Ground-based astronomy is packed with challenges. It all begins with the creation of a sizable telescope. Then one must ensure that there’s no light pollution coming from long distances, the moon included. To keep the view unobstructed, the view to the sky must be crystal-clear. Last but not least, do not overlook the atmosphere itself as it might become a fierce combatant.
Adaptive optics to the rescue
Since our atmosphere is thought to be an unstable entity – with falling and rising gases – it’s fair to assume that the lowest layers, which are also the thickest, are also the most disruptive. That’s why telescopes are all built high altitudes. For many decades, we’ve assumed that the only way of getting over this way of launch a telescope into space was to climb as high as possible, where there’s little atmosphere amount. Fortunately, technology emerged and right now, we use adaptive optics to make it work.
The process is called adaptive optics because it calls for more than a one-time adaptation. In layman’s terms, it is a process that uses mirror to adapt to the changes happening in the atmospheric spin. Scientists even created a groundbreaking system that adapts to the atmosphere: they’ve created an artificial star using sodium lasers.
Adaptive optics technology
The most advanced form of adaptive optics technology was used for the first time in 2012. It was meant to outperform Hubble. In spite of being extremely successful, there’s still room for improvement. For the technology to take off and become meaningful to astronomers, we would have to build a ground-based telescope somewhere in space, and have it placed on the Moon. At Paranal Observatory, which partnered with ESO (European Southern Observatory), currently features the most pioneering improvements in the area of adaptive optics.
Rather than create a single star, experts made four so that they can better adapt to the image’s field of view. These artificial stars are moved around independently around the sky, thus enabling adaptive strategies employed to be independently optimized. For telescope technology, this might have a tremendous success. The technology promises to make ground-based telescope images look better across a field of view.
When more than one telescope is used, the turbulence happening in the atmosphere is mapped in greater detail, thus boosting image quality over an expanded field-of-view. For the method to work, we are fortunate enough to have a layered atmosphere. Certain elements are attentively isolated, and can only be located at specific altitudes. One of these elements is sodium – which is very rare – which is found in concentrated amounts in a 100-km layer. If a sodium laser is fired into thin air, it will stimulate atoms found at that exact altitude. Then they randomly de-stimulate generating an artificial light source that is used to craft an artificial star.
Laser technology – a key piece of the puzzle in astronomy
Using lasers in adaptive optics can have a tremendous in the future of astronomy. It will also be a successful collaboration between private industries and government-funded projects. The future seems promising, too. Soon enough we’ll see telescopes up to 39 meters scheduled to go online, including ESO’s E-ELT, which has 39 meters. Laser manufacturers will greatly benefit from this development, although we might have to wait a couple of years for prototypes to actually work in real life.
It’s the perfect time to assume that someday telescopes with built-in adaptive optics technology will surpass space-based telescopes in terms of image quality. Laser have impacted many industries. We used them to mark car pieces and medical equipment, but also to perform surgeries that were once invasive and extremely difficult.
Commercial laser marking has gone mainstream. Companies want to be able to track their products, and the most precise technology they can use to do it is laser technology. We have high hopes for the future of lasers. Ground-based astronomy has already been impacted, which means we’re several years away from witnessing even more discoveries. As opposite to conventional marking tool, lasers are precise, and the etch engraved doesn’t fade away in time. The shape of the material is not affected in any way, thus making lasers extremely reliable and thorough.