Detector development for the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Mullard Space Science Laboratory


In recent years, a wealth of observational data from a range of (highly successful) ground- and satellite-based solar facilities has revealed the perplexing and complex nature of the Sun's atmospheric structure and dynamics. This tremendous complexity is a result of the continuous interaction of the plasma motions with the magnetic field. To understand these interactions, we need to observe and model solar phenomena over a wide range of spatial and temporal scales, and in particular establish the links between the small-scale processes and the large-scale phenomena.

Solar physics research is very strong in the UK and an area of high priority in the STFC Roadmap. The commissioning of the Rapid Oscillations in Solar Atmosphere imager in 2009 allowed the UK community to expand both its user base of ground-based solar facilities and its exploitation of data from such facilities, which can provide higher spatial and temporal resolution that their satellite-based counterparts. For the future, the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST), under construction by the US National Solar Observatory with first-light expected in 2019, will be a revolutionary facility for ground-based solar physics. It will operate in the optical and near-infrared and be the pre-eminent ground-based solar telescope for the foreseeable future. Key advances in its instrumentation over that currently available include ultra-high spatial (25 km on the solar surface) and temporal (millisecond) resolution, high resolution imaging spectroscopy and coronal magnetometry. The first-light science objectives of the ATST are at the core of UK solar physics research programmes, and it is clearly important for the UK community to have access to the facility to remain competitive.

Current UK-led technology has been highlighted as the best option for detectors meeting the science requirements of the ATST. In this proposal we aim to to secure UK participation in the ATST and maximise the science return for the UK community at the time of first-light. This will be achieved by a joint programme, funded by STFC, a consortium of UK universities/research institutes and industry (Andor Technology plc), on the development of new state-of-the-art detectors for the ATST, plus a set of software tools that will allow the optimal planning of ATST observations and the processing of the resultant datasets.

The main academic benefit for the UK will be dedicated observing time on the world-leading ATST facility, which our solar physics community will be in an excellent position to exploit. In terms of non-academic benefit, the proposed detector development will have a significant social-economic impact and is therefore in line with the STFC strategy for economic growth through innovation. It will open new technological markets and provide growth and diversity in existing detector markets.

Planned Impact

1.Public engagement: All Applicants are highly active in Public Understanding of Science (PUS) programmes linked to their research. Examples (which will continue over the grant period) include:
Queen's: talks at annual events (Horizons in Physics for 4th/5th-form students; Physics 6th-Form Open Days; Physics Teachers Conference). Hosts work experience for children, with summer projects funded by Nuffield Foundation. Partnership with W5 Discovery Centre, hosting talks/Q&A sessions and hands-on building games.
Armagh: tours of Observatory and Astropark, talks and special public lectures/exhibitions. Recent PUS projects include construction of the Human Orrery and facilitating an annual Cross-Border Schools Science Conference.
Glasgow: solar physics talks to societies, schools and public including in remote parts of Scotland; school visits with mobile planetarium; tours of observatory; Start-up Science school workshops with RSE and STFC Meet the Expert sessions.
Northumbria: PUS programme with local FE colleges, and involvement in regional/national science festivals (e.g. Newcastle). Recently awarded £1M from HEFCE Catalyst Fund for project to improve physics uptake. Creating Physics and Astrophysics outreach centre for this.
Sheffield: engages in school education programmes during e.g. National Science week, and recently joined University's Expert Guide, used frequently by journalists to source comments on topical news stories.
St Andrews: participates in local science festivals (e.g. Edinburgh, Fife, Dundee) and give schools talks. Lectures at the annual Sutton Trust Summer School and participates in the Annual Space Camp for P6 pupils. Contributes to Sun Trek, a Public Outreach/Educational Website (
Warwick: broad and innovative approach to outreach, spanning formal presentations to interest groups (local astronomical societies), active engagement with media and larger projects (e.g. NESTA). Schools liaison officer supports links with schools and wider community.
MSSL:broad, active programme.
2.Knowledge exchange: The large area sCMOS camera to be developed is to meet the needs of next-generation solar telescopes and the broader astronomy community. However, the solar astronomy market alone is substantial, given the continued investment in existing solar facilities in Europe, US, India and China. There is also currently a demand for large-area CCD cameras in the general astronomy market. It is anticipated that a significant part of this market will migrate towards the next-generation of sCMOS detectors which offer faster speeds and lower noise. Non-solar applications include: near-Earth object detection, speckle interferometry, 'lucky astronomy' and other projects in high-time resolution astrophysics. It is also common in the astronomy marketplace to encounter significant opportunities for large-area cameras. For example, Andor is currently negotiating a contract to deliver 80 large area CCD units for one project, with delivery over a 4-year period.
Although the unit sales of large-area sCMOS will not be as high as those for the current breed of mid-range sCMOS cameras for microscopy and optical electron microscope instrumentation applications, large-area astronomy detectors are typically priced much higher than mid-range detectors. Hence a lower volume market still yields an appropriate business case. A longer-term aim is to adapt the camera platform for high-speed X-ray detection applications, including protein crystallography and computed 3D X-ray tomography.
Competition currently does not exist, in that large-area fast sCMOS technology has not yet been offered, but that is no guarantee it will not arrive from other parties within the project timescale. The most likely competitor is a US-based company already very active in large-area CCDs. However, Andor is confident of holding a market leading position, given their breath of expertise in both sCMOS and vacuum sensor technology


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Description As a result of this grant novel large format, fast-readout CMOS camera sensors have been developed. While the primary goal of the research project was to produce cameras capable of meeting the science requirements of the post-focus instrumentation for the Daniel K Inoue Solar Telescope, the cameras also have applications for other similar planned solar telescope (e.g. EST), as well as in other areas such as microscopy.
Exploitation Route The cameras developed are of interest to customers working in microscopy and spectroscopy, and have potential applications for space debris and NEO tracking.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Healthcare,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

Description As a result of the work funded by this grant, QUB, UCL-MSSL and Andor Technology have received further funding from the H2020 programme to design and develop back-illuminated sensors for the proposed European Solar Telescope (EST), and Andor anticipate new market opportunities in areas such as might-time astronomy, biotechnology, electron spectroscopy and tracking of space debris and NEOs. Andor are now well placed to be the camera provider of preference for future solar telescopes.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Other
Impact Types Economic

Description H2020 IFRAIA
Amount € 10,000,000 (EUR)
Funding ID 824135 
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 01/2019 
End 12/2022
Description H2020 Infradev III
Amount € 4,000,000 (EUR)
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 04/2017 
End 03/2021
Description H2020-INFRADEV-1-2014-1
Amount € 126,000 (EUR)
Funding ID 653982-GREST 
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 06/2015 
End 05/2018
Description Detector specification for the European Solar Telescope (EST) 
Organisation Andor Technology
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Testing and characterisation of prototype cameras based on the design on the DKIST Balor cameras for an H2020 programme of development activities for the European Solar Telescope.
Collaborator Contribution Andor provided technical expertise, facilities and a financial contribution to the design and manufacture of bespoke CMOS cameras for DKIST post-focus instrumentation.
Impact Technical report on design specifications for back-illuminated CMOS camera.
Start Year 2014
Description First-light press release 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact UK press release for DKIST first-light. Co-ordinated institutional press releases with NSO's one.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Merseyside Astronomy Day (talk), Astronomy Festival Herstmonceaux (talk), U of Birmingham Astrosoc (talk) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Presentation at Merseyside Astronomy Day to the general public (~50 participants), including questions and a panel discussion; Presentation at Herstmoceaux Astronomy Festival, general public ~50 participants + questions + follow-up requests for links to datasets and information; talk to UG and public at U of Birmingham ~ 30 participants + questions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017,2018