Keck Next: Next Generation Adaptive Optics

Keck Next: Next Generation Adaptive Optics

For Sharpest Views, Scope The Sky With Quick-Change Mirrors NPR's Joe Palca visited Keck Observatory recently. Listen to the story on Morning Edition:

Keck Next: Next Generation Adaptive Optics

Credit: Heidi B. Hammel and Imke de Pater/WMKO

Before And After: These near-infrared images of Uranus show the planet as seen without adaptive optics (left) and with the technology turned on (right). Adaptive optics show that the fuzzy ring in the left-hand image is actually a series of individual rings. It also reveals a number of small storms in the atmosphere of Uranus (to the right of the ring where it cross the planet).

Keck Next: Next Generation Adaptive Optics

Credit: UCLA Galactic Center Group/WMKO

This pair of images of the galactic center, the rotational center of the Milky Way galaxy, shows how adaptive optics technology can sharpen a telescope's view. The image on the right shows the level of clarity achieved with Keck Obsevatory's current Adaptive Optics systems compared to the image without AO on the left. The position of the supermassive black hole at the very center of the galaxy is marked in the AO image.

History of Adaptive Optics at WMKO:

  • 1996: Keck II first light
  • 1999: Keck II's Natural Guide Star AO system first light
  • 2001: Keck I NGS-AO first light
  • 2003: Keck II LGS AO first light using a 15W dye laser from Lawrence Livermore
  • 2010: Keck I solid state laser delivered
  • 2012: Keck I LGS first science with OSIRIS and a center launch laser system

Keck Observatory’s Adaptive Optics systems are the most technologically advanced in the world, and we have detailed plans to sustain this leadership for decades to come, by implementing strategic upgrades described as Next Generation Adaptive Optics (NGAO).

At its full potential, Keck Observatory's Adaptive Optics (AO) systems will produce images that almost completely eliminate atmospheric turbulence at infrared wavelengths, as well as enable Keck Observatory's AO systems to correct at optical wavelengths for the first time. In addition, NGAO will allow this excellent image clarity to extend to much broader fields of view that are not available to the current adaptive optics systems. NGAO accomplishes this by measuring the atmospheric turbulence throughout the full cylinder of air that the light passes through to reach the telescope, whereas today’s systems correct for turbulence in a cone above the telescope. To achieve this improved coverage, NGAO will have seven laser guide stars, compared to the single laser guide star with the current systems.

A prime area of study for Keck Observatory's NGAO upgrades will be the black hole at the center of our galaxy and its environs. Using adaptive optics on the Keck II telescope, images of unprecedented clarity of the galactic center have already allowed Keck Observatory astronomers to study the rapid motions of hundreds of stars in orbit around the supermassive black hole and establishing its mass of four million times the mass of the Sun. NGAO, with its enhanced ability to trace the motions of stars, will, for the first time, make available one of the Universe's best laboratory to test Einstein’s theory of General Relativity in the strongest gravitational fields known to man. Other areas of research for NGAO will include: observing the formation and evolution of today’s galaxies since the early universe; studying the formation of disks and planets around nearby stars; investigating the origins of our solar system; and measuring the dark matter in our galaxy and beyond.

Keck Observatory is already recognized as one of the finest research institutions in America. Given the scientific gains and its pathfinder technology for future space- and ground-based telescopes, NGAO is nothing less than the reinvention of the telescope and the full realization of Keck Observatory’s promise to bring a deeper understanding and inspiration about the universe and our place in it. 

Click here for NGAO Executive Summary