Aerospace Instrument “Fingerprints” Space Objects

Rick Rudy adds liquid nitrogen to cool the infrared detectors in the VNIRIS instrument.Image Credit: Elisa Haber

Rick Rudy adds liquid nitrogen to cool the infrared detectors in the VNIRIS instrument.Image Credit: Elisa Haber

April 1, 2016 – Aerospace Corp. scientists recently used a unique ground-based instrument to collect identifying information about satellites orbiting at 35,000 km above the earth. They also observed and classified a supernova in a nearby galaxy.

The Visible and Near-Infrared Imaging Spectrograph (VNIRIS) is a portable instrument designed and constructed at Aerospace to perform a variety of remote sensing functions including launch plume analysis, remote identification of material composition, and calibration of instrumentation on national security space systems.

The team recently took it to the University of California’s James Lick Observatory to demonstrate its use in observing and cataloging satellites.

They successfully used the VNIRIS instrument to obtain spectroscopic information of reflected light from satellites in geosynchronous orbit. These spectra provide a “fingerprint” of an orbiting satellite that can help to rapidly identify the object – a function that is increasingly important as the space environment becomes more contested.

During this observation session, Aerospace scientists pointed VNIRIS towards a star-like object in a nearby galaxy that other scientists suspected of being a supernova.

VNIRIS detected a broad absorption in its spectrum due to ionized silicon, which is characteristic of a type Ia supernova. These results were announced to the international astronomy community which prompted observations by other astronomers to further characterize this supernova.

VNIRIS was originally constructed in the mid-1990s and has been continuously upgraded to adapt to customer needs and incorporate the latest in imaging technology.

VNIRIS is currently operated with Aerospace’s 1-meter telescope and is located in the telescope dome on the roof of Aerospace’s Physical Sciences Laboratory in El Segundo.Image Credit: Elisa Haber

VNIRIS is currently operated with Aerospace’s 1-meter telescope and is located in the telescope dome on the roof of Aerospace’s Physical Sciences Laboratory in El Segundo.Image Credit: Elisa Haber

This unique instrument has been used for a variety of remote sensing applications and astronomical and aeronomical research. VNIRIS can characterize the intensity of light over a broad range of wavelengths, from the ultraviolet through the short-wave infrared (0.35-2.5 microns).

It is one of the only spectrographs of its kind that has this capability and is also portable, allowing it to be used at observatories and customer sites and giving Aerospace scientists the freedom to customize the instrument for diverse applications.