$1M Grant to Sharpen Vision at Maunakea Telescope

July 6, 2017, 8:25 AM HST · Updated July 7, 10:36 AM
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The University of Hawaiʻi’s 2.2 meter telescope atop Maunakea on Hawaiʻi Island will soon be producing images nearly as sharp as those from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Robo-AO operating on the Kitt Peak 2.1-meter Telescope. Courtesy image: University of Hawaiʻi.

Astronomer Christoph Baranec, at the UH Institute for Astronomy, has been awarded a nearly $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to build the autonomous adaptive optics system.

Construction of the new optics system called Robo-AO-2 starts in September, and it will be operational in two years.

The new instrument is based on the prototype Robo-AO system developed by Baranec at Caltech, and later used with telescopes at the Palomar Observatory and Kitt Peak National Observatory. It has been an indispensable tool in confirming or revising the thousands of exoplanet discoveries made by NASA’s Kepler mission, and in measuring the rates at which different types of stars are born.

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Scientists say the advancement ushers in a new age of high-resolution science in astronomy.

All Robo-AO systems use an invisible ultraviolet laser to create an artificial guide star in the sky to measure the blurring caused by Earth’s atmosphere. By measuring how the atmosphere affects this artificial star, a flexible mirror in the system can be deformed to remove its blurring effects. Because light from the laser and celestial objects pass through the same atmosphere, and both are reflected off of the deformable mirror, images of celestial objects are similarly de-blurred, leading to very sharp images limited only by the same laws of physics that limit the sharpness of space-based telescopes.

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