Revolutionary adaptive optics delivers sharper universe to astronomers

July 3, 2013

NGC 2346: A single pointing, near-infrared image, obtained with Gemini South’s GeMS/GSAOI of the planetary nebula NGC 2346 (credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA)

A unique new instrument at Gemini South in Chile takes the removal of atmospheric distortions (using new adaptive-optics technology) to a new level. The 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 adaptive optics system, called GeMS (Gemini Multi-conjugate adaptive optics System), “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 star clusters, 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 colliding galaxies — only hint at the diversity of cutting-edge research that GeMS enables.

Multi-conjugate adaptive optics

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 on July 1 show the scientific discovery power of GeMS, which uses a potent combination of multiple lasers and deformable mirrors to remove atmospheric distortions (blurriness) from ground-based images.


Images from the Gemini Multi-conjugate adaptive optics System (GeMS) System Verification science observations. (Image design by Eve Furchgott, Blue Heron Multimedia. Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA)

Unlike previous adaptive optics 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!”

The GeMS system uses a constellation of five laser guide stars and multiple deformable mirrors to remove atmospheric distortions to starlight in an innovative and revolutionary way.

The laser, a solid-state sodium (yellow/orange) laser, was developed with significant supplemental funding through the U.S. National Science Foundation and from the entire Gemini partnership.

See here for the GeMS “first light” image release and a more detailed description of the technology used by GeMS.

The new images, shown as a collage on the right, as well as images of the system in operation in Chile, are available as high-resolution downloads with captions here.