
jsdarkdestruction
not rated yet Jul 24, 2011
Oliver, stop your nonsense and give it up. You are having a hard time accepting your life has been a waste for the most part. It's hard to stop living a lie after a long time of living it(as you should know- you did molest your children for years while keeping it hidden and living the lie of being an honorable/respectable person)but its time for you to face the truth and realize you molesting your children is what people will remember about you the most.