Astronomers at the University of Arizona, the Arcetri Observatory near Florence, Italy, and the Carnegie Observatory have worked together to create a new camera for the purpose of capturing stunning images of the night sky. For more than twenty years the team has been working on the technology, which allows scientists and astronomers to view objects in the sky in never-before-seen clarity. The new cameras have been deployed to the Magellan 6.5-meter telescope in Chile, a press release from the University of Arizona announces. According to astronomers, the camera is so sharp that you would be able to view a baseball diamond on the moon.
“It was very exciting to see this new camera make the night sky look sharper than has ever before been possible,” said University of Arizona astronomy professor Laird Close, the project’s main scientist. “We can, for the first time, make long-exposure images that resolve objects just 0.02 arcseconds across – the equivalent of a dime viewed from more than a hundred miles away. At that resolution, you could see a baseball diamond on the moon.”
The camera utilizes a telescope mirror that vibrates a thousand times per second in order to negate atmospheric flickering and thus capture clearer, sharper images.
“As we move towards shorter wavelengths, image sharpness improves,” noted Jared Males, a NASA Sagan Fellow at the University of Arizona’s Department of Astronomy.
Previously, large telescopes utilized infrared light to gain sharper images of the night sky. However, the new camera is able to take photos that are twice as sharp, and it can do it in the visible light spectrum. The camera is also assisted by the 21-foot diameter of the Magellan telescope mirror.
“As a result, we can see the visible sky more clearly than ever before,” Close posited. “It’s almost like having a telescope with a 21-foot mirror in space.”
Atmospheric turbulence plagues Earth-based telescopes because it causes images to blur. The team of scientists behind the new camera set out to create a camera that would counteract this effect in order to generate clearer images. Before the new camera, the Hubble Telescope was the leader in images because of its location in space and its ability to be unaffected by the turbulence that impacts ground-based telescopes. The team developed a powerful optics system that floats a thin, curved-glass mirror on a magnetic field thirty feet above the telescope’s primary mirror.
The aptly named Adaptive Secondary Mirror (ASM) is what vibrates in order to counteract the effect of the turbulence. The new camera has already proven its worth by capturing a simple image. Theta 1 Ori C, a binary star pair, has previously been thought to be just one star, and even after it was known to be two stars, scientists were unable to capture a photograph of the two stars individually because they are too close together.
“I have been imaging Theta 1 Ori C for more than 20 years and never could directly see that it was in fact two stars,” Close said. “But as soon as we turned on the MagAO system it was beautifully split into two stars.”
The Adaptive Secondary Mirror proved its worth quickly, snapping a photo of the stars clearly separated, showing just useful it is as a tool for exploring the sky.
The study’s findings are described in greater detail in the Astrophysical Journal.