Looking back, I am most proud of my work on detector arrays. Those arrays allow us to easily take pictures in infrared light. That capability has been tied to many important moments in astronomy.
NEOCam Sensor:: The Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) is a mission proposed to NASA to find potentially hazardous asteroids. The mission will use a new sensor, called the NEOCam chip, that has more pixels and better sensitivity than previous generations of infrared sensors. Made of mercury, cadmium and tellurium, the new chip is about the size of a postage stamp and is optimized for detecting the faint heat emitted by asteroids circling the Sun. The NEOCam chip is the first megapixel sensor capable of detecting infrared wavelengths at temperatures achievable in deep space without refrigerators or cryogens. Judy Pipher is a member of the science team for NEOCam.
I don’t think the progress in astronomy in general could possibly have been made without the contributions of infrared astronomy. It’s as simple as that. Opening space science to the infrared region of the spectrum has contributed greatly to our understanding of many extremely distant objects in the Universe that are visible only in the infrared. With JWST we hope to probe the most distant and earliest instances of star formation in the Universe. Understanding the process of star formation at different places in the Universe and at different times in the Universe is critical to our understanding of astronomy in general; from the early stages of proto-stars surrounded by opaque envelopes of circumstellar material; to the formation of jets and outflows seen in later stages of stellar evolution; to the collapse of some of the material to a circumstellar disk around a star, the material from which planets form. None of these topics would be understood without infrared astronomy.
In addition to the most distant objects, the very coolest objects can be seen in the infrared. There are also spectral features in the infrared that give one unique information about the physical conditions of a wide variety of objects that can only be obtained in the infrared.
Astronomy is not distant from our everyday lives. The technologies used in infrared astronomy have military and medical applications that seem commonplace to us now, and there are infrared methods that will be in place in the future. As always, any technology development has applications in a wide variety of areas and will find its way into daily life. But sharing the results of astronomical research with the public gives everyone a chance to participate in the thrill of making scientific discoveries. I think that’s important. The technologies may change the way we do things, but I think it is the excitement of astronomical discovery that stimulates our imaginations, especially for children.