Revolutionary instrument delivers a sharper universe to astronomers

Jul 02, 2013
These are images from the Gemini Multi-conjugate adaptive optics System (GeMS) System Verification science observations. Credit: Gemini Observatory

A unique new instrument at Gemini South in Chile takes the removal of atmospheric distortions (using adaptive optics technology) to a new level. Today's release of seven ultrasharp, large-field images from the instrument's first science observations demonstrate its remarkable discovery potential.

Astronomers recently got their hands on Gemini Observatory's revolutionary new , called GeMS, "and the data are truly spectacular!" says Robert Blum, Deputy Director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory with funding by the U.S. National Science Foundation. "What we have seen so far signals an incredible capability that leaps ahead of anything in space or on the ground – and it will for some time." Blum is currently using GeMS to study the environments in and around , and his preliminary data, targeting the spectacular cluster identified as RMC 136, are among a set of seven images released today. The remaining six images –– spanning views of violent star-forming regions, to the graceful interaction of distant –– only hint at the diversity of cutting-edge research that GeMS enables.

After more than a decade in development, the system, now in regular use at the Gemini South telescope in Chile, is streaming ultrasharp data to scientists around the world – providing a new level of detail in their studies of the universe. The images made public today show the power of GeMS (derived from the Gemini Multi-conjugate adaptive optics System), which uses a potent combination of multiple lasers and deformable mirrors to remove atmospheric distortions (blurriness) from ground-based images.

Unlike previous AO systems, GeMS uses a technique called "multi-conjugate adaptive optics," which not only captures more of the sky in a single shot (between 10- to 20-times more area of sky imaged in each "picture") but also forms razor-sharp images uniformly across the entire field, from top-to-bottom and edge-to-edge. This makes Gemini's 8-meter mirror 10- to 20-times more efficient, giving astronomers the option to either expose deeper, or explore the universe more effectively with a wider range of filters, which will allow them to pick out subtle yet important structural details never seen before.

"Each image tells a story about the scientific potential of GeMS," says Benoit Neichel who led the GeMS commissioning effort in Chile. According to Neichel, the targets were selected to demonstrate the instrument's diverse "discovery space" while producing striking images that would make astronomers say, "I need that!"

This Orion Nebula region has a long history of adaptive optics imaging at Gemini. A smaller section of the field shown here was first targeted with the Altair system at Gemini North in 2007. Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA

The first data coming from GeMS are already making waves among astronomers across the international Gemini partnership. Tim Davidge, an astronomer at Canada's Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, with funding by the Canadian National Research Council, studies populations of stars within galaxies beyond our Milky Way. His work requires extreme resolution to see individual stars millions of light-years away. "GeMS sets the new cool in ," says Davidge. "It opens up all sorts of exciting science possibilities for Gemini, while also demonstrating technology that is essential for the next generation of ground-based mega-telescopes. With GeMS we are entering a radically new, and awesome, era for ground-based optical astronomy."

Stuart Ryder of the Australian Astronomical Observatory, with funding through the Australian Research Council, whose work requires crisp images of distant galaxies to reveal exploding stars (supernovae), also anticipates the potential of GeMS for his research. But mostly he says he's blown away by the raw technology involved. "I was fortunate enough to witness GeMS/GSAOI in action, and I was awestruck by the sight of the yellow-orange laser beam piercing the clear, moonlit night," says Ryder. "When one considers all the factors that have to work together, from clear skies, to a steady stream of meteors burning up in the upper atmosphere sprinkling enough sodium atoms to be excited by the laser –– it's wonderful to see it all come together."

Explore further: An unprecedented view of two hundred galaxies of the local universe

More information: The new images, shown as a collage, as well as images of the system in operation in Chile, are available as high-resolution downloads at: www.gemini.edu/12020

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Osiris1
3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 02, 2013
How does image fidelity stack up against space telescopes? Inquiring minds would like to know.
Q-Star
2.7 / 5 (7) Jul 02, 2013
How does image fidelity stack up against space telescopes? Inquiring minds would like to know.


It's apples and oranges. Space telescopes are limited by collection area. An Earth based telescope can see farther, and more in much less target time.

Space telescopes are very good at undistorted imaging, but they are smaller, so they have to look longer, and there are fewer of them to do the looking,,,,, so there will always be the need to prioritize or triage what targets they spend their time on.

The two work together each with a certain type of task,,,, each has things it can do better than the other. Both are needed, and neither can be replaced by the other. Unless someone can figure out how to pay for a 12 or 15 meter mirror in space. (And a dozen or so of them.)

I lose sleep anticipating the JWST & the "super" (25-30+ meter) ground based telescopes that are building. What wonders they will bring us.
hemitite
not rated yet Jul 02, 2013
Osiris,

On the Gemini site, there is a kind of muddled comparison of a region of Orion:

http://www.gemini...de/12020

But it looks to me like the Hubble image is mostly in visible light as it is rather dusty, and the Gemini was taken in near ir and so looks a lot cleaner. I don't know why they couldn't have show a more comparable set of images.
hemitite
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 02, 2013
"I lose sleep anticipating the JWST & the "super" (25-30+ meter) ground based telescopes that are building. What wonders they will bring us."

I read a few years ago that the seeing from some mountains in Antarctica can be just as good as it would be from orbit. Maybe they could use a giant dirigible to move the JWST to that sight! Well, one can dream...

Q-Star
2.6 / 5 (5) Jul 02, 2013
I read a few years ago that the seeing from some mountains in Antarctica can be just as good as it would be from orbit.


The seeing is good over Antarctica, but it is also limited in coverage.

Maybe they could use a giant dirigible to move the JWST to that sight! Well, one can dream...


The JWST would fit on medium sized jetliner. An Ariane 5 will carry it into space. That is comparable with the Delta IV Medium.)
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (3) Jul 03, 2013
Space telescopes are very good at undistorted imaging, but they are smaller, so they have to look longer, and there are fewer of them to do the looking,,,,,

There's also the issue of atmospheric absorption. Depending in what part of the spectrum your telescope looks at it may be that Earth based telescopes don't see much whereas space based ones get the benefit of an unhindered view.

Sometimes it's important to look at an object fast (e.g. when a new supernova flares up) - which is always a va banque game for Earth based telescopes (Wrong hemisphere? Wrong side of the globe at the time? Supernova happens on the day side? Any one of these can rule out using an Earth based one)

But of course earth based telescopes can be (a lot) larger for comparable cost. And are a lot easier to maintain and upgrade.

Maybe they could use a giant dirigible

Here's something similar already in the works:
http://en.wikiped...stronomy
hemitite
not rated yet Jul 03, 2013
Qstar,

I messed up majorly above by thinking that the monster ground based telescope you referred to was the "JWST". In the clear light of morning, I can see that JWST is the James Webb Space Telescope. Oh well...
Q-Star
2.6 / 5 (5) Jul 03, 2013
Space telescopes are very good at undistorted imaging, but they are smaller, so they have to look longer, and there are fewer of them to do the looking,,,,,

There's also the issue of atmospheric absorption. Depending in what part of the spectrum your telescope looks at it may be that Earth based telescopes don't see much whereas space based ones get the benefit of an unhindered view.


I was only making the statement considering optical telescopes,, "adaptive optics".

But of course earth based telescopes can be (a lot) larger for comparable cost. And are a lot easier to maintain and upgrade.


And they can afford to look longer, since they aren't as "rare" as space telescopes. If ya have one or two space telescopes as compared to hundreds (or dozen of the supers) there is always a fight for time.

Q-Star
2.6 / 5 (5) Jul 03, 2013
Space telescopes are very good at undistorted imaging, but they are smaller, so they have to look longer, and there are fewer of them to do the looking,,,,,

Sometimes it's important to look at an object fast (e.g. when a new supernova flares up) - which is always a va banque game for Earth based telescopes (Wrong hemisphere? Wrong side of the globe at the time? Supernova happens on the day side? Any one of these can rule out using an Earth based one)


That's not really a problem,,,, If a supernova is detected, it's easy to find several of the super telescopes located located in the correct hemisphere willing to target it. (Usually most that CAN see will look without being asked.

But of course earth based telescopes can be (a lot) larger for comparable cost. And are a lot easier to maintain and upgrade.


Larger = more light,, combined with longer observing times, that's much better for wide field AND deep field data collection. That's very expensive in space.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (3) Jul 04, 2013
If a supernova is detected, it's easy to find several of the super telescopes located located in the correct hemisphere willing to target it.

If you want to look at it in the visible spectrum and it's on the day side that won't help (for xray spectrum you can't use Earth based ones at all - which may be arguably the most intersting part of the spectrum to look at in such an event). Then space based telescopes are your only option. Makes no difference for radioastronomy, though - there I agree you'll always find dishes (or dish arrays) that will drop anything in order to look at a new supernova.

Both have their place - Earth based and space based ones. As you noted quite correctly before: apples and orange.
Q-Star
2.6 / 5 (5) Jul 04, 2013
If a supernova is detected, it's easy to find several of the super telescopes located located in the correct hemisphere willing to target it.

If you want to look at it in the visible spectrum and it's on the day side that won't help (for xray spectrum you can't use Earth based ones at all - which may be arguably the most intersting part of the spectrum to look at in such an event).


I thought this discussion was about optical telescopes. Every comment I've made concern only Earth based versus space based optical telescopes.

Both have their place - Earth based and space based ones. As you noted quite correctly before: apples and orange.


It's true that gamma, x-ray, and ultraviolet are best done from space. But the space based telescopes are usually tasked well in advance doing observations they can't just quit and retask on the fly. Compton, Swift and Rossi were dedicated observatories for doing just that. Hoping to image GBR's.
GSwift7
5 / 5 (1) Jul 05, 2013
There are two great things a space telescope can do, which no ground based telescope can do:

As antialias already mentioned, Earth's atmosphere has its own absorption lines, which will obscure those frequency bands. Even in the driest places on Earth, the water absorption lines basically prevent you from looking for water with a ground based telescope, for example.

The second thing, and this is the zinger, is that a space telescope can do extremely long exposures, which allows you to see very faint objects. While the space telescopes don't have extremely high resolution, due to smaller mirrors, they can pick up extremely faint objects at shorter distances. For example, a brown dwarf star.

Interferometers are the reciprocal of a space telescope. They have gargantuan resolution, but they can only see the brightest objects.

A space interferometer with large mirrors would be the best of all worlds. That is what our grandchildren will use.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Jul 05, 2013
Every comment I've made concern only Earth based versus space based optical telescopes.

Ah, OK, I was thrown off by the JWST comments (the JWST is for infrared observations) to think we were discussing the entire spectrum.

But the space based telescopes are usually tasked well in advance doing observations

They get reoriented when interesting events happen. E.g. for SN2008D detected by SWIFT:
Due to the significance of the X-ray outburst, Soderberg immediately mounted an international observing campaign to study SN 2008D. Observations were made with major telescopes such as the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Very Large Array in New Mexico, the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii, the Keck I telescope in Hawaii, the 200-inch and 60-inch telescopes at the Palomar Observatory in California, and the 3.5-meter telescope at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico.