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Micromachines and the Cosmos

Filters will bring out faint infrared radiation from the early universe.

Understanding the formation of the universe requires scrutinizing very faint infrared signals that tend to be overwhelmed by nearer, brighter light sources. Now, engineers at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center have designed a light filter with 62,415 micrometer-scale shutters that allows scientists to select the objects they wish to study and block everything else. The shutters are made of silicon nitride, and any one or hundreds of them can be opened or closed by a magnet and electronics controlled by a computer system that encodes a digital map of the cosmos. The microshutter system will sit atop a camera, called the Near Infrared Spectrograph, as part of the James Webb Space Telescope destined for launch in 2013.

Surrounded by microelectronics, a chip’s 62,415 silicon nitride microshutters appear as a dark square.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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