Webb space telescope cools to 6K to tackle dark current

Technology News |
By Nick Flaherty

The Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on the James Webb space telescope has dropped down to just a few degrees above absolute zero to tackle dark currents in the sensor. 

The MIRI was built in the UK and jointly developed by the European Space Agency and NASA and has reached its final operating temperature below 7 K (-266 ºC) using an electrically powered cryocooler.

Along with Webb’s three other instruments, MIRI initially cooled off in the shade of Webb’s tennis-court-size sunshield, dropping to about 90 K (-183 ºC). The team has passed a particularly challenging milestone called the “pinch point” when the instrument goes from 15 K down to 6.4 K. This was necessary to avoid the impact of dark currents.

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“I am delighted that after so many years of hard work by the MIRI team the instrument is now cold and ready for the next steps. That the cooler worked so well is a major achievement for the mission,” said Gillian Wright, European principal investigator for MIRI and Director of the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (ATC).

“The MIRI cooler team has poured a lot of hard work into developing the procedure for the pinch point,” said Analyn Schneider, project manager for MIRI at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, USA. “The team was both excited and nervous going into the critical activity. In the end it was a textbook execution of the procedure, and the cooler performance is even better than expected.”

The low temperature is necessary because all four of Webb’s instruments detect infrared light. Distant galaxies, stars hidden in cocoons of dust, and planets outside the Solar System all emit infrared light. MIRI detects longer infrared wavelengths than the other three instruments, which means it needs to be even colder.

The MIRI sensor needs to be cold is to suppress the dark current, or electric current created by the vibration of atoms in the detectors themselves. Dark current mimics a true signal in the detectors, giving the false impression that they have been hit by light from an external source. Those false signals can drown out the real signals astronomers want to find. Since temperature is a measurement of how fast the atoms in the detector are vibrating, reducing the temperature means less vibration, which in turn means less dark current.

MIRI’s ability to detect longer infrared wavelengths also makes it more sensitive to dark current, so it needs to be colder than the other instruments to fully remove that effect. For every degree the instrument temperature goes up, the dark current goes up by a factor of about 10.

“We spent years practicing for that moment, running through the commands and the checks that we did on MIRI,” said Mike Ressler, project scientist for MIRI at JPL. “It was kind of like a movie script: Everything we were supposed to do was written down and rehearsed. When the test data rolled in, I was ecstatic to see it looked exactly as expected and that we have a healthy instrument.”

There are still more challenges that the team will have to face before MIRI can start its scientific mission. Now that the instrument is at operating temperature, team members will take test images of stars and other known objects that can be used for calibration and to check the instrument’s operations and functionality. The team will conduct these preparations alongside calibration of the other three instruments, delivering Webb’s first science images this summer.

“I am immensely proud to be part of this group of highly motivated, enthusiastic scientists and engineers drawn from across Europe and the USA,” said Alistair Glasse, MIRI instrument scientist at the ATC in Edinburgh, Scotland. “This period is our ‘trial by fire’ but it is already clear to me that the personal bonds and mutual respect that we have built up over the past years is what will get us through the next few months to deliver a fantastic instrument to the worldwide astronomy community.”

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