‘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

Telescope’s Laser Pointer Clarifies Blurry Skies

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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