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What is Adaptive Optics?

For more detailed information about AO, see Claire Max's ASTRO289C page.

Adaptive Optics refers to optical systems which adapt to compensate for optical effects introduced by the medium between the object and its image.

Under ideal circumstances, the resolution of an optical system is limited by the diffraction of light waves. This so-called "diffraction limit" is generally described by the following angle (in radians) calculated using the light's wavelength and optical system's pupil diameter:

equation

where the angle is given in radians. Thus, the fully-dilated human eye should be able to separate objects as close as 0.3 arcmin in visible light, and the Keck Telescope (10-m) should be able to resolve objects as close as 0.013 arcsec.

In practice, these limits are never achieved. Due to imperfections in the cornea and lens of the eye, the practical limit to resolution only about 1 arcmin. To turn the problem around, scientists wishing to study the retina of the eye can only see details about 5 (?) microns in size. In astronomy, the turbulent atmosphere blurs images to a size of 0.5 to 1 arcsec even at the best sites.

Adaptive optics (AO) provides a means of compensating for these effects, leading to appreciably sharper images sometimes approaching the theoretical diffraction limit. With sharper images comes an additional gain in contrast -- for astronomy, where light levels are often very low, this means fainter objects can be detected and studied.

Next page: Why Adaptive Optics?

 

 



























Last Modified: Jan 22, 2013 
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