Sight for space ‘eyes’

Researchers at Nottingham University’s department of electrical and electronic engineering are combining micro-electronics and optical sensors on a single chip to make Space Integrated Optical Sensors (SIOS).


Research leader Dr Matt Clark said: ‘The sensors will be of real use to space vehicles that have to dock with each other. When craft need to negotiate objects on the surface of a planet, for example Mars, and then land softly and safely back on the mother ship, extremely accurate sensors are needed.’


According to Clark, existing space sensors are too big, too heavy and use too much processing power. The new sensors his team are developing are just the opposite, and will enable spacecraft to view each other in 3D as well as allowing them to track debris from asteroids and examine the objects they have been sent into space to study.


In use, the new sensors will detect the light scattered from an object, allowing information such as its distance and size to be established. Data processing will be performed on the devices themselves, making them both fast an accurate.  


Future ESA space missions such as Darwin will rely on groups of small satellites that must fly in formation, and SIOS would allow them to judge the relative distance between each other. When the Aurora mission sends a small rover to the surface of Mars it will also need accurate imaging sensors to analyse the surface to find a safe landing site.


ESA has opened a tendering process for imaging systems for future space missions, to which Clark hopes his team’s technology can contribute.


The researchers are also investigating using integrated optical sensor technology in a range of other applications. According to Clark, they could be used in underwater vision, scanning tissue and blood flow during surgery, and imaging the interior of living cells. Optical sensors could also be slightly modified to detect ultrasound, as well as equipping robots with 3D vision.