NIST Hopes to Blast Off With Latest Research and Projects on Space Sensors

November 11, 2021 by Antonio Anzaldua Jr.

Electronic advancements are not limited to Earth applications. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) strives to leverage its sensor technology and research to push its sensors into space.

Not only have electronics been working towards being implemented and benefiting everyone here on Earth, but some companies are also reaching for the stars, almost quite literally. 

One entity hoping to join in the race for space technology is the NIST. Recently, NIST has announced that they will start focusing on space applications by providing design methods and sensors to be easily equipped on existing telescopes to retrieve larger amounts of data from neighboring and our very own universe. 


Example sensors on a space telescope, which NIST is targeting as an application.

Example sensors on a space telescope, which NIST is targeting as an application. Image used courtesy of NASA


Let's dive into some of the sensors that NIST focuses on that could be useful in space applications and then look at what programs NIST will be sponsoring to achieve its goals. 


Collecting Data Through an Array of Sensors

Often, to take images of large areas of the night sky, astronomers and astrophysicists need external devices to be added to existing telescope cameras. For example, sensors can read information from energy and light particles that arrive at a telescope channeled by feedhorns, tapered cylinders mounted on an antenna. 

Once there are incoming signals, each input is amplified by superconducting quantum interference devices (SQUIDs). 


An example of an RF SQUID circuit.

An example of an RF SQUID circuit. Image used courtesy of Kraft et al


A design challenge ends up being that a large amount of heat dissipation occurs to measure and identify every individual signal from each sensor. 

One way to resolve this issue is to have the sensor simultaneously assemble large amounts of data uniformly to be read and presented to the user. Tackling this challenge, NIST has devised a multiplexed readout method that will help the sensor sort all the data appropriately while being energy efficient. 

One type of NIST sensor that assists cosmologists in studying cosmic microwave background (CMB), an afterglow leftover during the initial moments of an early hot and dense universe, is CMB sensors. 

CMB sensors and electronics help telescope cameras search for tiny energy fluctuations, diffuse light characteristics, and other patterns that help understand the formation of galaxies.


NIST's TES-based sensors could detect ripples in space-time and can be used to monitor the evolution of photochemical reactions in space through an X-ray probe shown above.

NIST's TES-based sensors could detect ripples in space-time and can be used to monitor the evolution of photochemical reactions in space through an X-ray probe shown above. Image used courtesy of NIST


Another sensor from NIST is its transition-edge sensors (TESs), which measure light by detecting heat based on an increase in the electrical resistance of a superconducting film. 

These sensors can measure X-rays and detect the energy of the smallest particle (photon) in less than one-thousandth of a percent error. TES sensors can also be arranged in arrays of hundreds or thousands to provide precision and accurate measurements of large-scale readings.

With CMBs looking at microwave signals and TES seeking photons, there is one final NIST sensor to go over. This one identifies frequency changes as new photons arrive, which are microwave kinetic inductance detectors (MKIDs). 

The superconducting sensors are similar to CMBs, but MKIDs deal with higher frequencies and hold an advantage over TES sensors when needing larger arrays of combined devices to read incoming data such as gravitational waves. 

Now that we've explored some of the sensor technology NIST is hoping to leverage for space applications let's see what programs it supports. 


NIST’s Ongoing Space Projects 

NIST has various projects that are intended to be utilized in harsh conditions, such as in space. 

One of those projects is NIST's Quantum Microcalorimeter from the Quantum Sensors Group (QSG). 

This project involves the development of superconducting sensors that will detect the energy of single photons in very low temperatures. Since 2010, QSG scientists have researched and deployed spectrometers and superconducting sensors to gather high spectral resolution responses from energy in cryogenic environments. 

The latest development from this project was that the NIST researchers studied the effects of adding TES technology to an X-ray spectrometer. 

The results yielded that the previous electron beam ion trap (EBIT) model, composed of germanium microcalorimeters, fell short of the newly added TES-based EBIT by a 30% increase in the active area for precise measurements. By adding a TES IC, the researchers improved the overall energy resolution.  


An example of an x-ray installed on an EBIT.

An example of an x-ray installed on an EBIT. Image used courtesy of NIST


Another unique NIST project is the Long-wavelength Detectors Project. This project focuses on large arrays of sensors that utilize NIST's multiplexed readout technology to detect millimeters worth of a wave of light. 

These sensors stay true to helping find precise measurements in the cosmos but can also help with remote detection of specific items. 

For example, this group of researchers designed a prototype for a video imaging system to detect hidden weapons and other threats at a distance of 28 meters away. Although this prototype falls under security protocol applications, researchers could use it to detect unidentified objects in space that could damage satellites or even spacecraft in orbit in a large-scale arrangement.  

The latest accomplishment from this project was in 2017. These NIST researchers were recognized for developing and deploying the world's first multi-color CMB-based camera with a massive 550,000 detectors amongst 21 different telescopes to measure the growth of matter clustering over time in our universe. This use can help scientists around the world with new information on dark matter and dark energy. 

With ongoing research and development, NIST researchers can assist astrophysicists and cosmologists in piecing together various forms of information gained from space applications.



Interested in learning more about space-related technology? Read on in the articles down below.

From CMOS to Batteries: Past Space Tech Improved Earth Applications

Update HDL Code in Space From Earth? ST and Xilinx Team Up for Rad-hard FPGAs

Messages Through the Cosmos: A Review of Data Transfer in Space