Seeing clearly with adaptive optics

An optical technique that has been largely developed by astronomers is now being applied in manufacturing, medicine, communications and clean energy generation.

Most of you will be familiar with the extraordinary images of distant galaxies as revealed by the Hubble Space Telescope. [If not, check out this link for more information: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble/story/index.html].

The main reason they are so good is that they are not blurred by the movement of the Earth’s atmosphere, which, until recently, has affected how telescopes on the ground – even with their huge mirrors – view space. Now, however, observatories on the ground are also able to achieve their full imaging potential using what is known as ‘adaptive optics’ (AO).

This clever technology is able to compensate for the movements in the Earth’s atmosphere which occurs due to changes in its temperature.

Conventional AO systems consist of three parts:

1. A sensor to measure the movements of the atmosphere

2. A corrector (to correct for these movements)

3. A linking control system

AO was first proposed for telescopes by the astronomer Horace Babcock in 1953. Following its development by the military in the 1980s, astronomers quickly saw the potential of AO. Since then, research groups in the UK, for example at the University of Durham, have made major technical improvements in the performance of AO.

For more information on AO check out this article on the BBC News website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12500626

Today, almost all major ground-based observatories apply AO systems for routine science observations, and in certain cases can obtain images equivalent to those that would be obtained from a similar (but much more expensive) telescope in Earth orbit.

During the past decade, there has been a significant growth in technology spin-offs from AO, particularly in industrial and medical areas. These applications range from lasers and optoelectronics to biological microscopy and medical imaging. Applications in laser-driven nuclear fusion – a future option for energy generation – are now also being actively explored.

In the medical field, a few AO-based systems are now licensed for guiding customised laser eye surgery. AO also provides a valuable tool for enhancing images of the retina for improved diagnosis of diseases such as glaucoma and diabetes.

Still reading? Take some time to digest what you have read, and consider whether this is an area that you could see yourself working in. You have the power to take this technology even further in the future! If you think you have got what it takes to work in this area, you could be:

  • An astronomer – using a wide range of scientific techniques to study the universe
  • A physicist – carrying out research which could go towards the development of all kinds of technology from communications and energy efficiency to space and satellites
  • An aerospace engineer – involved in the development of spacecraft and the technology used in space expeditions
  • An aerospace engineering technician – designing and building all types of civil and military aircraft, as well as weapons systems and satellites
  • An electronics engineer – solving problems and coming up with solutions for equipment used in space satellites and other equipment
  • computer technician – installing, maintaining and repairing the computer systems and equipment involved in space exploration and observation
  • meteorologist – studying the earth’s atmosphere, climate and weather in order to help with developments in AO technology
  • model maker – designing and making 3D scale models (or mock-ups) to show how new telescopes or satellites will look, or to test new designs

 

A version of this article was originally cited in ‘A new view of the universe’ published by the Royal Astronomical Society.