Opening a New Window into the Universe

A new generation of adaptive optics technology could transform infra-red and optical astronomy and bring fundamental new insights into the nature of massive black holes, dark matter, and extrasolar planets.

Andrea Ghez, University of California at Los Angeles

Photo credit: Ethan Tweedie

Earthbound telescopes see stars and other astronomical objects through a haze. The light waves they gather have traveled unimpeded through space for billions of years, only to be distorted in the last millisecond by the Earth’s turbulent atmosphere. That distortion is now even more important, because scientists are preparing to build the three largest telescopes on Earth, each with light-gathering surfaces of 20 to 40 meters across. In principle, the larger the telescope, the higher the resolution of astronomical images. In practice, the distorting veil of the atmosphere has always limited what can be achieved. Now, a rapidly evolving technology known as adaptive optics can strip away the veil and enable astronomers to take full advantage of current and future large telescopes. Indeed, adaptive optics is already making possible important discoveries and observations, including: the discovery of the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, proving that such exotic objects exist; the first images and spectra of planetary systems around other stars; and high-resolution observations of galaxies forming in the early universe.

But adaptive optics has still not delivered its full scientific potential. Existing technology can only partially correct the atmospheric blurring and cannot provide any correction for large portions of the sky or for the majority of the objects astronomers want to study. Fully exploiting the potential of adaptive optics by taking the technology to the next level would boost research on a number of critical astrophysical questions, including:

  • What are supermassive black holes and how do they work? Adaptive Optics has opened a new approach to studying supermassive black holes—through stellar orbits—but only the brightest stars, the tip of the iceberg, have been measured. With next generation adaptive optics we will be able to take the next leap forward in our studies of these poorly understood objects that are believed to play a central role in our universe. The space near the massive black hole at the center of our galaxy, for example, is a place where gravitational forces reach extreme levels. Does Einstein’s general theory of relativity still apply, or do exotic new physical phenomena emerge? How do these massive black holes shape their host galaxies? Early adaptive optics observations at the galactic center have revealed a completely unexpected environment, challenging our notions on the relationship between black holes and galaxies, which are a fundamental ingredient to cosmological models. One way to answer both of these questions is to find and measure the orbits of faint stars that are closer to the black hole than any known so far—which advanced adaptive optics would make possible.
  • The first direct images of an extrasolar planet—obtained with adaptive optics—has raised fundamental questions about star and planet formation. How exactly do new stars form and then spawn planets from the gaseous disks around them? New, higher resolution images of this process—with undistorted data from larger telescopes—can help answer this question, and may also reveal how our solar system was formed. In addition, although only a handful of newborn planets has been found to date, advanced adaptive optics will enable astronomers to find many more and help determine their composition and life-bearing potential.
  • Dark matter and dark energy are still completely mysterious, even though they constitute most of the universe. But detailed observations using adaptive optics of how light from distant galaxies is refracted around a closer galaxy to form multiple images—so called gravitational lensing— can help scientists understand how dark matter and dark energy change space itself.

In addition, it is clear that telescopes endowed with advanced adaptive optics technology will inspire a whole generation of astronomers to design and carry out a multitude of innovative research projects that were previously not possible.

The technology of adaptive optics is quite simple, in principle. First, astronomers measure the instantaneous turbulence in the atmosphere by looking at the light from a bright, known object—a “guide star”—or by using a laser tuned to make sodium atoms in a thin layer of the upper atmosphere fluoresce and glow as an artificial guide star. The turbulence measurements are used to compute (also instantaneously) the distortions that turbulence creates in the incoming light waves. Those distortions are then counteracted by rapidly morphing the surface of a deformable mirror in the telescope. Measurements and corrections are done hundreds of times per second—which is only possible with powerful computing capability, sophisticated opto-mechanical linkages, and a real-time control system. We know how to build these tools.

Of course, telescopes that operate above the atmosphere, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, don’t need adaptive optics. But both the Hubble and the coming next generation of space telescopes are small compared to the enormous earth-based telescopes now being planned. And for the kinds of research that require very high resolution, such as the topics mentioned above and many others, there is really no substitute for the light-gathering power of telescopes too huge to be put into space.

The next generation of adaptive optics could effectively take even the largest earth-bound telescopes “above the atmosphere” and make them truly amazing new windows on the universe. We know how to create this capability— the technology is in hand and the teams are assembled. It is time to put advanced adaptive optics to work.