DARKNESS: World’s Largest & Most Advanced Superconducting Camera

  • Scientists build the most advanced superconducting camera, named DARKNESS. 
  • It will be used to detect small and faint exoplanets around the nearest stars. 
  • It can capture thousand of frames every second without making any errors like dark current or read noise.

Finding an exoplanet (planet outside our solar system) is an extremely difficult task, mainly because the hosting star is much brighter and very close to the exoplanet. The field of exoplanet imaging is still in its infancy, and advancing rapidly.

Recently, scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, built a new equipment for detecting exoplanets around the nearest stars. They are calling it the biggest and most advanced superconducting camera in the world.

They have named it DARKNESS, which stands for DARK-speckle Near-infrared Energy-resolved Superconducting Spectrophotometer. This is the first 10,000 pixel integral field spectrograph that features Microwave Kinetic Inductance Detectors with an adaptive optics module and a big telescope.


DARKNESS is developed to demonstrate the potential of microwave kinetic inductance detectors for high-contrast astronomy. It consists of Adiabatic Demagnetization Refrigerator capable of reaching temperatures below 100 milliKelvin, complex cryostat optics, array of kinetic inductance detectors and several readout electronics.

DARKNESS Instrument

The microwave kinetic inductance detectors are an emerging low temperature detector technology that enables low cost kilopixel arrays using inherently simple geometric design and microwave multiplexing techniques.

Reference: IOPScience | doi:10.1088/1538-3873/aab5e7 | UC Santa Barbara 

The instrument can capture thousand of frames every second without making any traditional errors like dark current or read noise. It will allow astronomers to capture the exact moment at which a single photon arrives, which will tell them whether they have actually spotted an exoplanet or just a random cosmic distortion (known as speckles).

According to the scientists, the technology may allow us to observe exoplanets that are 100 million times less-brighter than their host stars. At this level, we can even observe exoplanets in reflected light, which opens a whole new possibility for probing and studying distant stars.

DARKNESS cryostat with 300 K vacuum shell

The instrument acts as both a focal plane wavefront sensor and the science camera, that can instantly analyze the light and send the information back to a rubber mirror, which can change its configuration 2,000 times per second. Moreover, the process suppresses the starlight and enables high contract ratios between the planet and the star, cleaning up the atmospheric distortion.

What’s Next?

Currently, researchers are working with PALM-3000 team to implement a faster communication system between DARKNESS and PALM-3000. They aim to demonstrate speckle nulling on-sky at more than 10Hz rates.

Read: Oxford Space Systems Is Developing Massive Space Antennas & AstroTube Boom

A balloon-borne high-contrast system will fly a prototype of DARKNESS in 2019. Furthermore, DARKNESS is slated to join MagAO-X in the next year, as the first high contrast equipment with microwave kinetic inductance detector integral field spectrogram in the Southern Hemisphere.

Written by
Varun Kumar

Varun Kumar is an experienced science and technology journalist interested in machines, AI, and space exploration. He received M.tech degree in computer science from Indraprastha University. To find out what his latest project is, feel free to directly email him at varunkmr09@gmail.com. 

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