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Pixels are so 20th century - say hello to 'spaxels'

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Making Every Photon Count

Last week I went to a talk given by the leader of the Supernova Factory collaboration at LBNL. What is SN factory? This is an ambitious project to study supernovae like never before. I mentioned this project briefly in a previous post , now that they are so close to releasing their results I want to discuss it a bit more.

The main idea of this project is to study several hundred nearby supernovae using an instrument known as the Supernova Integral Field Spectrograph, or SNIFS. This type of instrument is essentially a blend between a traditional imaging camera and a spectrograph.

The resolution in an integral field spectrograph is defined in spaxels instead of the pixels that have become all too familiar with the advent of digital cameras. A spaxel is quite similar to a pixel, there aren't nearly as many and each one carries at least a 1000 times as much information.

In your digital camera, the light passes through the lens and directly onto the CCD. Each pixel on the CCD counts the number of photons in the red, the blue, and the green. Typically, there are millions of pixels, each counting photons from a slightly different region of the subject of your photograph.


Now imagine that instead of just counting red, green, and blue, that each pixel counts the entire rainbow of light from your subject. Now you have a spaxel. In an intregral field unit, the light passes through an array of microlenses and prisms before landing on the detector. We would call each set of microlenses and prisms a spaxel. The resulting image carries information about every wavelength of light from every region of your target.

Spectrum of the first SN observed with SNIFSThe advantage to an integral field spectrograph like SNIFS is that you gain a lot more information than either an imager or spectrograph alone. With an integral field spectrograph you can basically identify and organize every photon that reaches the telescope.

Specifically designed to observe supernovae, SNIFS is being operated at the 88-inch telescope on Mauna Kea. Spaxels are quite expensive - this particular instrument has only 225. However, this is more than enough to observe the entirety of a galaxy, a supernova, and the background.

The members of the SN Factory have now observed over 100 SNe using this new camera. Last Thursday, I saw the data from the first 25 well-calibrated supernovae and was very impressed. The data showed the evolution of each supernova and the properties of the host galaxy in great detail. I'm sure the supernova community will be equally impressed when they first see these new results.

Kyle S. Dawson is engaged in post-doctorate studies of distant supernovae and development of a proposed space-based telescope at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

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