August 6, 2020

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HKUST to build the first quantum optics camera

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A recent press release by The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) stated the university will build a new kind of camera – using a new approach of quantum optics to detect previously undetectable signals from billions of light years away.

The camera is set to help solve unanswered questions in astrophysics and cosmology, such as how light originates and varies around the black hole, in the hope of deciphering information emitted from there.

The project is one of the projects of the new Quantum Optics for Astrophysics and Cosmology Laboratory and is being led by a Nobel Prize laureate and HKUST’s IAS TT & WF Chao Foundation Professor.

The fast detector camera, once completed, will be put into use on an automated telescope at Assy Turgen Observatory – the national weather forecaster of Kazakhstan located at 2,750 meters above sea level at the Assy-Turgen plateau.

The professor has also invited researchers from Nazarbayev University, University of California, Berkeley as well as the University of Paris to participate in the project.

Once tested and operated, the camera will be moved to a site in the Canary Islands which covers more sky with clearer and darker nights for the substantive research.

The lead researcher stated that it is hoped that the laboratory will help further enhance Hong Kong’s capabilities in the area of astrophysics and cosmology.

He noted that quantum optics appears to have the potential of providing another information channel about the universe, fundamentally different from imaging and spectroscopy. The impact of this camera that is now being built lies not only in the areas of cosmology and astrophysics but also on material research and quantum communication.

It is hoped that the project will provide an opportunity for Hong Kong to bring in leaders of such international pursuit.

The aim is to push the frontier of quantum astronomy to a new era.

Conventional telescopes allowed for the observation cosmological phenomenon, but could not reveal micro movements and intrinsic characteristics of photons – single quanta of light, which are fundamental to the illustration and interpretation of cosmological events.

Therefore, the Silicon Photomultiplier (SiPM) – a quantum optics technology which previously applied only in particle physics – is now being used in the field of astronomy.

By incorporating the SiPM technology, HKUST will build the first fast detector camera in Greater China to measure and analyse weak photon signals such as its arriving direction, time, wavelength and polarization.

With high spatial and temporal resolution, the camera does not only allow for the detection of transient cosmological events, such as fast radio bursts, surface convection on white dwarfs and millisecond pulsars which origins are still not known despite their discoveries over a decade ago, but may also help in probing the environment of the universe in different eras.

Joined HKUST in 2016, the lead professor and academic for the project is an expert in observational astrophysics and cosmology. He, along with his scientific partner, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2006 for their work that led to the discovery of the black body form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation.

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