NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope will use the technology of one Montreal startup, Nuvu Cameras, aboard its upcoming journey to space in 2025.
Nuvu’s camera will play an integral role in NASA’s future space observatory’s search for planets outside our solar system that can sustain life, as reported by CBC.
The startup’s technology will be able to capture images with next to no light, a positive given how dark outer space appears to us.
“It’s the Holy Grail of science to figure out if we’re alone in the universe,” Olivier Daigle, astrophysicist and cofounder of Nuvu, told the news website. “It’s so exciting to be a part of this big team working on this greater objective.”
Nuvu’s technology will look at “exoplanets,” or planets that are outside of our solar system. There are 4,379 confirmed exoplanets. However, it can be hypothesized that there are 11 billion potentially habitable Earth-sized planets in the Milky Way.
Most planets we know come from indirect detection. This means that we look for an eclipse, or a blockage of light that happens when one celestial body moves in between another body and our point of view. Sometimes a planet can come in front of a star, and we can detect whether there’s a planet around that star.
Daigle told CBC’s Breakaway that we cannot see the planet itself. That’s where Nuvu’s technology comes into play.
“This instrument onboard the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope will be able to get rid of the light of the star and really see the planet around it,” said Daigle. “Being able to extract the light of a planet is really the key to be able to characterize what this planet is. Does it have water vapour in its atmoshphere? Could it eventually support life?”
And to figure that out, we need to eventually be able to isolate the light of the planet to do that. This can often mean just a few photons.
“It’s impossible to grasp how little light this represents,” Daigle told CBC.
The resolution won’t be great and we won’t be able to see individual things on a planet. The photos that Nuvu will generate will retrieve only what the lighting conditions of the planet will allow. So we won’t be able to see if it has continents, for example.
“But still, those few pixels will contain all the information we can get,” he said. “If we look at the planet long enough, we can see its intensity… which can tell when the planet rotates.”
Per CBC, Nuvu Cameras has been working on their technology for six years. The company’s CEO is Marie-Eve Ducharme, while Stéphane Tremblay, Sylvie Hamel and Yoann Gosselin round out the small team. Daigle is from Lévis, located on the south shore of Quebec City. He studied in Montreal at École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS) and at Université de Montréal.
Their work eventually caught the attention of NASA, and the pair formed partnership that will see their camera aboard the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, when it launches in 2025.
“At first we felt that maybe they were just ‘going fishing’ and trying to gather information, but then we realized that they really needed that technology and they wanted to work with us. That was the beginning of a very great adventure, which led to a first study to really see if it’s possible to see if what we’ve developed, with the help of the Canadian Space Agency, would fit into this mission,” Daigle told Breakaway.
“But then we realized that it’s possible.”
Nuvu’s first prototype is ready, but Daigle said there’s still a long way to go before the telescope launches in 2025. It’s a long marathon to push this technology and make it work in space, he said.