Cosmic photonics

New tools for scientists exploring the universe include advanced telescopes and detectors, deformable mirrors, fiber-optic beam transport, and integrated photonics devices.

Sometimes, when I’m too focused on the prosaic, business side of photonics, I forget that optical components and systems are essentially tools serving some greater purposes—saving lives or improving health; building safer, more efficient transportation; and providing security or energy. Enviably, the scientists and engineers in the astronomy community have a much more direct connection to one of the greater purposes—seeking knowledge about universe.

If you have any doubts about the rewards and inspiration from such a pursuit, I recommend you check out two eye-opening videos made available by OSA from the 2018 CLEO plenary talks (see both videos at https://goo.gl/msaaJc). In the first, by Sara Seager from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the title says it all: Mapping the Nearest Stars for Habitable Worlds. The second, by Nobel laureate John Mather from NASA Goddard, was an enthralling update (with great graphics) on progress toward launching the James Webb Space Telescope and what its onboard optical technologies may reveal.

Photonics is also advancing earthbound astronomical interferometry enterprises, as scientists from three of the leading U.S. observatories write in our cover story (see article). New tools for their work in long-baseline optical/infrared interferometry include advanced telescopes and detectors, deformable mirrors, fiber-optic beam transport, and integrated photonics devices.

On a different scale, I was privileged to take part in the Yale Innovation Summit in May, where I moderated a discussion that included Robert Schoelkopf, director of the Yale Quantum Institute and co-founder of the startup Quantum Circuits, which is building a quantum computer. Quantum computers do not all use photonics, granted, but given the very large investments by governments, by companies such as Google, IBM, and Alibaba, and through a proposed U.S. National Quantum Initiative, I think that quantum technologies for computing, communications, and sensing will prove to be the new frontier for photonics—and a nice complement to studying the far reaches of space.

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