Aug. 12, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 20

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    [ed kibblewhite]

    Through the Chicago Adaptive Optics System Laboratory, the University will play a key role as one of the 27 partner institutions participating in the Adaptive Optics Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Chicago scientists will develop and operate the Chicago lab, which will be led by Edward Kibblewhite (above), Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

    University will play major role in Adaptive Optics Center

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    The University is part of a new $20 million project that promises to make ground-based telescopes as powerful as orbiting observatories while also dramatically improving the diagnosis and treatment of eye disease and vision correction techniques.

    The project proposal, approved today by the National Science Foundation’s governing body, the National Science Board, establishes a Center for Adaptive Optics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The multi-institutional center, which expects to begin operation in November, is one of five science and technology centers approved for the NSF this year.

    The University will play a key role as one of UCSC’s 27 partner institutions through the Chicago Adaptive Optics System Laboratory, which will be led by Edward Kibblewhite, Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics, and in related Midwestern education and outreach through the Space Explorers Program, led by Randall Landsberg, Director of Education and Outreach for the University’s Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica.

    “Ed Kibblewhite is one of the pioneers in adaptive optics,” said Michael Turner, the Bruce and Diana Rauner Distinguished Service Professor and Chairman of Astronomy & Astrophysics at Chicago. “This is the next big technical advance in astronomy. By correcting for the blurring effect of the Earth’s atmosphere, adaptive optics will allow any Earth-based telescope to see with the clarity of the Hubble Space Telescope.”

    Adaptive optics will enable ground-based telescopes to resolve objects 10 times smaller than is possible today, Kibblewhite said. Earth’s atmosphere distorts light from stars and galaxies in much the same way shimmering heat from a road distorts distant objects. This distortion has limited the resolution attained by astronomers for the last 300 years.

    But adaptive optics techniques can remove the effect, permitting astronomers to observe everything from the weather on Neptune to exploding stars at the most distant reaches of the universe. The technique has more earthly applications as well.

    “The human eye isn’t perfect,” Kibblewhite said. “It has distortions. It turns out that you can apply adaptive optics techniques to many areas in vision.” Like the Earth’s turbulent atmosphere, the eye distorts light. “If you use adaptive optics, you can correct for the aberration of the eye,” he said.

    Working with the University and Argonne National Laboratory’s new Computation Institute, Kibblewhite will attempt to develop the computational methods needed to make low-cost adaptive optics devices practical for clinical vision researchers, ophthalmologists and optometrists. The University of Rochester’s David Williams will lead the effort to apply adaptive optics to vision science. “Because of our experience with computers and mathematics, we may be able to make the hardware simpler and cheaper,” Kibblewhite said.

    Adaptive optics would improve Earth-based telescopes because the atmosphere constantly distorts incoming starlight. A telescope fitted with adaptive optics measures the distortion using a bright star for reference, then a high-speed computer commands a deformable mirror to bend to adjust for the distortion.

    To observe parts of the sky that are without a bright star to serve as a reference, astronomers would simply create their own artificial reference stars with a laser beacon. The laser excites a layer of sodium atoms approximately 50 miles above the Earth’s surface, creating a yellow light in much the same way electricity excites the sodium atoms in a streetlight.

    “If you have a very carefully tuned laser, you can scatter off these atoms and form an artificial star. It’s very difficult to make these lasers because they require special properties,” Kibblewhite said.

    Kibblewhite began developing such a laser in 1989 with $4.8 million in NSF grants. He plans to install the laser next year on the 3.5-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. The system would give the telescope the same resolution in infrared wavelengths as the Hubble Space Telescope, he said.

    As part of the Center for Adaptive Optics, Kibblewhite will attempt to develop a versatile laser for use by any observatory. He also will attempt to develop the mathematical techniques needed to use adaptive optics on visible-light telescopes and for wider fields of view.

    Meanwhile, the Center for Adaptive Optics will work with the University’s Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica on education and outreach. “We will work with minority precollege students through the Space Explorers Program, a multiyear commitment that aims to increase interest and abilities in math and science of inner-city, African-American high school students,” said Landsberg. In collaboration with partners at Adler Planetarium in Chicago and Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisc., CARA will develop precollege curricula and teacher-enhancement workshops in optics.

    More information about adaptive optics at the University is available by visiting the Web site at http://astro.uchicago.edu/chaos/chaos.html or the UC Santa Cruz Center for Adaptive Optics home page at http://www.ucolick.org/~cfao.

    Center for Adaptive Optics at UC Santa Cruz, List of Participating Institutions

    The academic partner institutions participating in the work of the Center for Adaptive Optics at the University of California at Santa Cruz are:

    California Institute of Technology

    Carthage College

    Indiana University, School of Optometry

    University of California, Berkeley

    University of California, Irvine

    University of California, Los Angeles

    University of California, San Diego

    University of Chicago

    University of Houston, College of Optometry

    University of Rochester, Center for Visual Science, Institute of Optics