11 July 2001 S-CAM, the Worlds most advanced optical camera, captures eclipse of binary star.

Astronomers from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory joined a team from the European Space Agency in La Palma, Spain to use a totally new type of optical detector on the William Herschel Telescope, part of the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes (ING).

The new instrument, named S-CAM (Superconducting tunnel junction-CAMera) uses advanced detector elements based on superconducting technology to register the arrival of individual photons, and measure their wavelength (colour). These detectors are the first to detect colour intrinsically in the optical band. The instrument is cooled to below one degree kelvin to minimise all possible noise, resulting in an almost perfect detector.

The astronomers were looking at extremely faint astronomical sources, which vary rapidly, for example pulsars or binary star systems. These observations would not have been possible using conventional optical CCD detectors, because very rapid changes in light intensity cannot be measured.

S-CAM (Photograph courtesy ESA).

Dr. Mark Cropper, from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, has been studying binary star systems, known as magnetic cataclysmic variables, for more than a decade. "This new detector allows us to look at changes in the light from the system as it changes over small fractions of a second. This is the first time we have been able to study the rapid colour changes, which occur at the same time. From this we have been able to find out which parts of the system are emitting at what brightness and at what temperature - a sort of dissection process." Dr Cropper added "that this allowed the energy generation and emission in these binary stars to be much better understood." Such details are far too small to be seen in normal images from telescopes on the ground or in space.

Dr Mark Cropper 01483 204155 email: msc@mssl.ucl.ac.uk
MSSL switchboard
01483 274111
MSSL website



Last modified July 11, 2001www@mssl.ucl.ac.uk

[ Back to the MSSL Homepage ]