Cosmic photonics

June 1, 2018
New tools for scientists exploring the universe include advanced telescopes and detectors, deformable mirrors, fiber-optic beam transport, and integrated photonics devices.
Conard Holton2

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 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.

About the Author

Conard Holton | Editor at Large

Conard Holton has 25 years of science and technology editing and writing experience. He was formerly a staff member and consultant for government agencies such as the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and the International Atomic Energy Agency, and engineering companies such as Bechtel. He joined Laser Focus World in 1997 as senior editor, becoming editor in chief of WDM Solutions, which he founded in 1999. In 2003 he joined Vision Systems Design as editor in chief, while continuing as contributing editor at Laser Focus World. Conard became editor in chief of Laser Focus World in August 2011, a role in which he served through August 2018. He then served as Editor at Large for Laser Focus World and Co-Chair of the Lasers & Photonics Marketplace Seminar from August 2018 through January 2022. He received his B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, with additional studies at the Colorado School of Mines and Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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