eso9527 — Organisation Release
The Coming of Age of Adaptive Optics
How Ground-Based Astronomers Beat the Atmosphere
23 October 1995
Adaptive Optics (AO) is the new "wonder-weapon" in ground-based astronomy. By means of advanced electro-optical devices at their telescopes, astronomers are now able to ``neutralize'' the image-smearing turbulence of the terrestrial atmosphere (seen by the unaided eye as the twinkling of stars) so that much sharper images can be obtained than before. In practice, this is done with computer-controlled, flexible mirrors which refocus the blurred images up to 100 times per second, i.e. at a rate that is faster than the changes in the atmospheric turbulence.
This means that finer details in astronomical objects can be studied and also - because of the improved concentration of light in the telescope's focal plane - that fainter objects can be observed. At the moment, Adaptive Optics work best in the infrared part of spectrum, but at some later time it may also significantly improve observations at the shorter wavelengths of visible light.
The many-sided aspects of this new technology and its impact on astronomical instrumentation was the subject of a recent AO conference  with over 150 participants from about 30 countries, presenting a total of more than 100 papers.
The Introduction of AO Techniques into Astronomy
The scope of this meeting was the design, fabrication and testing of AO systems, characterisation of the sources of atmospheric disturbance, modelling of compensation systems, individual components, astronomical AO results, non-astronomical applications, laser guide star systems, non-linear optical phase conjugation, performance evaluation, and other areas of this wide and complex field, in which front-line science and high technology come together in a new and powerful symbiosis.
One of the specific goals of the meeting was to develop contacts between AO scientists and engineers in the western world and their colleagues in Russia and Asia. For the first time at a conference of this type, nine Russian scientists were invited to give presentations; this was made possible by a grant from the European Office of Aerospace Research and Development (EOARD)
Following the declassification of much AO technology and the introduction of AO into regular astronomical research several years ago, first at ESO with the "Come-On" system at La Silla , the fundamental importance of AO to ground-based astronomy has now become widely recognised. Since the last AO meeting that was held in Garching in August 1993, many groups in different countries have been developing such systems and have begun to use them.
As Fritz Merkle (Carl Zeiss, Jena) emphasized during a review talk, there has also been an interesting opening of new commercial and industrial AO applications, such as for high power lasers and for laser communications systems. However, the chief field of AO development and application remains astronomy and the vast majority of papers presented at the conference were concerned, directly or indirectly, with this science.
Towards Scientific and Technological Maturity
According to Martin Cullum (ESO), the organiser of this conference, it is apparent that a certain technological maturity has been reached during the past two years. However, it is also much more widely realised that it is not straightforward to produce good science, even with a high-performance AO system. A detailed characterization of the atmosphere, painstaking system calibrations and a lot of hard work during the astronomical observations and especially at the time of the reduction and interpretation of the voluminous datasets are necessary to obtain reliable results of high quality. Many of the presentations reflected this fact.
From the technical standpoint, highlights of the meeting included the significant progress that was reported in the development of adaptive secondary mirrors for the upgrade of the Multi-Mirror-Telescope (MMT) in Arizona, the initial tests of the laser guide-star AO system installed on the Lick 3-metre telescope in California, as well as the development of an advanced visible-light AO system for satellite reconnaissance and astronomy on Mt. Haleakala, Hawaii.
On the scientific side, an overview of the adaptive optics observations that have been carried out with ESO's Come-On-Plus AO system at the 3.6-metre telescope on La Silla during the first 4 years of operation was given by Pierre Lena (Paris Observatory) and forcefully illustrated the power of adaptive optics techniques in astronomy.
Impressive recent results were also presented by Bernhard Brandl and collaborators (Max-Planck-Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Garching) on the starburst cluster R136, that is located at the centre of the 30 Doradus region in the Large Magellanic Cloud. This was especially interesting, because the scientific results were obtained by combining high-resolution optical images from the Hubble Space Telescope with diffraction-limited infrared images from the Come-On-Plus system.
Without either one of these data sources, the exciting, final results could not have been obtained. They include a very thorough characterization of the stellar types in this extremely young cluster whose age is apparently only a few million years, as well as a detailed description of its dynamical state.
This demonstrates once again that, far from being competitors, ground-based AO facilities and space instruments are highly complementary. This perhaps provides an insight into the direction modern astronomy is developing.
Adaptive Optics at ESO
It is now more than five years since the first AO system, developed in collaboration with institutes in France, was installed at the 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla. Since then, much experience has been gained and the state-of the-art ADONIS/Come-On-Plus AO instrumental constellation is now regularly used by visiting astronomers. It employs a flexible silicon-mirror that is supported by 52 computer-controlled supports. The mirror changes its shape one hundred times per second, allowing to achieve very nearly the theoretical image sharpness in the mid-infrared wavelength region. Closer to the visible spectral region, images have been obtained at wavelength 1.5 microns which are only 0.12 arcseconds wide.
Under the leadership of Norbert Hubin at the ESO Headquarters in Garching, a team of astronomers and engineers is now in the process of designing the Nasmyth Adaptive Optics System (NAOS) that will be used at the Very Large Telescope (VLT). It will use a mirror with about 250 supports. Following testing in the second half of 1998, it is expected that the first NAOS device will be mounted on the first 8.2-metre VLT unit telescope in early 1999.
 The Topical Meeting on Adaptive Optics sponsored by the Optical Society of America and the European Southern Observatory was held on the premises of the Munich Technical University in Garching, on October 2--6, 1995.