Kuiper belt object detection

The Kuiper belt -- an area of the solar system past Neptune, stretching from 30 to 50 AU -- is densely populated with small objects. There are an estimated tens of billions to trillions of objects in this belt that are larger than a kilometre, but only around a thousand have been discovered. All of these detected Kuiper belt objects (KBOs) are larger than 15km, big icy bodies like the dwarf planet Pluto. Most objects in the Kuiper belt are far smaller, but kilometre-sized bodies are too small to be seen directly by telescopes.

If you are capable of imaging very dim objects at a very fast rate, these small KBOs can be detected by looking for the diffraction effects caused when they pass in front of distant stars. Fresnel diffraction causes a characteristic pattern in the light curve of the star that varies depending on KBO size, observing wavelength, the star's angular diameter, and so on. These events last for only a fraction of a second, but modern electron multiplying charge-coupled devices (EMCCDs) are capable of imaging these occultations.

My work at Western University is focused on developing a detection pipeline for a new telescope array dedicated to the search for KBOs via this occultation method. With over 6TB of data imaged per night, the pipeline must employ autonomous real-time detection, erasing most collected data and only retaining information on candidate occultation events.