'Nano-wall' from Delft crucial for Herschel space telescope


The space telescope Herschel contains a crucial piece of Delft-made technology. Deep inside the large telescope there are two thin ‘walls’ or barriers, only 2 nm thick, made by the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at TU Delft. These extremely thin nano-barriers form the heart of sensors which will allow scientists to study giant star systems in space. The launching of the European space telescope Herschel is planned for Thursday 14 May at 15:12. 

”Herschel does not look at the light from stars; it looks instead at the infrared radiation given out by dust between the stars. In this way, the telescope can detect what types of matter occur in space, for example, water. Because star dust is the basic material from which stars and planets are formed, this is important research,” said Professor Teun Klapwijk from the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience. 

Observing infrared radiation through a telescope is not as easy as looking at visible light, as extremely high-grade technology and advanced sensors are required. The telescope sensor 'sees' the radiation from space by using something called tunnelling, a phenomenon known in quantum mechanics. Scientists in Delft built a barrier, 2 nm thick, between two superconducting materials. "Electrons cannot normally move through that barrier but if a radiation particle falls from space on to the sensor, an electron in the superconductor gets the proverbial kick up the backside. That electron is then suddenly able to go through the Delft-built nano-wall after all, making use of the energy from the space particle," stated Klapwijk. "By finding out what can and cannot go through our nano-wall, scientists can gain a considerable amount of information about, for example, the rarefied gas clouds in space. It is a fascinating feeling to know that something so extremely small is crucial to research into gigantically large star systems."

The ESA telescope Herschel has three instruments on board. The Delft-built technology is to be found in HIFI, the instrument developed under the supervision of the Netherlands Institute for Space Research SRON. The Kavli Institute of Nanoscience developed the nano-walls (officially, superconducting tunnel junctions) for two of the observation functions of HIFI.

The Herschel space telescope will be launched from French Guyana by means of an Ariane-5 launcher.

More information can be obtained from:

Prof. Teun Klapwijk, Kavli Institute of Nanoscience TU Delft

015-278 5926, T.M.Klapwijk@tudelft.nl

Michel van Baal, media relations officer TU Delft

015 2785454/06 -14015699, m.vanbaal@tudelft.nl