‘This cooperation will lead to great discoveries in space’

With the Partnerships for Space Instruments & Applications Preparatory Programme, the Netherlands is supporting technological breakthroughs and scientific cooperation in space research. The Expertise Network ‘Optical Technology for Exoplanetary Research’ is working on innovative sensors for great discoveries in space.

'We are working on the telescopes of the future. Telescopes that are used discover exoplanets where life is possible. Telescopes that might even be able to prove that extraterrestrial life exists.’ Michiel Rodenhuis is instrumentation coordinator at the Netherlands Research School of Astronomy (NOVA) and coordinator of an Expertise Network that, if it were up to him, would really write history: 'I find it a fascinating thought that this is going to happen in my lifetime, and it is fantastic to be able to contribute to it myself.’

Besides NOVA, the Expertise Network of Optical Technology for Exoplanetary Research consists of SRON, TU Delft, TNO and several industrial partners, including cosine and Airbus Defence and Space Netherlands. Together they will face the challenge of taking the optical technology, for which the Netherlands is already well-known worldwide, to the next level. This will enable new fundamental science, but the same technology would also be applicable on earth.

‘Each of the partners in the network is under permanent pressure: we have to achieve a lot with few resources. Then it is sometimes difficult to look beyond the issues of the day,' says Rodenhuis. Thanks to the Expertise Networks Program we are now doing just that. It is a wonderful way of bringing parties together and breaking down traditional barriers. We are currently working on technological innovations that none of the parties could have done alone, but we, as a team of Dutch institutions, can.

Source: NASA

Three space innovations have gained momentum in recent years thanks to the collaboration. First, the development of a coronagraph, which deforms light from space in such a way that you can distinguish an exoplanet from its parent star, even if that planet and the star are located very close to eachother. Secondly, the piezo-electric mirror technology. Rodenhuis: 'With this technology you may equip a space telescope with lots of small mirror elements each of which is controllable separately. In this way small disturbances in the observations may be prevented, which leads to razor-sharp astronomical images.'

And then there are the compact sensors that filter light according to wavelength and polarization. Once fully developed, these sensors could accelerate research into the habitability of exoplanets. But they can also be useful on board Earth observation satellites orbiting the Earth: ‘Once we have mastered this technology, we will be able to detect air pollution in the form of aerosols, for example. These particles emit a very specific color profile and polarization. The same applies to the state of farmland and forestry, for example.'

Thanks to the activities of the Expertise Network, there is a first demonstration of the technique, applied to exoplanetary research. The idea is to put such an innovative sensor on the moon and point it at the earth. 'In that case, we look at the Earth as if it was an exoplanet. We don't zoom in on the continents or oceans, but look at the Earth as a single source of light, asking ourselves: can you detect signs of life with this technology? This idea was picked up immediately after a presentation by NASA, which is working on two different lunar missions. The American Space Agency is interested in taking our instrument to the moon.'

Source: NASA

The Expertise Network appears to be working as a catalyst for technological innovation, notes Rodenhuis. ‘We can quickly interact with all the parties involved. For example, with cosine, which developed the Hyperscout instrument some time ago, but is now going to add polarization sensitivity with us. Together we will arrive at a flight model that can be launched within a few years. And SRON, traditionally a builder of space-based instruments, and NOVA, which focuses more on ground-based telescopes, are also joining their activities. They are developing instruments for exoplanetary research that meet the most extreme requirements.'

The Expertise Networks Program forces involved parties to look outward of their own circle. To learn from each other and then discover that together you can do much more than you might have thought, summarizes Rodenhuis. This is a smart approach for the Netherlands in particular: 'If NASA says to us now: we want your technology, then it means that we, the Netherlands, are developing something unique. And that doesn't just apply to the compact sensors we are developing, but to all the projects we are working on within the Expertise Network. If we can continue this collaboration towards the future, it will lead to many great discoveries in space.'