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Discoveries & Breakthroughs Inside Science | December 2011
Seeing Deep Into Space

Astronomy

PASADENA, CA (Ivanhoe Newswire) – Telescopes can capture amazing images! You may have seen some of the Hubble’s works of art, but soon scientists may be able to get those kinds of snapshots with a smaller telescope. We’ll show you how new technology is allowing smaller telescopes to see into space like never before.

Robo-AO

They come in small. Medium, and very large! Telescopes are our window into space. But nowadays to get great images you need a massive instrument!

“What’s happening is they are leaving all these small telescopes around the country behind,” Christoph Baranec, Ph.D., an optical scientist at Caltech Optical Observatories told Ivanhoe.

Optical scientist Dr. Christoph Baranec wants to change that. He’s developed a way to make smaller telescopes more useful.

“What I’m trying to do is actually build adaptive optic systems for small telescopes,” Dr. Baranec said.

When you look through a telescope on the ground – the atmosphere interferes with your view. Winds, turbulence, and varying temperatures, can all cause distortions.

“All these effects start to add up, and it starts to really degrade your image and stars start bouncing around,” Dr. Baranec explained.

Baranec’s system, called Robo-AO uses adaptive optics to counteract those effects. First an ultraviolet laser shines into the atmosphere as a reference point. Then, the adaptive optics system and cameras pinpoint the laser and a built-in computer calculates the measurements and tells a small mirror to change its shape so slightly, making corrections for a better, clearer view.

“We can start thinking about putting these very complex machines in a small package on a small telescope,” Dr. Baranec said.

The system is much cheaper than current technologies – 12 watts of UV laser power cost about $100,000 compared to more than a million dollars for traditional large telescope with sodium lasers. And since it’s robotic, it doesn’t require a lot of users to operate, and the images are much clearer – as you can see here.

“That’s what adaptive optics can give you. It can sort of recover what it’s like to see stars from space,” Dr. Baranec concluded.

A new device – and a new way to see the sky.

Dr. Baranec says right now they are testing the technology with telescopes that are in the one to three meter class. He hopes it will one day be installed on all telescopes of that size around the country.

Click here to Go Inside This Science and View Video or contact:

Christoph Baranec
Senior Postdoctoral Scholar in Astronomy
Caltech Optical Observatories
California Institute of Technology