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Untwinkling the Stars: Improving our view of the universe with laser guide star adaptive optics

Optical Society of Northern California

20 September 2011
George E. Pake Auditorium, PARC, 3333 Coyote Hill Road, Palo Alto, California



The Earth's turbulent atmosphere blurs the images acquired with ground-based telescopes.  In principle, larger telescopes have smaller diffraction limits and can resolve the finer details of astronomical objects.  In practice, while a large telescope does reap the benefits of collecting more light, it can resolve details no better than a backyard 8-inch diameter telescope.  Placing telescopes at high altitude, such as on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, can reduce the atmospheric blurring, but does not eliminate it. One solution is to put telescopes in space, but there are limits to how large space telescopes can be and how many can be launched.  To take full advantage of large ground-based telescopes, one must use another approach.  Adaptive optics is a technology where the atmospheric turbulence is measured using either a natural star or a laser beacon and corrected in real time to "untwinkle" the stars and generate diffraction limited images.

Elinor will discuss how adaptive optics is implemented at Lick Observatory and the new technologies that they are testing for the next generation of adaptive optics instruments and giant telescopes.


Elinor Gates is a Scientist at the Lick Observatory, Mount Hamilton. She did her undergraduate work at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, majoring in math and astrophysics.  She went to the University of New Mexico and got her Ph.D. in physics/astrophysics in 1998.  While attending UNM she worked at the Air Force Phillips Laboratory, gaining experience in adaptive optics and wavefront sensing techniques. She has been a staff astronomer at Lick Observatory since 1998, where she was hired to convert the adaptive optics test-bed experiment at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to a facility astronomer-used instrument on the 3-m telescope at Lick Observatory.  Elinor also works on maintaining and improving existing instruments for Lick's telescopes as well as designing and testing new instruments. Her current research interests are in measuring the masses of black holes at the centers of active galaxies.