As astronomical observations from space benefit from improved sensitivity, the effectiveness of scientific programs is becoming limited by systematics that often originate in poorly understood image sensor behavior. Traditional, bottom-up detector characterization methods provide one way to model underlying detector physics and generate ever more faithful numerical simulations, but this approach is vulnerable to preconceptions and over-simplification. The alternative top-down approach is laboratory emulation, which enables observation, calibration, and analysis scenarios to be tested without relying on a complete understanding of the underlying physics. This complements detector characterization and simulation efforts by testing their validity. We describe a laboratory facility and experimental testbed that supports the emulation of a wide range of mission concepts such as gravitational weak lensing measurements by the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope and high precision spectrophotometry of transiting exoplanets by James Webb Space Telescope. An Offner relay projects readily customizable “scenes” (e.g., stars, galaxies, and spectra) with very low optical aberration over the full area of a typical optical or near-infrared image sensor. f / 8 and slower focal ratios may be selected, spanning those of most proposed space missions and approximating the point spread function (PSF) size of seeing limited ground-based surveys. Diffraction limited PSFs are projected over a wide field of view and wavelength range to deliver highly predictable image patterns down to subpixel scales with stable intensity and fine motion control. The testbed enables realistic validation of detector performance on science-like images, which aids mission design and survey strategy as well as targeted investigations of various detector effects.
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