The University of Chicago News Office
July 29, 1999 Press Contact: Steve Koppes
(773) 702-8366

New Adaptive Optics Center aims to improve telescopes, human eyesight

The University of Chicago is part of a new, $20 million project that promises to make ground-based telescopes as powerful as orbiting observatories while dramatically improving the diagnosis and treatment of eye disease and vision correction techniques.

The project proposal, approved today by the National Science Foundation’s governing body, the National Science Board, establishes a Center for Adaptive Optics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The multi-institutional center, which expects to begin operation in November, is one of five Science and Technology Centers approved for the NSF this year. NSF program guidelines allow for financial commitments of up to $20 million over five years for each center, but the final awards under these cooperative agreements are subject to negotiations between NSF and the lead institutions.

“In astronomy, our needs are for increasingly complex and sophisticated systems, whereas in vision science, the emphasis is likely to be on miniaturization and creating more human-friendly systems for use in health care,” said Jerry Nelson, director of the Center for Adaptive Optics and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC.

The University of Chicago will play a key role as one of UCSC’s 27 partner institutions in the center both through the Chicago Adaptive Optics System Laboratory, led by Edward Kibblewhite, Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics, and in related Midwestern education and outreach through the Space Explorers Program.

“This is the next big technical advance in astronomy,” said Michael Turner, the Bruce and Diana Rauner Distinguished Service Professor and Chairman of Astronomy & Astrophysics at Chicago. “By correcting for the blurring effect of the Earth’s atmosphere, adaptive optics will allow any Earth-based telescope to see with the clarity of the Hubble Space Telescope. Ed Kibblewhite is one of the pioneers in this field.”

Adaptive optics will enable ground-based telescopes to resolve objects 10 times smaller than is possible today, Kibblewhite said. Earth’s atmosphere distorts light from stars and galaxies in much the same way that shimmering heat from a road distorts distant objects. “This distortion has limited the resolution attained by astronomers for the last 300 years,” he said.

But the effect can be removed by adaptive optics techniques, permitting astronomers to observe everything from the weather on Neptune to exploding stars at the most distant reaches of the universe. The technique has more earthly applications as well.

“The human eye isn’t perfect,” Kibblewhite said. “It has distortions. It turns out that you can apply adaptive optics techniques to many areas in vision.” Beaming a laser into the eye is similar to shooting it through the Earth’s turbulent atmosphere. “The eye distorts your laser beam. If you use adaptive optics, you can correct for the aberration of the eye,” he said.

Working with a University of Chicago computer scientist, Kibblewhite will attempt to develop the computational methods needed to make low-cost adaptive optics devices practical for clinical vision researchers, ophthalmologists and optometrists.

The University of Rochester’s David Williams will lead the effort to apply adaptive optics to vision science. “But because of our experience with computers and mathematics, we may be able to make the hardware simpler and cheaper,” Kibblewhite said.

Adaptive optics would improve Earth-based telescopes because the atmosphere constantly distorts incoming starlight. A telescope fitted with adaptive optics measures the distortion using a bright star for reference, then a high-speed computer commands a deformable mirror to bend to adjust for the distortion.

To observe parts of the sky where there is no bright star to serve as a reference, astronomers would simply create their own artificial reference stars with a laser beacon. The laser excites a layer of sodium atoms approximately 50 miles above the Earth’s surface, creating a yellow light in much the same way as electricity excites the sodium atoms in a streetlight.

“If you have a very carefully tuned laser, you can scatter off these atoms and form an artificial star. It’s very difficult to make these lasers because they have to have special properties,” Kibblewhite said.

Kibblewhite has been developing such a laser since 1989 with $4.8 million in NSF grants. He plans to install the laser next year on the 3.5-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. The system would give the telescope the same resolution in infrared wavelengths as the Hubble Space Telescope, he said.

As part of the Center for Adaptive Optics, Kibblewhite will attempt to develop the laser so that it can be used by any observatory. He also will attempt to develop the mathematical techniques needed to use adaptive optics on visible-light telescopes and for wider fields of view.

Meanwhile, the education and outreach component of the Center for Adaptive Optics will be supported by the University of Chicago’s Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica.

“We will work with minority precollege students through the Space Explorers Program, a multiyear commitment that aims to increase interest and abilities in math and science of inner-city African- American high school students,” said Randall Landsberg, CARA’s education and outreach Director. In collaboration with partners at Adler Planetarium in Chicago and Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisc., CARA will develop precollege curricula and teacher enhancement workshops in optics.

For more information about adaptive optics at the University of Chicago, see Or consult the UC Santa Cruz Center for Adaptive Optics home page at

Center for Adaptive Optics at UC Santa Cruz, List of Participating Institutions

    Academic Partner Institutions:
  • California Institute of Technology
  • Carthage College
  • Indiana University, School of Optometry
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of California, Irvine
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, San Diego
  • University of Chicago
  • University of Houston, College of Optometry
  • University of Rochester, Center for Visual Science, Institute of Optics
    National Laboratories and Observatories:
  • Air Force Research Laboratory
  • Gemini Observatory
  • Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA/CalTech)
  • W. M. Keck Observatory
  • Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
  • National Optical Astronomy Observatory
  • National Solar Observatory
  • Space Telescope Science Institute
    Industry Partners:
  • Bausch and Lomb
  • ERIM International
  • Lockheed-Martin Missiles and Space Corporation
  • Lucent Technologies
  • MEMS Optical
  • Rockwell Science Center
    International Collaborators:
  • Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope
  • European Union TMR Network and Centre de Recherche Astronomique de Lyon (France)National
  • Research Council of Canada
Last modified at 03:51 PM CST on Wednesday, June 14, 2000.

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