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Originally introduced in the 1950s as a classified concept for improving astronomical imaging by correcting for atmospheric aberrations, it took nearly two decades for adaptive optics technology to catch up with theory and starlight to hit the first adaptive optics system. Today, major telescopes around the world are equipped with this imaging technology.
While these adaptive optics-enabled telescopes were being developed, recent technological advances in CCD (charge-coupled device) cameras, frame grabbers, and MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical systems) deformable mirrors have inspired innovative researchers to solve wavefront distortion problems in fields such as microscopy, retinal imaging, and laser communication. Now, with proven applications and mature, affordable components, adaptive optics is poised for widespread use in a myriad of optical fields.
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A major strength of adaptive optics is its application versatility. Many of the world’s major telescopes such as the European Southern Observatory in Chile and the Keck Observatory in Hawaii rely on adaptive optics to remove wavefront distortion caused by atmospheric turbulence in order to provide clear images of stars and extra-solar planets. Biological researchers have integrated adaptive optics into microscopes to correct wavefront aberrations introduced by tissue and thus extracting vital information from biological specimens. Vision science researchers are using adaptive optics in their efforts to detect eye disease before its onset and begin earlier treatment. Finally, laser applications such as laser beam shaping for free space communication and laser machining have been successfully demonstrated with adaptive optics.