News Feature | March 30, 2022

Bright Ideas — Highest-Res Image Of Sun Ever, And An In-Depth Look At JWST's Mid-Infrared Instrument

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By Abby Proch, Editor

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Since its launch on Christmas Day, every move of the James Webb Space Telescope has been widely announced and celebrated. But despite being such a massive instrument, we often hear more about its accomplishments than all its component pieces that enable it achieve all those imaging milestones. Optica is changing that with an in-depth look at the telescope’s Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI. The MIRI demands ultra-cold temperatures and perfect calibration, but it gives in return is nothing short of magic. 

And while JWST is about to do its thing, the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter has already gone to work, helping record the two best images of the Sun and its corona to date. While the Solar Orbiter was smack dab between the Earth and the Sun, the spacecraft’s Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) began snapping pictures. Another instrument, the Spectral Imaging of the Coronal Environment (SPICE), captured images based on the UV light emitted by the star’s hydrogen, carbon oxygen and neon gases. When mosaicked together, the two instruments’ images comprised more than 83 million pixels in a 9148 x 9112-pixel grid.

In lidar innovations, PreAct and Espros Photonics are collaborating on new near-field lidar solutions to address ADAS requirements and self-driving features with the highest frame rates and resolutions on the market, according to a release by the companies. The two are developing the solution with PreAct’s software-defined flash lidar and Espro’s time-of-flight technology to enable improved “traffic sign recognition, curb detection, night vision and pedestrian detection” for the automotive industry. Other applications in industrial automation and robotics are forthcoming.  

While lidar has become synonymous with the sensing capabilities of automated vehicles, it’s also seeing increasingly more niche usage in things like pipeline emissions detection and now in airport crowd assessment. Blickfield is poised to deploy its lidar system as a way for airports to assess and monitor crowd size to support safety and security measures. Blickfield’s patented micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) scanner technology enables its software-defined ‘Smart LiDAR’ Qb2 to provide environmental perception data quickly, easily, and flexibly, able to be controlled and adapted to various use cases. Blickfield’s solution enables real-time environmental sensing regardless of lighting and environmental conditions while also upholding personal privacy.

In Australia, startup Plotlogic has secured $18 million Series A venture funding to further commercialize its “OreSense” lidar and hyperspectral imaging system for optimizing metal ore extraction. The system enables real-time imaging and analysis in-field to allow the precise identification and extraction of targeted materials. Plotlogic sees the OreSense system expanding its capabilities to support the mining of nickel, copper, and manganese, which are often used in EV batteries, in the effort to transition to cleaner energy.

And finally in lidar news, with its third acquisition in recent years, automotive lidar developer Luminar acquired Freedom Photonics, innovators in chip-scale laser technology and experts in indium phosphide (InP), gallium arsenide (GaAs), and silicon photonics platforms. Financial details of the deal have not been disclosed but reports indicate owners of Freedom Photonics will receive up to 3 million shares of Luminar class A common stock, trading around $14 at press time. Luminar has long partnered with Freedom Photonics for key components, and now the acquisition of it will reportedly strengthen and streamline production.

As planned launches of satellites continue to skyrocket and as roughly 1 million pieces of debris remain in Earth’s orbit, there mounts a growing concern about space debris and space collisions. To answer the call — and backed by a recent 2.5 million euro investment — Neuraspace is pursuing the commercialization of its AI-based space debris monitoring and satellite collision avoidance platform to help minimize risk in Earth’s orbit. The platform will reportedly be able to provide “actionable orbital maneuver recommendations to avoid collisions” and server as a resource to regulators, insurers, and other stakeholders.

An offshoot of the ICFO, solar module developer Vitsolc has announced its pursuit of a transparent, organic-based photovoltaic device. The photovoltaic technology is reported to have better than 10% energy conversion efficiency and have greater than 50% colorless transparency. The latest iteration has been vastly improved since the first rendition that had less than 2% efficiency and carried a reddish hue. CEO Oscar Aceves says the technology is ready to be up-scaled and in real-world applications could appear on car’s sunroofs and windows to enhance EV independence from charging stations.

And finally, in research news, scientists have found that LED and metal halide lights (and sometimes natural light) cause some coastal species lose their ability to effectively camouflage themselves from predators. According to a study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, species such as the littorinid snail are more easily identified by predators in environments illuminated by energy efficient, broad-spectrum lighting, called artificial light at night (ALAN). The study found that a broader spectral composition likely allows predators to better distinguish differences in color. Among other resolutions, the researchers suggest reducing the lights’ environmental and ecological impacts by narrowing their spectra.