Hold on to your butts, space junkies. After more than twenty years of development, an international team of astronomers has unveiled a new telescope optics system that produces higher resolution images of space than anything else on the planet. Or off the planet, for that matter – this thing records visible-light images with more than twice the sharpness of those captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Above: A close-up of the Orion nebula's central region – the photographic subject of the new optic system's first images (NB: this image ≠ the high-res photo you're looking for – those are further down the page) // Photo: Adam Block/UA SkyCenter.

“It was very exciting to see this new camera make the night sky look sharper than has ever before been possible” said Laird Close of the University of Arizona, the project’s principal scientist, in a statement. “We, for the first time, can make deep images that resolve objects just 0.02 arcseconds across — this is a very small angle — it is like resolving the width of a dime seen from 100 miles away, or like resolving a convoy of three school busses driving together on the surface of the Moon.”


Hubble has long been the untouchable go-to telescope for imaging space in visible light. The reason? It's in space. Even the most powerful ground-based telescopes on Earth (which tend to be bigger than the ones we put off-planet) must contend with interference from our atmosphere – a sort of turbulence that has a blurring effect on images. The effect is the same reason stars appear to twinkle when we stare up at the night sky.

To overcome this atmospheric interference, astronomers rely on a technique known as Adaptive Optics (AO). AO has been around for decades, and is used on many of the world's most well-known ground-based telescopes, but Close's team has improved the technique's effectiveness immensely. Their new AO system takes a thin, curved-glass mirror (just 1/16th of an inch thin!) measuring 2.8-meters across and floats it on a magnetic field 30-feet above the 21-foot-diameter primary mirror of the Magellan telescope. This floating Adaptive Secondary Mirror (ASM) can vibrate, changing its shape at close to 600 points across its surface, at a rate of 1,000 times per second, thereby counteracting the blurring effects of the atmosphere.

MagAO's ASM mounted above the Magellan Telescope's Primary Mirror (housed within the blue mirror cell) // Photo Credit: Yuri Beletsky, Las Campanas Observatory.

"As a result, we can see the visible sky more clearly than ever before," Close said. "It's almost like having a telescope with a 21-foot mirror in space."

The team calls its new AO system "Magellan Adaptive Optics," or MagAO for short, and the optical apparatus is already making breakthroughs.

Photo credit Laird Close, University of Arizona.

Consider, for example, these three images of Theta 1 Ori C1 and Theta 1 Ori C2. While astronomers have known for some time that the stars comprise a binary pair, they are so close to one another that they have never been able to resolve them independently, on account of the blurring effect of atmospheric interference. But when Close's team flipped the switch on MagAO, the atmosphere's effects were eliminated and the two stars popped into clear and unambiguous view.


"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."

Photo credits: Laird Close and Ya-Lin Wu; NASA, C.R. O'Dell and S.K. Wong

The above mosaic of the Orion nebula gives more examples of what the MagAO can do. The background images were taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, and show the Trapezium cluster of young stars, still forming, in pink. The insets, captured with the MagAO, highlight the new instrument's unprecedented resolving power.


The results of these and other investigations utilizing the MagAO's unprecedented imaging abilities – including a study on planet formation – have just been published in The Astrophysical Journal. Check them out, free of charge, over on arXiv: Here, here and here. For coverage of the planetary formation study, visit UANews.

[MagAO, UANews]