Can We Use The World's Most Advanced Camera to Capture an Image of Habitable Exoplanets?

Kepler442b next to earth.jpg
(Artists rendering of Kepler 442b a near Earth-sized exoplanet that's 1,120 light-years away)

In March of 2009, NASA launched the Kepler Space Observatory with the sole purpose of discovering Earth-sized planets (exoplanets) orbiting other stars. Unlike the Hubble which orbits the Earth, the Kepler orbits the sun like we do in almost an identical path, though to make sure the Earth isn't blocking images it wouldn't be able to see, it's in what is known as an earth trailing orbit. 

This Space Observatory has not only done what it was supposed to, it's surpassed it on many levels. Since its launched, the Kepler observatory has discovered over 2,200 exoplanets that are a similar shape and size of earth surrounding other stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. 

Now, Candidate Planets are exoplanets that have a similar shape and size to earth and have an orbit around a star that's similar to ours as well. The Kepler is limited to what it can see through as some of these potentially habitable exoplanets are over 1000k light years away. 

DARKNESS ucsb.jpg

That's where the DARKNESS camera comes into play. The DARK-speckle Near-infrared Energy-resolved Superconducting Spectrophotometer was developed by a team of international researchers and it has a 10,000-pixel spectrograph that can tell whether light bouncing back is being emitted by a planet or by a star. 

In a quote to the Current a publishing division of UC Santa Barbara Ben Mazin, who is the current Worster Chair in Experimental Physics at UCSB says:

"Taking a picture of an exoplanet is extremely challenging because the star is much brighter than the planet, and the planet is very close to the star... "This technology will lower the contrast floor so that we can detect fainter planets... We hope to approach the photon noise limit, which will give us contrast ratios close to 10-8, allowing us to see planets 100 million times fainter than the star. At those contrast levels, we can see some planets in reflected light, which opens up a whole new domain of planets to explore. The really exciting thing is that this is a technology pathfinder for the next generation of telescopes."

DARKNESS was designed specifically for the 200-inch Hale telescope at the Palomar Observatory in Southern California. It uses as a focal-plane wave-front sensor combined with a camera that measures light from planets and starts with such speed that it can adjust the light collecting mirror on it an incredible 2,000 times per second. That speed and accuracy give it an unparalleled level of precision which can help alleviate atmospheric distortions. One of the biggest advantages of DARKNESS is that it doesn't produce any dark noise. When there is no light the pixels are essentially off, eliminating noise that can cause inaccurate images.  

Don't expect to see a clear image from a sci-fi movie where you can see an alien going to work on a planet that's 1,000 light years away, but it's still incredibly exciting to know that one day soon we could know what an Earth-like planet that exists actually looks like without leaving the comfort of our own home.