Imaging milestones capped the plenary presentations at SPIE Defense and Commercial Sensing

18 May 2023
William G. Schulz
astrophysicist Jeyhan Kartaltepe of Rochester Institute of Technology
Jeyhan Kartaltepe of Rochester Institute of Technology discusses the COSMOS-Web and the James Webb Space Telescope with a full room of attendees at SPIE Defense + Commercial Sensing 2023. Credit: Lotus Eyes Photography

Presentations about milestones in imaging—cameras on every street corner and new eyes on the heavens above — capped the proceedings of SPIE Defense + Commercial Sensing (DCS), held 30 April to 4 May in Orlando, Florida, USA.

The final all-conference plenaries featured speakers Eric Fossum, inventor of the CMOS image sensor, and astrophysicist Jeyhan Kartaltepe of Rochester Institute of Technology. Kartaltepe is the principal investigator of COSMOS-Web, the largest James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program in its first year of operations, which aims to study in the near- and mid-infrared how galaxies in the early universe formed in relation to large-scale structures.

Fossum’s invention of the CMOS camera took place 30 years ago at California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as part of an effort to miniaturize cameras for interplanetary spacecraft. He notes that since that time, and from a highly specialized application, some 200 CMOS cameras per minute are produced today, mainly for smartphones. And they’re still delivering from space: CMOS cameras on the Mars rover Perseverance captured unforgettable images of the helicopter Integrity as it became the first vehicle to take flight on another planet.

But CMOS sensor technology has also delivered social changes — some expected and some not, Fossum notes. He says the tension between security and privacy with cameras being placed on street corners everywhere seemed obvious. “I was interviewed by the BBC early on. [They asked], ‘Are you worried about Big Brother?’ I said, ‘Oh no. I'm not worried at all.’” But then CMOS cameras were paired with facial recognition technology resulting in powerful new tools for repression by authoritarian governments.

Eric Fossum, inventor of the CMOS image sensor

Eric Fossum of Dartmouth University discusses current and future trends for CMOS image sensors at SPIE Defense + Commercial Sensing 2023. Credit: Lotus Eyes Photography

But Fossum also notes the benefits of having cameras everywhere: This year marks the 10th anniversary of the horrific Boston Marathon bombings. The suspects were quickly identified via storefront security cameras. Countless other crimes have been thwarted or solved because so many eyes are on the street, watching. What’s more, because nearly everyone has a camera in pocket on smartphones, social justice issues in the US, such as police brutality, have brought eyewitness to those outside marginalized groups, and perhaps the hope for change.

Far above the streets, and far removed from earthly woes, the JWST has renewed our sense of wonder in the cosmos. Kartaltepe reminded the DCS crowd that, “Many thousands of people worked hard to get this telescope together. There were many delays. But finally, the telescope launched on Christmas Day in 2021.”

She reviewed all the nail-biting moments that followed: unfolding of the craft’s solar panels and mirrors, deployment of its heat shield, placing JWST in its designated orbit, and aligning the segmented mirrors with a laser guide star. And then came the pictures from the telescope that seemed even more amazing as Kartaltepe explained a few of the details. There is the Carina Nebula star-forming region, the various spiral shapes of galaxies that are better seen, and galactic clusters whose distances are now better determined due to JWST’s operation in the infrared.

In sum, “JWST is performing spectacularly right, it launched flawlessly — everything's working better than we expected,” Kartaltepe said. “It's still been less than a year since the first data were taken, and there have been a lot of exciting results. But we've got much more to come.”

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