This is a Photo of Neptune, From the Ground! ESO’s New Adaptive Optics Makes Ground Telescopes Ignore the Earth’s Atmosphere

In 2007, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) completed work on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in northern Chile. This ground-based telescope is the world’s most advanced optical instrument, consisting of four Unit Telescopes with main mirrors (measuring 8.2 meters in diameter) and four movable 1.8-meter diameter Auxiliary Telescopes.

Recently, the VLT was upgraded with a new instrument known as the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE), a panoramic integral-field spectrograph that works at visible wavelengths. Thanks to the new adaptive optics mode that this allows for (known as laser tomography) the VLT was able to recently acquire some images of Neptune, star clusters and other astronomical objects with impeccable clarity.

In astronomy, adaptive optics refers to a technique where instruments are able to compensate for the blurring effect caused by Earth’s atmosphere, which is a serious issue when it comes to ground-based telescopes. Basically, as light passes through our atmosphere, it becomes distorted and causes distant objects to become blurred (which is why stars appear to twinkle when seen with the naked eye).

Images of the planet Neptune obtained during the testing of the Narrow-Field adaptive optics mode of the MUSE/GALACSI instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Credit: ESO/P. Weilbacher (AIP

One solution to this problem is to deploy telescopes into space, where atmospheric disturbance is not an issue. Another is to rely on advanced technology that can artificially correct for the distortions, thus resulting in much clearer images. One such technology is the MUSE instrument, which works with an adaptive optics unit called a GALACSI – a subsystem of the Adaptive Optics Facility (AOF).

The instrument allows for two adaptive optics modes – the Wide Field Mode and the Narrow Field Mode. Whereas the former corrects for the effects of atmospheric turbulence up to one km above the telescope over a comparatively wide field of view, the Narrow Field mode uses laser tomography to correct for almost all of the atmospheric turbulence above the telescope to create much sharper images, but over a smaller region of the sky.

This consists of four lasers that are fixed to the fourth Unit Telescope (UT4) beaming intense orange light into the sky, simulating sodium atoms high in the atmosphere and creating artificial “Laser Guide Stars”. Light from these artificial stars is then used to determine the turbulence in the atmosphere and calculate corrections, which are then sent to the deformable secondary mirror of the UT4 to correct for the distorted light.

Using this Narrow Field Mode, the VLT was able to capture remarkably sharp test images of the planet Neptune, distant star clusters (such as the globular star cluster NGC 6388), and other objects. In so doing, the VLT demonstrated that its UT4 mirror is able to reach the theoretical limit of image sharpness and is no longer limited by the effects of atmospheric distortion.

The most powerful laser guide star system in the world sees first light at the Paranal Observatory. Credit: ESO

This essentially means that it is now possible for the VLT to capture images from the ground that are sharper than those taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The results from UT4 will also help engineers to make similar adaptations to the ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), which will also rely on laser tomography to conduct its surveys and accomplish its scientific goals.

These goals include the study of supermassive black holes (SMBHs) at the centers of distant galaxies, jets from young stars, globular clusters, supernovae, the planets and moons of the Solar System, and extra-solar planets. In short, the use of adaptive optics – as tested and confirmed by the VLT’s MUSE – will allow astronomers to use ground-based telescopes to study the properties of astronomical objects in much greater detail than ever before.

In addition, other adaptive optics systems will benefit from work with the Adaptive Optics Facility (AOF) in the coming years. These include the ESO’s GRAAL, a ground layer adaptive optics module that is already being used by  the Hawk-I infrared wide-field imager. In a few years, the powerful Enhanced Resolution Imager and Spectrograph (ERIS) instrument will also be added to the VLT.

Between these upgrades and the deployment of next-generation space telescopes in the coming years (like the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be deploying in 2021), astronomers expect to bringing a great deal more of the Universe “into focus”. And what they see is sure to help resolve some long-standing mysteries, and will probably create a whole lot more!

And be sure to enjoy these videos of the images obtained by the VLT of Neptune and NGC 6388, courtesy of the ESO:

Further Reading: ESO

The Race To Image Exoplanets Heats Up!

Thanks to the deployment of the Kepler mission, thousands of extrasolar planet candidates have been discovered. Using a variety of indirect detection methods, astronomers have detected countless gas giants, super Earths, and other assorted bodies orbiting distant stars. And one terrestrial planet (Proxima b) has even been found lurking in the closest star system to Earth – Proxima Centauri.

The next step, quite logically, is to observe these planets directly. Hence why the Subaru Coronagraphic Extreme Adaptive Optics (SCExAO) instrument was commissioned at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) in  Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Designed to allow for the direct detection of planets around other stars, this instrument will help ensure that the Subaru Telescope remains on the cutting-edge of exoplanet hunting.

As of January 22nd, 2017, some 3,565 exoplanet candidates have been detected in 2,675 planetary systems, and over 2000 of these have been confirmed. However, as already noted, the vast majority of these have been detected by  indirect means – generally through the measurement of a star’s radial velocity, or by measuring dips in a star’s luminosity as an exoplanet passes in front of it (i.e. the transit method).

The Subaru Telescope atop Mauna Kea. CHARIS works in conjunction with Subaru. Image: Dr. Hideaki Fujiwara - Subaru Telescope, NAOJ.
The Subaru Telescope atop Mauna Kea. CHARIS works in conjunction with Subaru. Credit: Dr. Hideaki Fujiwara/NAOJ

Adaptive Optics, meanwhile, have allowed for the detection of exoplanets directly. When used in astronomy, this technology removes the the effects of atmospheric interference so that light from distant stars or planets can be seen clearly. Relying on experimental technology, the SCExAO was specifically designed and optimized for imaging planets, and is one of several newly-commissioned extreme AO instruments.

However, as Dr. Thayne Currie – a research associate at the NOAJ – indicated, the Observatories on Mauna Kea are particularly well suited to the technology. “Mauna Kea is the best place on this planet to see planets in other stellar systems,” he said. “Now, we finally have an instrument designed to utilize this mountain’s special gifts and the results are breathtaking.”

What makes the SCExAO special is that it allows astronomers the ability to image planets with masses and orbital separations that are similar to those in our own Solar System. So far, about a dozen planets have been detected directly using AO instruments, but these planets have all been gas giants with 4 to 13 times the mass of Jupiter, and which orbit their stars at distances beyond that of Neptune from our Sun.

This improved imaging capacity is made possible by the SCExAO’s ability to compensate for atmospheric interference at a faster rate. This will enable the Subaru Telescope to be able to capture far images of distant stars that are sharper and subject to less glare. And astronomers will be able to discern the presence of fainter objects that are circling these stars – i.e. exoplanets – with greater ease.

The debris disk detected around a young star HD 36546 using SCExAO/HiCIAO (left, seen nearly edge-on) and its model (right, viewed face-on). Credit: NAOJ

The first discovery made with the SCExAO, took place back in October of 2016. At the time, the Subaru telescope had detected a debris disk around HD 36546 – a 2 solar-mass star in the direction of the Taurus constellation – which appeared almost edge on. Located about twice as far from HD 36546 as the Kuiper Belt is from our Sun, this disk is believed to be the youngest debris disk ever observed (3 to 10 million years old).

This test of the SCExAO not only revealed a disk that could be critical to studying the earliest stages of icy planet formation, but demonstrated the extreme sensitivity of the technology. Basically, it allowed the astronomers conducting the study to rule out the existence of any planets in the system, thus concluding that planetary dynamics played no role in sculpting the disk.

More recently, the SCExAO instrument managed to directly detect multiple planets in the system known as HR 8799, which it observed in July of 2016. Prior to this, some of the systems four planets were spotted by surveys conducted using the Keck and the Subaru telescope (before the SCExAO was incorporated). However, these surveys could not correct for all the glare coming from HR 8799, and could only image two of three of the planets as a result.

A follow-up was conducted in the Fall of 2016, combining data from the SCExAO with that obtained by the Coronagraphic High Angular Resolution Imaging Spectrograph (CHARIS). This resulted in even clearer detection of the system’s inner three planets, not to mention high-quality spectrographic data that could allow researchers to determine the chemical compositions of their atmospheres.

The star and multiple planet system HR 8799 imaged using the SCEAO and the HiCIAO camera (left) and the Keck facility AO system coupled with the NIRC2 camera (right). Credit: NAOJ

As Dr. Olivier Guyon, the head of the SCExAO project, explained, this is a major improvement over other AO surveys. It also presents some major advantages when it comes to exoplanet hunting. “With SCExAO, we know not only the presence of a planet but also its character such as whether it is cloudy and what molecules it has, even if that planet is tens of trillions of miles away.”

Looking at the year ahead, the SCExAO is scheduled to undergo improvements that will allow it to detect planets that are 10 to 10o times fainter than what it can right now. The CHARIS instrument is also scheduled for additional engineering tests to improve its capabilities. These improvements are also expected to be incorporated into next-generation telescopes like the Thirty Meter Telescope – which is currently under construction at Mauna Kea.

Other recently-commissioned extreme AO instruments include the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) at Gemini Observatory on its telescope in Chile, the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet Research (SPHERE) on Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, and the AO system on the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) in Arizona. And these are only some of the current attempts to reduce interference and make exoplanets easier to detect.

For instance, coronagraph are another way astronomers are attempting to refine their search efforts. Consisting of tiny instruments that are fitted inside telescopes, coronagraphs block the incoming light of a star, thus enabling telescopes to spot the faint light being reflected from orbiting planets. When paired with spectrometers, scientists are able to conduct studies of these planet’s atmospheres.

An artist's illustration of the Starshade deployed near its companion telescope. Image: NASA
An artist’s illustration of the Starshade deployed near its companion space telescope. Credit: NASA

And then you have more ambitious projects like Starshade, a concept currently being developed by Northrop Grumman with the support of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This concept calls for a giant, flower-shaped screen that would be launched with one of NASA’s next-generation space telescopes. Once deployed, it would fly around in front of the telescope in order to obscure the light coming from distant stars.

The era of exoplanet discovery loometh! In the coming decades, we are likely to see an explosion in the number of planets were are able to observe directly. And in so doing, we can expect the number of potentially habitable exoplanets to grow accordingly.

Further Reading: NAOJ/Subaru Telescope

Is Alpha Centauri The Best Place To Look For Aliens?

For generations, human beings have fantasized about the possibility of finding extra-terrestrial life. And with our ongoing research efforts to discover new and exciting extrasolar planets (aka. exoplanets) in distant star systems, the possibility of actually visiting one of these worlds has received a real shot in the arm. Unfortunately, given the astronomical distances involved, not to mention the cost of mounting an expedition, doing so presents numerous significant challenges.

However, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and the Breakthrough Foundation – an international organization committed to exploration and scientific research –  is determined to mount an interstellar mission to Alpha Centauri, our closest stellar neighbor, in the coming years. With the backing of such big name sponsors as Mark Zuckerberg and Stephen Hawking, his latest initiative (named “Project Starshot“) aims to send a tiny spacecraft to the Alpha Centauri system to search for planets and signs of life.

Continue reading “Is Alpha Centauri The Best Place To Look For Aliens?”

‘The New Cool’: How These Sharp Space Pictures Were Snapped From A Ground Telescope

Rise above Earth with a telescope, and one huge obstacle to astronomy is removed: the atmosphere. We love breathing that oxygen-nitrogen mix, but it’s sure not fun to peer through it. Ground-based telescopes have to deal with air turbulence and other side effects of the air we need to breathe.

Enter adaptive optics — laser-based systems that can track the distortions in the air and tell computers in powerful telescopes how to flex their mirrors. That sparkling picture above came due to a new system at the Gemini South telescope in Chile.

It’s one of only a handful pictures released, but astronomers are already rolling out the superlatives.

“GeMS sets the new cool in adaptive optics,” stated Tim Davidge, an astronomer at Canada’s Dominion Astrophysical Observatory.

The planetary nebula NGC 2346. Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA (Image data from Letizia Stanghellini, National Optical Astronomy Observatory, Tucson, Arizona. Color composite image by Travis Rector, University of Alaska Anchorage.)
The planetary nebula NGC 2346. Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA (Image data from Letizia Stanghellini, National Optical Astronomy Observatory, Tucson, Arizona. Color composite image by Travis Rector, University of Alaska Anchorage.)

“It opens up all sorts of exciting science possibilities for Gemini, while also demonstrating technology that is essential for the next generation of ground-based mega-telescopes. With GeMS we are entering a radically new, and awesome, era for ground-based optical astronomy.”

Other telescopes have adaptive optics, but the Gemini Multi-Conjugate Adaptive Optics System (GEMS) has some changes to what’s already used.

It uses a technique called “multi-conjugate adaptive optics”. This increases the possible size of sky swaths the telescope can image, while also giving a sharp view across the entire field. According to the observatory, the new system makes Gemini’s eight-meter mirror 10 to 20 times more efficient.

The Gemini South telescope during laser operations with GeMS/GSAOI. Credit: Manuel Paredes
The Gemini South telescope during laser operations with GeMS/GSAOI. Credit: Manuel Paredes

The system uses a constellation of five laser guide stars, and has several mirrors that can deform according to measurements obtained by the sodium laser. We have more technical details in this past Universe Today story by Tammy Plotner.

The next step will be seeing what kind of science Gemini can produce from the ground with this laser system. Some possible directions include supernova research, star populations in galaxies outside of the Milky Way, and studying more detail in planetary nebulae — the remnants of low- and medium-mass star.

Check out more photos from Gemini at this link.

Source: Gemini Observatory

How Do The Biggest Telescopes Work?


Located high in the mountains of Chile’s Atacama Desert, the enormous telescopes of the European Southern Observatory have been providing astronomers with unprecedented views of the night sky for 50 years. ESO’s suite of telescopes take advantage of the cold, clear air over the Atacama, which is one of the driest places on Earth. But as clear as it is, there is still some turbulence and variations to contend with — especially when peering billions of light-years out into the Universe.

So how do they do it?

Thanks to adaptive optics and advanced laser calibration, ESO can negate the effects of atmospheric turbulence, bringing the distant Universe into focus. It’s an impressive orchestration of innovation and engineering and the ESO team has put together a video to show us how it’s done.

We all love the images (and the science) so here’s a look behind the scenes!

Video: ESO

Gemini Adaptive Optics System Revolutionizes Astrophotography

[/caption]When it comes to astrophotography, most of us would think that space-based telescopes like the Hubble are the epitome of imagining. However, there’s something new to be said about being “grounded”. On December 16, 2011, the Gemini South telescope in Chile revealed its first wide-field, ultra-sharp image… the product of a decade of hard work. By employing a new generation of adaptive optics (AO), the scope produced an incredible look into the densely concentrated globular cluster, NGC 288, and captured stars at close to the theoretical resolution limit of Gemini’s massive 8-meter mirror.

The Gemini Multi-conjugate adaptive optics System (GeMS for short), produced an incredible vision… one of incredible resolution. This new system will allow astronomers to study galactic centers and their black holes – as well as the life patterns of singular stars – with incredible clarity. It’s the largest amount of area ever captured in a single observation – one that’s ten times larger than any adaptive optics systems has ever been able to capture before. It has cause quite a stir in the astronomical community. When Space Telescope Science Institute director Matt Mountain saw the first light image, he praised the GeMS instrument team: “Incredible! You have truly revolutionized ground-based astronomy!”

As the director of the Gemini Observatory, Dr. Mountain was around when the project first began 10 years ago. He was responsible for assembling the team, including Francois Rigaut as the lead scientist to develop the GeMS instrument. And, Rigaut was there for first light… “We couldn’t believe our eyes!” Rigaut recalls. “The image of NGC 288 revealed thousands of pinpoint stars. Its resolution is Hubble-quality – and from the ground this is phenomenal.” Of course, one of the most amazing aspects of the image was how widely spaced the stars appeared, to which Rigaut comments: “This is somewhat uncharted territory: no one has ever made images so large with such a high angular resolution.”

Gemini South’s “first light” image from GeMS/GSAOI shows extreme detail in the central part of the globular star cluster NGC 288. The image, taken at 1.65 microns (H band) on December 16, 2011, has a field-of-view 87 x 87 arcseconds. The average full-width at half-maximum is slightly below 0.080 arcsecond, with a variation of 0.002 arcsecond across the entire field of the image. Exposure time was 13 minutes. Insets on the right show a detail of the image (top), a comparison of the same region with classical AO (middle; this assumes using the star at the upper right corner as the guide star), and seeing-limited observations (bottom). The pixel size in the latter was chosen to optimize the signal-to-noise ratio while not degrading the intrinsic angular resolution of the image. North is up, East is right.

Even though this is an incredible insight, some members of the scientific team which use the Gemini telescope are a bit more reserved in their comments. According to University of Toronto astronomer Roberto Abraham, one of a community of hundreds of astronomers worldwide who uses the 8-meter Gemini telescopes for cutting-edge research: “This is fan-freaking-tastic!!!!!!!” Exuberant? Of course! Even the environmental conditions remained as perfect as they could be for the first run of the GeMS equipment. “We were lucky to have clear weather and stable atmospheric conditions that night,” said Gemini AO scientist Benoit Neichel. “Even despite interruptions of the laser propagation due to satellites and planes passing by, we obtained our first image with the system. It was surprisingly crisp and large, with an exquisitely uniform image quality.”

How is it accomplished? GeMS employs five laser guide stars, three deformable mirrors and a full arsenal of computers to provide a near diffraction limited image to the Gemini South Adaptive Optics Imager (GSAOI, built by the Australian National University) and the infrared-sensitive imager attached to it. This means the smallest detail that can be resolved measures about 0.04 to 0.06 arcsecond over a field of 85 arcseconds squared. Compared to 0.5 arcsecond “seeing limited” at a good viewing location, that’s phenomenal! Once resolution was solved, the next problem was extending the field of view through a technique called Multi-Conjugate Adaptive Optics (MCAO) – an endeavor which borrowed technology from other scientific fields, such as medical imaging.

“MCAO is game-changing,” Abraham said. “It’s going to propel Gemini to the next echelon of discovery space as well as lay a foundation for the next generation of extremely large telescopes. Gemini is going to be delivering amazing science while paving the way for the future.”

Original Story Source: Gemini Observatory News. For Further Reading: Gemini News Release.

What are Active Optics?

Active Optics

For astronomers and physicists alike, the depths of space are a treasure trove that may provide us with the answers to some of the most profound questions of existence. Where we come from, how we came to be, how it all began, etc. However, observing deep space presents its share of challenges, not the least of which is visual accuracy.

In this case, scientists use what is known as Active Optics in order to compensate for external influences. The technique was first developed during the 1980’s and relied on actively shaping a telescope’s mirrors to prevent deformation. This is necessary with telescopes that are in excess of 8 metres in diameter and have segmented mirrors.


The name Active Optics refers to a system that keeps a mirror (usually the primary) in its optimal shape against all environmental factors. The technique corrects for distortion factors, such as gravity (at different telescope inclinations), wind, temperature changes, telescope axis deformation, and others.

The twin Keck telescopes shooting their laser guide stars into the heart of the Milky Way on a beautifully clear night on the summit on Mauna Kea. Credit: Tweedie
The twin Keck telescopes shooting their laser guide stars into the heart of the Milky Way on a beautifully clear night on the summit on Mauna Kea. Credit:

Adaptive Optics actively shapes a telescope’s mirrors to prevent deformation due to external influences (like wind, temperature, and mechanical stress) while keeping the telescope actively still and in its optimal shape. The technique has allowed for the construction of 8-meter telescopes and those with segmented mirrors.

Use in Astronomy:

Historically, a telescope’s mirrors have had to be very thick to hold their shape and to ensure accurate observations as they searched across the sky. However, this soon became unfeasible as the size and weight requirements became impractical. New generations of telescopes built since the 1980s have relied on very thin mirrors instead.

But since these were too thin to keep themselves in the correct shape, two methods were introduced to compensate. One was the use of actuators which would hold the mirrors rigid and in an optimal shape, the other was the use of small, segmented mirrors which would prevent most of the gravitational distortion that occur in large, thick mirrors.

This technique is used by the largest telescopes that have been built in the last decade. This includes the Keck Telescopes (Hawaii), the Nordic Optical Telescope (Canary Islands), the New Technology Telescope (Chile), and the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo (Canary Islands), among others.

The New Technology Telescope (NTT) pioneered the Active Optics. Credit: ESO/C.Madsen. Bacon
The New Technology Telescope (NTT) pioneered the Active Optics. Credit: ESO/C.Madsen. Bacon

Other Applications:

In addition to astronomy, Active Optics is used for a number of other purposes as well. These include laser set-ups, where lenses and mirrors are used to steer the course of a focused beam. Interferometres, devices which are used to emit interfering electromagnetic waves, also relies on Active Optics.

These inferometers are used the purposes of astronomy, quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, fiber optics, and other fields of scientific research. Active optics are also being investigated for use in X-ray imaging, where actively deformable grazing incidence mirrors would be employed.

Adaptive Optics:

Active Optics are not to be confused with Adaptive Optics, a technique which operates on a much shorter timescale to compensate for atmospheric effects. The influences that active optics compensate for (temperature, gravity) are intrinsically slower, and have a larger amplitude in aberration.

. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/N. Risinger
Artist’s impression of the European Extremly Large Telescope deploying lasers for adaptive optics. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/N. Risinger

On the other hand, Adaptive Optics corrects for atmospheric distortions that affect the image. These corrections need to be much faster, but also have smaller amplitude. Because of this, adaptive optics uses smaller corrective mirrors (often the second, third or fourth mirror in a telescope).

We have written many articles about optics for Universe Today. Here’s The Photon Sieve Could Revolutionize Optics, What did Galileo Invent?, What did Isaac Newton Invent?, What are the Biggest Telescopes in the World?

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Adaptive Optics. Listen here, Episode 89: Adaptive Optics, Episode 133: Optical Astronomy, and Episode 380: The Limits of Optics.


Telescope’s Laser Pointer Clarifies Blurry Skies


While it’s handy for us humans (and all of the other life on our planet for that matter), the atmosphere is almost universally cursed among astronomers. It’s great for breathing, but when it comes to astronomical observations of faint objects, all the atmosphere tends to do is muck up the view. In the past 20 years, development of adaptive optics – essentially telescopes that change the shape of their mirrors to improve their imaging capability – has dramatically improved what we can see in space from the Earth.

With a new technique involving lasers (Yes! Lasers!), the images capable with an adaptive optics telescope could be nearly as crisp as those from the Hubble Space Telescope over a wide field of view. A team of University of Arizona astronomers led by Michael Hart has developed a technique that helps calibrate the surface of the telescope very precisely, which leads to very, very clear images of objects that would normally be very blurry.

Laser adaptive optics in telescopes are a relatively new development in getting better image quality out of ground-based telescopes. While it’s nice to be able to use space-based telescopes like the Hubble and the forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope, they are certainly expensive to launch and maintain. On top of that, there are a lot of astronomers competing for very little time on these telescopes. Telescopes like the Very Large Telescope in Chile, and the Keck Telescope in Hawaii both already use laser adaptive optics to improve imaging.

Initially, adaptive optics focused in on a brighter star near the area of the sky that the telescope was observing, and actuators in the back of the mirror were moved very rapidly by a computer to cancel out atmospheric distortions. This system is limited, however, to areas of the sky that contain such an object.

Laser adaptive optics are more flexible in their usability – the technique involves using a single laser to excite molecules in the atmosphere to glow, and then using this as a “guide star” to calibrate the mirror to correct for distortions caused by turbulence in the atmosphere. A computer analyzes the incoming light from the artificial guide star, and can determine just how the atmosphere is behaving, changing the surface of the mirror to compensate.

In using a single laser, the adaptive optics can only compensate for turbulence in a very limited field of view. The new technique, pioneered at the 6.5-m MMT telescope in Arizona, uses not just one laser but five green lasers to produce five separate guide stars over a wider field of view, 2 arc minutes. The angular resolution is less than that of the single laser variety – for comparison, the Keck or VLT can produce images with a 30-60 milli-arcsecond resolution, but being able to see better over a wider field of view has many advantages.

In the image on the left, the cluster M3 appears blurry with the laser adaptive optics system turned off. Things are much clearer using the system, and individual stars in the cluster become visible, as can be seen in the image on the right. Image Credit: Michael Hart

The ability to take the spectra of older galaxies, which are very faint, is possible using this technique. By taking their spectra, scientists are better able to understand the composition and structure of objects in space. Using the new technique, taking the spectra of galaxies that are 10 billion years old – and thus have a very high red shift – should be possible from the ground.

Supermassive clusters of stars would also be more easily scrutinized using the technique, as images taken in a single pointing of the telescope on different nights would allow astronomers to understand just which stars are part of the cluster and which are not gravitationally bound.

The results of the team’s efforts was published in the Astrophysical Journal in 2009, and the original paper is available here on Arxiv.

Source: Eurekalert, Arxiv paper

Could An Amateur Astronomer Snap a Picture of an Exoplanet?

Using their backyard telescope, today? No; however, this image of three exoplanets required just 1.5 meters (diameter; 60 inches) of a telescope mirror, not vastly larger than the biggest backyard ‘scope.

These particular exoplanets orbit the star HR 8799, and have been imaged directly before, by one of the 10-meter (33-foot) Keck telescopes and the 8.0-meter (26-foot) Gemini North Observatory, both on Mauna Kea in Hawaii; they are among the first to be so imaged, as reported by Universe Today in November 2008 First Image of Another Multi-Planet Solar System.

So how did Gene Serabyn and colleagues manage the trick of taking the image above, using just a 1.5-meter-diameter (4.9-foot) portion of the famous Palomar 200-inch (5.1 meter) Hale telescope’s mirror?

Infrared observations of a multi-exoplanet star system HR 8799 (Keck Observatory)

They did it by working in the near infrared, and by combining two techniques – adaptive optics and a coronagraph – to minimize the glare from the star and reveal the dim glow of the much fainter planets.

“Our technique could be used on larger ground-based telescopes to image planets that are much closer to their stars, or it could be used on small space telescopes to find possible Earth-like worlds near bright stars,” said Gene Serabyn, who is an astrophysicist at JPL and visiting associate in physics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

The three planets, called HR8799b, c and d, are thought to be gas giants similar to Jupiter, but more massive. They orbit their host star at roughly 24, 38 and 68 times the distance between our Earth and the Sun, respectively (Jupiter resides at about five times the Earth-Sun distance). It’s possible that rocky worlds like Earth circle closer to the planets’ homestar, but with current technology, they would be impossible to see under the star’s glare.

The star HR 8799 is a bit more massive than our sun, and much younger, at about 60 million years, compared to our sun’s approximately 4.6 billion years. It is 120 light-years away in the constellation Pegasus. This star’s planetary system is still active, with bodies crashing together and kicking up dust, as recently detected by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Like a fresh-baked pie out of the oven, the planets are still warm from their formation and emit enough infrared radiation for telescopes to detect.

To take a picture of HR 8799’s planets, Serabyn and his colleagues first used a method called adaptive optics to reduce the amount of atmospheric blurring, or to take away the “twinkle” of the star. For these observations, technique was optimized by using only a small fraction of the telescope was used. Once the twinkle was removed, the light from the star itself was blocked using the team’s coronograph, an instrument that selectively masks out the star. A novel “vortex coronagraph,” invented by team member Dimitri Mawet of JPL, was used for this step. The final result was an image showing the light of three planets.

While adaptive optics is in use on only a few amateurs’ telescopes (and a relatively simple kind at that), the technology will likely become widely available to amateurs in the next few years. However, vortex coronagraphs may take a bit longer.

“The trick is to suppress the starlight without suppressing the planet light,” said Serabyn.

The technique can be used to image the space lying just a few arcseconds from a star. This is as close to the star as that achieved by Gemini and Keck – telescopes that are about five and seven times larger, respectively.

Keeping telescopes small is critical for space missions. “This is the kind of technology that could let us image other Earths,” said Wesley Traub, the chief scientist for NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program at JPL. “We are on our way toward getting a picture of another pale blue dot in space.”

Sources: JPL, Nature, Astrophysics Journal (preprint is arXiv:0912.2287)

Keck Telescope

There are two Keck telescopes – Keck I and Keck II; together they make up the W.M. Keck Observatory, though strictly speaking the observatory is a great deal more than just the telescopes (there’s all the instrumentation, especially the interferometer, the staff, support facilities, etc, etc, etc.).

William Myron Keck (1880-1964) established a philanthropic foundation in 1954, to support scientific discoveries and new technologies. One project funded was the first Keck telescope, which was quite revolutionary at the time. Not only was it the largest optical telescope (and it still is) – it’s 10 meters in diameter – but is made up of 36 hexagonal segments, the manufacture of which required several breakthroughs … and all 36 are kept in line by a system of sensors and actuators which adjusts their position twice a second. Keck I saw first light in 1993. Like nearly all modern, large optical telescopes, the Keck telescopes are alt-azimuth. Fun fact: to keep the telescope at an optimal working temperature – no cool-down period during the evening – giant aircons work flat out during the day.

The Keck telescopes are on the summit of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, where the air is nearly always clear, dry, and not turbulent (the seeing is, routinely, below 1″); an ideal site for not only optical astronomy, but also infrared.

The second Keck telescope – Keck II – saw first light in 1996, but its real day of glory came in 1999, when one of the first adaptive optics (AO) systems was installed on it (the first installed on a large telescope).

2004 saw another first for the Keck telescope – a laser guide star AO system, which gives the Keck telescopes a resolution at least as good as the Hubble Space Telescope’s (in the infrared)!

And in 2005 the two Keck telescopes operated together, as an interferometer; yet another first.

To learn more, I suggest that you start with the official W.M. Keck Observatory website! Revolution in Telescope Design Debuts at Keck After Birth Here is a 1992 Lawrence Berkeley Lab article which captures some the excitement of those early days; and The Keck Telescopes viewed from the North puts the Keck telescopes in the Mauna Kea context.

Universe Today has covered the Keck telescopes, many times, in many different ways; for example, Keck Uses Adaptive Optics for the First Time, Binary Icy Asteroid in Jupiter’s Orbit, and New Technique Finds Farthest Supernovae.

Astronomy Cast has a couple of episodes on the Keck telescopes; check them out! The Rise of the Supertelescopes, and Adaptive Optics.