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Image Persistence in the IR detector of WFC3

Image persistence in the IR array occurs whenever a pixel is exposed to light that exceeds more than about half of the full well of a pixel in the array. Persistence can occur within a single visit, as the different exposures in a visit are dithered. Persistence also occurs from observations in a previous visit of completely different fields.

Image persistence is seen in a small, but non-negligible fraction of WFC3/IR exposures. Its properties are discussed in the WFC3 Instrument Handbook in Section 7.9.4. Persistence is primarily a function of the degree to which a pixel is filled (in electrons) and the time since this occurred.

Two examples of persistence are shown below:

Examples of Persistence

The left panel shows an image obtained with WFC3/IR as a parallel from program 11519, Visit 0V.  The primary target was Ton 550 which was observed with COS. The IR exposure is of a nearby field and the image obtained shows a bright diffuse object in the center of the field. About 2 hours earlier, the nearby Sb galaxy NGC 2841 had been observed with WFC3 IR.  The bright diffuse region in the center of the image is a persistence after-image. 

The right panel shows an image obtained of the gamma ray burst GRB090423 as part of program 11189, visit H2 .  Several observations of fields containing bright fields from programs 11677 and 11548, visits 19 and AJ,  preceded this observation. The dither pattern used in these sets of observations are clearly visible in the image.  Such obvious examples of persistence are fairly rare in the HST data; using information in the Phase II proposals, STScI scientists attempt to identify observations that are likely to cause this much persistence.  STScI planners inhibit WFC/IR observations for several orbits after observations from these "bad actors", long enough for the afterglow images to fade.  However, while this screening process has improved significantly over time, it is not perfect.  

Moreover, it does not deal with the most common cases of persistence, which are far less obvious, a few isolated spots in random locations in the image.   

Observers need to consider persistence in planning observations and in analyzing data.   Strategies to minimize persistence in planning observations are discussed here.  Tools provided to help observers account for the effects of persistence in analyzing their data are discussed here.

What causes persistence and what are the characteristics of persistence in the WFC3/IR array?

Persistence is caused by traps that exist in the active regions of diodes that make up the pixels of the detector.  When the diodes are exposed to light, voltage levels within the diode change slightly and allow  free electrons and holes to reach these traps.  When the diode is discharged, the trapped electrons and holes escape the traps slowly over time and cause after images.  The greater the saturation of the detector, the greater the number of traps and the greater the afterglow.  Smith et al. 2008 (Proc. SPIE, 7021, 70210j) has provided a very clear description of the physics of persistence and the effects  in IR arrays.

The characteristics of persistence vary for different devices and device technologies.  The figure below shows the characteristic shape of persistence as observed in a series of darks following an image of Omega Cen which had been deliberately exposed to a level that many stars in the image were saturated.  Here, stimulus is the depth to which individual pixels were exposed.  Note that the persistence is fairly small until the exposure level reaches about half of full well and saturates near full well exposure. The persistence gradually decays with time from the first dark exposure which took place a few minutes after end of the Omega Cen exposure to the last dark which took place about one orbit later.

Persistance after Omega Cena 1

The next figure shows how persistence decays with time.  The different curves here show the decay for different levels of saturation.  There are 3 curves for each level corresponding to the 3 times this experiment was repeated.  The differences are partially due to the fact that different pixels were illuminated to different levels each time, but may also indicate some intrinsic variability that is not understood.

Power law decay of the persistence

To good approximation, the persistence decays as a power law with time (with a suggestion that the decay is faster at lower levels of saturation).  For comparison, the dark current is about 0.015 electrons/s.

Based on considerations like those shown above, the WFC3 team has developed a "working model" for persistence in the WFC3/IR array. 

Persistence formula


Persisence formlua variables

Using the model and the exposure history, it is possible to estimate the persistence in image.  Tests on individual exposures indicate that it is possible to remove most (about 90%) of the persistence in an image although this requires tuning of the parameters from observation to observation. As is discussed below, we have incorporated this model into software that the WFC3 group is running on all WFC3/IR data.  As a result it is possible for users to obtain an estimate of the amount of persistence in their data.

The original and persistence-subtracted images for the two examples discussed above are shown in the figure above.  Both images are highly stretched and presented as histogram equalized images to show the persistence as clearly as possible.  There is some residual persistence in both images, but clearly the persistence subtracted ones provide a better representation of the celestial objects in both cases.  This is fairly typical of the improvement that can be achieved with our existing model, assuming the parameters are tuned to the individual observation sequence.

Reducing the Effects of Persistence in Planning IR Observations with WFC3

There are several obvious ways to reduce the effects of persistence on your own observations:

How to check for persistence in WFC3/IR images

All observers should check whether IR data obtained with WFC3 is affected by persistence.

In discussing the effects of persistence on WFC/IR data, it is useful to distinguish between persistence caused within a single visit (hereafter "internal persistence")  and persistence arising from earlier visits (hereafter, "external persistence"). Internal persistence is generally not a problem from a scientific perspective, unless an observation involves large dithers, because the persistence appears within the psf of bright objects in the field (which are usually not the science target).  External persistence is more of a problem because without all the earlier data, it is difficult to know where persistence will occur in a science image.

One way to eliminate the possibility that early IR data could have affected an observation, is to use the MAST history tool. This allows one to search the archive for WFC3/IR exposures that have preceded the exposure you are worried about (based on the association name, keyword ASN_ID). If there is nothing in the archive  in the few hours before your observation, then it is unlikely you have a persistence problem.

However, as noted earlier, the WFC3 team has developed a set of prototype software to predict the amount of persistence in an image based on the earlier history of exposures with the detector.  The model is by no means perfect but it is good enough to locate regions of the detector that are affected by persistence and to predict the amount of persistence.  Outputs from our prototype software are available through MAST using this search form.  The outputs include fits files containing the predicted persistence in each "flt" file as well as various summary files that should enable observers to evaluate whether they should be concerned about the effects of persistence on their science images.  Separate fits files are provided for external persistence and for total persistence.  A complete description of the search form and how to use it is here.

At present, the persistence outputs are provided to MAST as add-on products.  It is not possible to obtain the data from the standard HST retrieval screen.  Instead you must use the special persistence interface.  This will allow you to check the summary outputs for each flt file and to retrieve the persistence output files on a visit by visit basis.

What to do if you have image persistence

If you identify image persistence in your images, the first thing you should do is determine whether it affects your ability to extract the science from your program. If the answer is no, then there is no need to worry  further about persistence.  If small areas of the detector are affected, there are several possibilities:


The WFC3 team is still working to obtain a better description of persistence.  There are a number of factors that affect persistence including the time a pixel is held near saturation that are not incorporated into the current model.  We are currently functioning in a kind of rapid prototyping mode, rather than one that is strictly version controlled. As a result, it is quite possible that the data products you can retrieve from the interface will change somewhat as we try to improve the model. Nevertheless, we felt that it was important to make the outputs available as soon as possible to the community.  Any major improvements will be announced through WFC3 STANS.

Created 12/08/2011 MJD
Modified 01/19/2012 MJD