Adaptive optics
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29-12-2010, 02:56 PM

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Adaptive optics is a new technology which is being used now a days in ground based telescopes to remove atmospheric tremor and thus provide a clearer and brighter view of stars seen through ground based telescopes. Without using this system, the images obtained through telescopes on earth are seen to be blurred, which is caused by the turbulent mixing of air at different temperatures.
Adaptive optics in effect removes this atmospheric tremor. It brings together the latest in computers, material science, electronic detectors, and digital control in a system that warps and bends a mirror in a telescope to counteract, in real time the atmospheric distortion.

The advance promises to let ground based telescopes reach their fundamental limits of resolution and sensitivity, out performing space based telescopes and ushering in a new era in optical astronomy. Finally, with this technology, it will be possible to see gas-giant type planets in nearby solar systems in our Milky Way galaxy. Although about 100 such planets have been discovered in recent years, all were detected through indirect means, such as the gravitational effects on their parent stars, and none has actually been detected directly.


Adaptive optics refers to optical systems which adapt to compensate for optical effects introduced by the medium between the object and its image. In theory a telescope’s resolving power is directly proportional to the diameter of its primary light gathering lens or mirror. But in practice , images from large telescopes are blurred to a resolution no better than would be seen through a 20 cm aperture with no atmospheric blurring. At scientifically important infrared wavelengths, atmospheric turbulence degrades resolution by at least a factor of 10.

Space telescopes avoid problems with the atmosphere, but they are enormously expensive and the limit on aperture size of telescopes is quite restrictive. The Hubble Space telescope, the world’s largest telescope in orbit , has an aperture of only 2.4 metres, while terrestrial telescopes can have a diameter four times that size.

In order to avoid atmospheric aberration, one can turn to larger telescopes on the ground, which have been equipped with ADAPTIVE OPTICS system. With this setup, the image quality that can be recovered is close to that the telescope would deliver if it were in space. Images obtained from the adaptive optics system on the 6.5 m diameter telescope, called the MMT telescope illustrate the impact.

Two images of a small region in the vicinity of the middle star in Orion’s sword- a cluster of young stars were taken. The images show a close grouping of four stars. In the conventional blurred image, its not possible to make out more than two stars. With the adaptive optics on the other hand, sharpness improves by a factor of 13, making it clear that the fainter star is ,in fact a binary – two stars close together –and a fourth fainter member of the group appears that was previously undetected.


As light from a distant star reaches the earth, it is made up of plane waves that , in the last microseconds of their journey to the telescope, become badly distorted by atmospheric turbulence. An adaptive optics system reflattens the wave fronts by reflecting the light of a deformable mirror whose shape is changed in real time to introduce an equal but opposite distortion.

The information on how to distort the mirror comes from a wave front sensor, an instrument that measures optical aberration imposed by the atmosphere on light from a star. A fast computer converts the signals coming from the wave front sensor into drive signals for the deformable mirror. The whole cycle operates at a never ending cycle of measurement and correction, at typical speeds of 1000 updates per second.

After the light reflects of the deformable mirror, a beam splitter sends part of the light to a camera that will capture the high resolution image produced by the adaptive optics.


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