As scientists pore over the first images to be captured of a black hole, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology is building a novel fast detector camera that may help explain how light originates and varies around the mysterious cosmic bodies.

Believed to be first of its kind in Asia, the quantum optics-based camera will look at previously undetectable signals from deep space that lie billions of light years away from Earth and astronomers hope it will one day decipher information emitted from black holes.

HKUST professor and Nobel laureate George Smoot said the camera will first be tested at an automated telescope at Assy Turgen Observatory, the national weather forecaster of Kazakhstan, which is 2,750 meters above sea level on the Assy-Turgen plateau. It will be one of the key projects of the newly founded Quantum Optics for Astrophysics and Cosmology Laboratory at HKUST that is headed by Professor Smoot.

The American has invited collaborators from the University of California, Berkeley, the Université de Paris and Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University to participate in the project. Once tested and fully operational, the camera will be moved to a site on Spain’s Canary Islands, off Morocco in northwestern Africa, which is renowned for its clear skies.

Conventional telescopes cannot reveal micro movements and the intrinsic characteristics of photons, single quanta of light that are fundamental to the illustration and interpretation of cosmological events.

New technologies like silicon photomultipliers (SiPM), a solid-state single-photon-sensitive device previously applied only in particle physics, are now being used by astronomers. Utilizing this equipment, the HKUST lab will measure and analyze extremely weak photon signals from deep space, studying their arrival directions, times, wavelengths and polarization.

A silicon photomultiplier allows astronomers to observe events too fast for traditional telescopes. Photo: Handout
The camera will be assembled in the HKUST clean room, which is as sterile as a surgical theater. Photo: Handout

With its high spatial and temporal resolution, the camera will help researchers detect and observe transient cosmological events such as fast radio bursts, surface convection on white dwarfs and millisecond pulsars whose origins are not known.

Professor Smoot told reporters at a seminar that he hoped the new camera and laboratory could further elevate Hong Kong’s global role in astrophysics and cosmology.

“Quantum optics appears to have the potential of providing another information channel about the universe, fundamentally different from imaging and spectroscopy,” he said. “The impact of this camera that we are now building lies not only in the areas of cosmology and astrophysics, but also on material research and quantum communication …

“We hope our project can provide an opportunity for Hong Kong to bring in leaders of such international pursuit; together we can push the frontier of quantum astronomy to a new era.”

An expert in observational astrophysics and cosmology, Professor Smoot joined the HKUST in 2016. He was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2006 for work that led to the discovery of the black body form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation.