Share this:
08/04/1999 07:00:00

Caltech joins effort to extend capabilities of major observatories

PASADENA—The California Institute of Technology will participate in a multi-institutional effort, funded by the National Science Foundation, to advance the field of adaptive optics, which promises to revolutionize astronomy.

The National Science Foundation's governing body, the National Science Board, has approved a proposal to establish a Center for Adaptive Optics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. As a partner institution, Caltech will bring together faculty from astronomy, planetary science, and physics to advance the use of existing adaptive optics technology at the 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory in California and the two 10-meter Keck Telescopes in Hawaii.

According to Mike Brown, assistant professor of planetary astronomy and leader of the Caltech team, "This effort will breathe new life into ground-based observing by giving us more sophisticated tools to view distant planetary systems." Depending on the size of the telescope, adaptive optics technology will make images 10 to 20 times sharper, giving scientists a much better view of space. "We plan on making Palomar the best at seeing very faint things next to very bright things, possible indicators of planetary systems. We can learn and experiment at Palomar, then utilize Keck for the really big discoveries."

Very few astronomers have any experience using adaptive optics. "We're hoping to quickly learn how to optimize the technology currently available and pass on that knowledge to other scientists. I expect this to bring about some exciting discoveries," said Brown.

Adaptive optics is a method to actively compensate for changing distortions that cause blurring of images. It is used in astronomy to correct for the blurring effect of turbulence in the earth's atmosphere. For astronomers, adaptive optics can give ground-based telescopes the same clarity of vision that space telescopes achieve by orbiting above the earth's turbulent atmosphere.

Astronomers have already started to reap the benefits of applying adaptive optics to their research. A team headed by Dr. Richard Dekany at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently conducted a highly successful first test of an adaptive optics system on the 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory. Enhanced high-resolution images of excellent quality were obtained of the ring system of Uranus and of the Lagoon Nebula.

The 27 partner institutions of the Center for Adaptive Optics will include Caltech, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, UCLA, UC Irvine, the University of Chicago, the University of Rochester, the University of Houston, Indiana University, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and 17 other national laboratory, industry, and international partners.

The center will provide the sustained effort needed to bring adaptive optics from promise to widespread use. It will conduct research, educate students, develop new instruments, and disseminate knowledge about adaptive optics to the broader scientific community.

Caltech participants will include Shri Kulkarni, Chuck Steidel, Mark Metzger, and Keith Matthews from astronomy, and Christopher Martin from physics.

Palomar Observatory is located near San Diego, Calif., and is owned and operated by Caltech. Caltech and the University of California jointly operate the W. M. Keck Observatory, which houses the world's two largest optical and infared telescopes and is located on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

Written by Sue McHugh