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Alien planet-hunting camera successfully tested at International Space Station

CID camera installed on the International Space Station.

The Charge Injection Device (CID) camera is installed on the International Space Station. The device was launched inside the CRS-10 Dragon capsule in February 2017. Photo Credit: NASA

A highly advanced and specialized university-built camera has been successfully tested at the International Space Station (ISS). The instrument, known as the Charge Injection Device (CID), is designed to capture light from distant faint objects such as extrasolar worlds.

CID cameras, originally developed by General Electric Co. in 1972, measure light from individual pixels without affecting the surrounding pixels. This enables the capture of pictures with extremely bright as well as extremely faint objects.

One of such CID camera, built by the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT), was launched into space in February 2017 aboard the SpaceX CRS-10 mission. The shoebox-sized device was added to the space station’s Nanoracks External Platform (NREP) in late April, which was then placed in the Kibo module’s airlock and moved by a robotic arm to the module’s Exposed Facility outside the ISS.

Charge Injection Device (CID)

The Charge Injection Device (CID). Photo Credit: Florida Institute of Technology

CID has started a six-month test campaign and has already successfully captured and downloaded its first picture of a test pattern.

“The data we have so far received from the CID payload is incredibly encouraging,” Daniel Batcheldor, the lead scientist on the project at FIT told “We know that the detector is operational and that the support electronics are holding the temperature where we would like it.”

Batcheldor heads FIT’s department of physics and space sciences. He is currently quantifying the detector’s performance and the initial results allowed him to confirm the first tests were successful. However, full success will only come when the continued operations are concluded in about six months.

The CID onboard the space station serves as a prototype of a camera that could be installed on future space observatories. Current tests will show how such an instrument works in space.

“The main goal of the CID camera on board ISS is to demonstrate that this technology is robust to being deployed in the space environment,” Batcheldor said. “A successful mission will mean that CIDs can fly on future space telescopes as full science instruments.”

CID is able to capture images of very bright and very dim objects in a single scene. Therefore, it could be useful in acquiring images of exoplanets orbiting bright host stars. Moreover, it could become a relatively simple and inexpensive tool for identifying potential Earth-like planets beyond the Solar System.

“Humans have been desperately pursuing an answer to the question of ‘are we alone’ for millennia,” Batcheldor said. “We have recently determined that Earth-like planets are a common feature around stars through indirect methods. The CID could be the technology that will allow us to directly image Earth-like planets around other stars relatively simply and cheaply if part of an appropriate space telescope. The light from these Earth-like planets will give us details about possible oceans, clouds, and maybe even advanced civilizations.”

The successful completion of CID tests on the space station is required by NASA to achieve a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of 7, which would give the design a green light to fly on future planet-hunting space observatories. TRL 7 means the device can work in the relevant environment and is able to fly in space.

Batcheldor also said the ongoing commercialization of space is essential for the development of highly advanced low-cost instruments like CID. It enables universities to gain access to space at a fraction of the cost when compared to the Shuttle program.

“The commercialization of space is going to be a fundamental driver in the increased rate of technology development like our CID payload,” Batcheldor said.



Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

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