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The roots of adaptive optics technology is in the field of astronomy, where it was introduced in the 1950s as a concept for improving astronomical imaging by correcting for atmospheric aberrations. Today, ground-based telescopes around the world are equipped with adaptive optics telescope mirrors, successfully and reliably generating high-resolution images of their targets despite the earth’s atmosphere and even rivaling the image clarity of their space-based telescope mirror counterparts. Adaptive Optics’ widespread adoption can be attributed to its inclusion of precision optics, sophisticated wavefront sensors and more recently, MEMS deformable mirrors, which have resulted in 2-3× gains in resolution. BMC deformable mirrors, high resolution by design, are currently integral components in major astronomy research projects around the world. Three such notable projects are described below.


The NASA-sponsored space exploration project, PICTURE (Planet Imaging Concept Testbed Using a Rocket Experiment), sought out to obtain a direct image of extra-solar giant planets. The PICTURE telescope, which used a BMC deformable mirror for adaptive optic wavefront control, was launched aboard a NASA sounding rocket in October, 2011. Although there were issues in collecting telemetry data from PICTURE, BMC’s DM was successful in the launch and on-sky operation and was the first-ever use of a MEMS deformable mirror in space. BMC has delivered a second mirror to be used on-sky in PICTURE 2, planning to launch in late 2014.

NASA rocket launch
Sounding Rocket (Credit: NASA)


Charged with the mission to directly detect Jupiter-like planets outside of our solar system, the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) uses cutting edge BMC deformable mirror technology to clarify planet images obscured by light from parent stars, atmospheric aberrations and optical imperfections in the imaging system. This mirror is used to obtain the high contrast ratios (107-108) required for so-called “Extreme Adaptive Optics”. Led by Lawrence Livermore National Labs, the GPI project is a collaboration which has produced a powerful new instrument to augment the ground-based Gemini Telescope . GPI’s first light image of the light scattered by a disk of dust orbiting the young star HR4796A was first seen in November 2013. Its enabling component was BMC’s 4K-DM which can be used for precise, high-speed wavefront control.

Gemini Telescope
Image credit: Processing by Marshall Perrin, Space Telescope Science Institute


Robo-AO, an autonomous laser adaptive optics (AO) and science instrument is currently deployed at the 1.5-m telescope at Palomar, CA. Robo-AO brings adaptive optics technology, normally limited to much larger telescopes with larger budgets, to small and mid-size telescopes, increasing their imaging power. Because it automates the processes, efficiency is increased, less effort is required and researchers are able to carry out many more observations per night than doing it manually. Additionally, because the system is robotic it can rapidly respond to new discoveries such as supernovae or repeatedly observe targets over time providing the ability to monitor weather on other planets in the solar system.

Boston Micromachines’ Multi-DM is used by Robo-AO to dramatically improve the quality of the telescope’s images by correcting for the degrading aberrations caused by atmospheric turbulence.

Video Credit:  Christoph Baranec, Caltech  
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