Goddard’s Office of the Chief Technologist named engineer Steven Denis the fiscal year 2023 Internal Research and Development (IRAD) Innovator of the Year, an honor the office bestows annually on individuals who demonstrate the best in innovation.
Denis demonstrated persistence and innovation in developing hair-thin photon sieves to focus extreme ultraviolet light, a difficult wavelength to capture. Thin membranes are important to solar science, he said, because these sieves transmit up to seven times more light than thicker materials. Denis’ work will open up new ways to study the Sun in greater detail and understand its influence on Earth and the solar system.
Working closely with solar scientists for many years through Goddard IRAD, or Internal Research and Development In the program, Denis developed new ways to create wider and thinner silicon and niobium membranes. These photon sieves, created at Goddard’s Detector Development Laboratory, are so thin that they must be supported by a honeycomb lattice of thicker silicon to prevent them from breaking. Etched with microscopic holes in a circular pattern, they refract light similar to Fresnel lenses used in lighthouses. The extreme ultraviolet light that passes through this sieve is gradually deflected toward a distant receptor.
“Building sieves with such precision is a real physical challenge,” said Goddard heliophysicist Dr. Doug Rabin. “Its smallest features are a few microns wide. “Kevin has really responded to that challenge with very creative solutions.”
Denis’ photon sieves should eventually be able to resolve features near the Sun’s surface 10 to 50 times smaller than those that can be seen today with the Solar Dynamics Observatory’s EUV imager, Rabin said.
Denis is inspired by working closely with scientists to overcome barriers to advancing his field, he said. “With this particular project, scientists Rabin and Adrian Daw have done a great job using the sieves in near-term scientific applications while we push the technology for larger, more capable missions.”
Denis’ work was highlighted in Physics today, a publication of the American Institute of Physics, for its importance in advancing fundamental technology that can address outstanding questions about how heating and coronal acceleration occur in the Sun’s lower atmosphere.
With two patents already granted based on this project, Denis submits a new application for his latest manufacturing process.
As he continues to push the boundaries of engineering, Denis said he hopes to see them used in missions of increasing complexity and capability. “It’s a great motivation to see that they are going to be used for new science.”
By Karl B. Hille
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.