ARCHIVED - International Gemini Observatory Celebrates Success of New Canadian-built System

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July 03, 2003— Ottawa, Ontario

A team from NRC's Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics (NRC-HIA) in Victoria recently celebrated the successful deployment of its adaptive optics system at the seven-nation Gemini Observatory. One of the first images produced by the system reveals the core of the globular cluster M13, the Hercules Star Cluster, in unprecedented detail.

The new instrument, the Altair adaptive optics system, captures three times more detail in infrared light than the Hubble Space Telescope and will give astronomers a new capacity to see through the dust that blocks optical light and look into the heart of star formations. With this improved visibility, astronomers may soon be able to peek into stellar nurseries, or watch the birth of galaxies that formed 10 billion years ago.

The Altair system corrects images to compensate for the distortion caused by turbulence (mixing of warm and cold air) in the earth's atmosphere. Altair is seen as a significant improvement over other adaptive optics systems and a major boost to the performance of Gemini North on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, one of two 8-metre telescopes that make up the Gemini Observatory.

Altair produced its first high-resolution image only a few hours into its first night on the telescope. "The fact that Altair 'worked right out of the box' is a significant technical achievement for the team," says Dr. Jean-Pierre Véran, Altair instrument scientist. "The simple user interface we use to control Altair hides the extremely complex software developed by our programming team."

Dr. Matt Mountain, Director of the Gemini Observatory, applauded the group's work and its contribution to a fruitful international collaboration. NRC-HIA is a very innovative group and it has been a great partner in the Gemini endeavour," says Mountain. "They're very good at bringing together astronomers and engineers to design products that deliver great science. It's that partnership between science and technology that brings excellent results."

The next step in adaptive optics Canada's Altair improves on previous adaptive optics systems in several ways. First, the area of the sky that is sharpened is larger than before. This is possible because Altair corrects high-altitude turbulence - approximately 6.5 kilometres above the telescope. Studies have shown that most of the atmospheric turbulence above Mauna Kea is at this altitude. By focusing on the area of greatest turbulence, Altair can correct the image for a larger area of the sky. Second, Altair captures more light than previous systems. "It transmits about 90 per cent of the infrared light, which is much higher than any other adaptive optics system," says Glen Herriot, Altair project manager. "This makes the sensitivity for astronomical objects much higher." Third, Altair is easier to use than earlier systems, which often require a team of experts to run. Astronomers will be able to view more objects each night, and concentrate on what they're seeing rather than on how to use the equipment. "It really is a one-button instrument, that adjusts itself for changing weather conditions," says Herriot.

In addition, Altair can feed the corrected images to one of several instruments available on Gemini North, which expands the range of scientific problems that can be investigated.

"Altair makes corrected light available to the entire community of astronomers," says Mountain.

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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