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ASTR 5110, Majewski[FALL 2017]. Lecture Notes

ASTR 5110 (Majewski) Lecture Notes

DETECTORS: An Introduction

Some References:

  • Chapter 1 of Rieke, Detection of Light.

  • Please start reading Howell, Handbook of CCD Astronomy up to and including Section 5.4.

Noise by Peter Wales, 1991. Oil on plywood. From Gallery East website, painting/wales/noise.htm.


Why are detectors used in astronomy?

  • Increase sensitivity
    • More wavelengths accessible than eye.
    • In principle, can detect individual photons.
    • Can integrate with time to increase signal.
  • In many cases, respond linearly, or semi-linearly, to input photon signal (eye logarithmically).
  • Can store permanent record
    • Manipulate later
    • Co-add/compare results


Most detectors in astronomy work on the principles of the Photoelectric Effect (Einstein 1905) or related phenomena:

Recall from your freshman physics:

  • Photons of sufficient energy hitting surface of metal releases electrons.

    Example: The electroscope:

    A neutral electroscope is connected to a metal plate. When light shines on the plate, photoelectrons are ejected and the foil leaves then become positive and repel one another.

  • Note that this effect was used to prove that light sometimes acts like a particle, not a wave:

    The energy of the released electrons depends NOT on intensity of light (which one might expect if light were acting like a wave in this context), but rather on the frequency of the light. Moreover, the kinetic energy of the electrons released by the photons (i.e., the "photoelectrons") is linearly related to the frequency of the incoming light, with a proportionality given by the Planck constant:

    A plot of data from a photoelectric effect experiment. Light below a certain frequency (energy) cannot release the electrons from the plate. However, once light has a frequency beyond the certain limiting frequency (energy), the electrons are emitted, and with a kinetic energy that is proportional to the difference between the incoming and limiting frequencies.

  • An important aspect of the photoelectric effect is that there is a minimum threshold frequency that must be achieved before any photoelectrons can be emitted. This threshold frequency, fmin, corresponds to a minimum energy, W, called the work function that is particular to each metal.
  • Thus:
    Ee- = Ep - W = hf - W = h(f-fmin)

    where: Ee- = KE of released electron
      Ep = Energy of photon
      W = Work function of metal
      h = Planck's constant
      f = Photon frequency
      fmin = Minimum photon frequency particular to the metal


Photoconduction occurs when released photoelectrons are collected in some way to provide an electrical current.

  • A rather practical application of this concept is the photocell or solar cell, which is used to create electrical power from light energy:

    A basic solar cell using semiconductor (rather than metallic) materials is a so-called "p/n junction", which we will discuss later. For now, you can imagine the cell being of a metallic-like substance. The essential concept is that the photons free photoelectrons that are free to flow to the contact of the cell and complete a circuit that drives a load.


REFERENCE: Photomultipliers are discussed in the first few sections of Chapter 9 of Birney.

Of course, in astronomy, we are interested in the process of photon detection -- that is, we want to measure how many photons have been detected.

  • Obviously, we could use the concept of the photocell to do this task. For example, if the photocell were connected to an ampmeter, we could measure the current generated by the photocell and use this to measure the photon flux on the cell.

  • One type of such a detector, where the photoelectrons leave the metal surface to be measured elsewhere, is called a photo-emissive detector.

  • Photons are not the only type of particle that can release electrons from a metal.

    Electrons themselves, when moving with sufficient kinetic energy, can release other electrons from metals efficiently, and, moreover, with amplification, meaning that more electrons come out of the metal than went in.

    This phenomenon, in conjunction with the photoelectric effect, can be used to amplify weak light signals, as is done in a photomultuplier.

    • A photomultiplier tube, or "PMT", useful for light detection of very weak signals, is a photo-emissive device in which the absorption of a single photon by a photocathode results in the emission of an initial single photoelectron (by the photoelectric effect, of course).

    • By attracting that single photoelectron to another metal surface, called a dynode, more electrons are released which, in turn, are collected to other dynodes, resulting in a growing cascade of many electrons at the end of the dynode chain.

    • Thus, these detectors significantly amplify the single electrons generated by the photocathode exposed to a weak photon flux.

    • While plain metal cathodes will work, those with the lowest work functions are best (i.e. sensitive to lower energy photons).

      Thus, alkali metals (e.g., Na, K, Rb, Cs) or combinations of them, which we will see below are very "willing" to donate their lone electrons in their outer shells, are popular, as are semiconductor elements.

    Photomultipliers acquire light through a glass or quartz window that covers a photosensitive surface, called a photocathode, which then releases electrons that are multiplied by electrodes known as metal channel dynodes. At the end of the dynode chain is an anode or collection electrode. Over a very large range, the current flowing from the anode to ground is directly proportional to the photoelectron flux generated by the photocathode. In order to "focus" the electrons from one dynode to be attracted to the next, the dynodes are pre-charged in a progression of increasing positive voltage.

  • A device like a photomultiplier, in which individual photons can be detected and measured is called a photon counter, and as you might guess, play an important role in many astronomical applications.

    Photon counting. Image from

  • Photomultipliers are also used in night vision goggles.

  • In astronomy, photomultiplier detectors have traditionally been in a "tube" configuration, like that shown here:

    Photomultiplier tube with its protective covering removed. The sensitivity of the detector depends on the photocathode substance used.

    Cross section of a photomultiplier tube showing how the dynode chain can be compacted into a circular space.


In non-photo-emissive photon detectors, photoelectrons are released in the metallic (or semiconductor) material, but the "freed" photoelectrons are retained in the detector. One then can either:

  • Monitor a continuous electric current, e.g., as you might do with the photocell example above.

  • Build-up and store charge to be measured as an accumulated electron number later on, all at one time.

    • The time during which the photoelectrons are allowed to build up before measuring their total number is called an integration.

    • The process of measuring the accumulated electron number at the end of the integration is called a readout.

There are various kinds of non-photo-emissive detectors, based on the nature of the storage and "readout" process. In all cases photons enter a substrate and release bound electrons from parent atoms. Thus, the net effect of the freed electrons might induce:

  • A simple build up of electrical charge that is stored in a potential well and then read out at the end as an accumulated voltage.

    • This is the basis of the charged couple device (CCD) and many other detectors.

  • A chemical change in the substrate of the detecting medium. This is the basis of the photographic detector.

    • In photography, grains of certain types of molecules (e.g., AgBr, AgCl or AgI, all ionically bound silver halide salts) are suspended in a gelatin matrix called an emulsion (made of hydrophilic polymers/proteins extracted from animal hides, bone and sinew).

      The silver halide grains can absorb photons, which excites (liberates) the electrons in the grains and results in a chemical change in the grain.

      Initially a free, neutrally charged bromide atom is created by the release of that electron.

      Ag+Br- (crystal) + hν (radiation) --> Ag+ + Br + e-

      The silver ion can then combine with the electron to produce a neutral Ag atom.

      Ag+ + e- --> Ag0

    • The small number of neutral Ag atoms in the crystal act as a catalyst to the rest of the salt in the grain and create a so-called latent image. The latent image is then amplified (by as much as a billion times) in the darkroom by the developing process.

    • In the "readout" process of developing, those grains that have been excited in this way are catalyzed (by a chemical reducing agent) to form larger groups of free Ag, producing dark areas in that region of the emulsion. If done properly, that chemical process does nothing to the unexposed grains.

      The photochemical process. From
    • Obviously the number of grains in an area undergoing this process indicates the number of photons that have entered that region.

    • After stopping the development process in an acidic stop bath (the pH of the developer is very high, so the acid quickly neutralizes the developing process), one needs to fix the final image by removing all remaining, light sensitive silver halide using sodium thiosulfate (also known as hypo).

      If one doesn't remove the excess silver halide, then the emulsion is still sensitive to light and will continue to darken.

      The fixing process is also typically a step that hardens the gelatin matrix that holds the silver halide, preserving the image on the solid glass, paper or film surface.

    • See a more detailed description of the photographic chemical process here.

Older photographic grain shapes are shown on the left. The last major photographic film advance was the invention of tabular grains, which are more efficient in covering an emulsion for the same amount of silver halide crystal. From

An electron micrograph image of tabular AgBr and AgCl grains in a photographic emulsion. Kodak image.


An important aspect of the detection process relates to the "work function" of the detecting medium.

  • To generalize the "work function" concept to include both photo-emissive and non-photo-emissive detectors, we will refer instead (and technically more correctly) to the bandgap energy of the detector. The meaning of the name will become clear later on.

  • The bandgap energy, Egap, is that minimum energy required to free "bound" electrons in the atoms of the detecting medium and make them "storable" as free charges, whether or not they are "emitted" from the detector. As in the photoelectric effect, we have that the energy in the electron is given by

    Ee- = Ep - Egap

    where: Egap = Bandgap energy
  • As in the photoelectric effect, the ability of a detector to create photoelectrons depends on the bandgap energy of that detector and the energy of the light coming in. Thus, different detectors with different bandgap energies are sensitive to different wavelengths of light.

  • Thus, we see how we must resort to different substances with different bandgap energies (or play tricks to alter the bandgap energies) to detect photons of different energies/wavelength. Thus, different wavelengths of light -- e.g., X-ray, UV, visible, IR -- require different detecting substrates, even if the same basic principles of detection are used.


At this point it is helpful to introduce some concepts related to the detection process as described so far.

  • Quantum Efficiency (QE): The fraction of incoming photons converted into signal.
    • CCDs tend to be rather efficient, with QE's reaching 80% or more.

    • Photographic film has a QE of only a few percent.

    • The QE of a detector is generally a function of wavelength (more on this later).

    Examples of CCD quantum efficiency curves under different illumination configurations. Courtesy Apogee Instruments, Inc.

  • Spectral response: Wavelength region / frequency range over which photons can be detected reasonably. See, for example, the image above showing the spectral response of the CCD.
  • Noise: Uncertainty in output signal. Ideally, only statistical fluctuations in the input signal. But not usually.

  • Image from a CCD detector uniformly illuminated. That the image is not uniform shows the existence of various types of noise that entered into the detection process.

  • Linearity: Degree to which output signal is proportional to incoming photon numbers.

    • As an example, photographic plates are not linear at all signal levels. They follow a "characteristic curve" (also called a "Hurter-Driffield curve", or just an "HD curve"), which relates the number of incoming photons (the "exposure") to the density of blackened grains.

    • The slope of the characteristic curve in the linear regime is usually denoted by γ ("gamma"), which controls the contrast factor of the film.

    The characteristic curve shows a (1) "toe" that corresponds to a minimum necessary number of received photons required to activate a grain, a linear part (2-3) where signal in is linearly translated to signal out (with a slope in the HD curve of γ), and a "shoulder" corresponding to where the grains are "filling up" (3-4) and a point (4) where the grains are "saturated" and can no longer absorb any more photons. AGFA image. More information on film contrast characteristics and the gamma curve can be found here.

  • Dynamic range: Maximum variation in signal over which detector output can represent photon flux without losing signal.

    This is not only a function of the range of sensitivity to different flux levels:

  • ...but also to the number of unique values that the detector can report.

    The bit depth refers to the range of possible greyscale values in a digital context. Most electronic detectors use an analog-to-digital converter (ADC) to translate an analog signal (e.g., accumulated photoelectron charge) into a set of discrete digital values using a certain number of bits that controls the range of possible greyscale levels. Image from

  • Pixels: Individual, independently detecting elements in multiple detector system; "Picture Elements".

  • Magnified image (left) of CCD camera (right) and showing the pixel structure.

    Typically arranged in a regular square or rectangular arrangement, though not always (and randomly in the case of photographic emulsions).

  • Time response: Minimum time interval over which changes in photon rate are detectable. E.g. photomultiplier:

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Plot of the photoelectric effect graph taken from hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu/edu/hbase/imgmod. Image and text relating to the linear photomultiplier taken from The cross-section of the PMT taken from and the photo of the cosmic ray PMT from Image from Solar cell image from pn_junction.jpg. CCD pixel image from Matthew Bershady, U. Wisconsin. All other material copyright © 2002,2009,2011,2013,2017 Steven R. Majewski. All rights reserved. These notes are intended for the private, noncommercial use of students enrolled in Astronomy 511 and Astronomy 5110 at the University of Virginia.