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Astrophysical Instrumentation @ UCSC
UCSC is the home of one of the preeminent astrophysical instrumentation centers: the UCO/Lick Observatory Technical Facilities. Two of the major goals of UCSC researchers are the development of the next-generation Thirty Meter Telescope, and the continuing improvement of Adaptive Optics techniques.
Most of the instruments for Lick are built here, as are some of the Keck instruments, including the recently commissioned Deep Imaging Multi-Object Spectrograph (DEIMOS), now being used for the DEEP project. Current projects include the development of the Automated Planet Finder (APF) telescope, which will be a fully automated 2.4-m telescope on Mt. Hamilton with a high resolution spectrograph that will observe nearby stars every night for months. The APF, conceived and designed by Steve Vogt, can measure the motion of distant stars (down to 1 meter per second) caused by small orbiting planets.
Extremely Large Telescopes
More than ten years after first light, the two 10-m Keck Telescopes remain the largest optical telescopes in the world, built on the novel design of UCSC Professor Jerry Nelson (then at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab). In recent years, other telescopes have joined Keck in the ten-meter class, and improved detectors and adaptive optics have lengthened Keck's reach.
Now, planning has begun for the next big step: the leap to a thirty meter class telescope, with an order of magnitude jump in light gathering ability, capable of studying the formation of the earliest galaxies at extreme distances as well as planetary systems forming in our own Milky Way galaxy.
In January 2004, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation awarded $17.5 million each to UC and Caltech for a collaboration intended to produce designs for a thirty meter telescope. Together with AURA in the US and ACURA in Canada, these institutions have established a Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project, with Project Scientist Jerry Nelson and a steering committee including representatives from UC campuses, Caltech, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, and DAO/HIA in Canada. Numerous researchers from all of these institutions and more are now designing the big telescope, its dome and instrumentation, as well as implementing site surveys, detailed cost estimates, and science plans.
Adaptive optics (AO) compensate for the distortion of images due to irregularities in the medium through which light passes. In astronomy, adaptive optics are used to correct for the blurring that is introduced when objects are viewed through the Earth's turbulent atmosphere, i.e. removing the twinkling of starlight. Without adaptive optics, images taken at ground-based telescopes are typically smeared by half a second of arc or more, reducing both the resolution of the images and the sensitivity of the telescope since the light is spread over a larger area. One way to improve images is to move above the atmosphere into space, as the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has done. But large telescopes can be built on Earth far less expensively than HST and its successors. Adaptive optics promises resolution four or five times better than HST on existing telescopes like Keck at the same wavelengths, and potentially even better on the next generation of giant telescopes such as the Thirty Meter Telescope.
The Center for Adaptive Optics (CfAO) was founded in 1999 as a National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center headquartered on the UCSC campus in a new building adjacent to the astronomy department. It currently is supported by the Office of the President of the University of California, and by UCSC. With nearly a dozen affiliated universities and over a dozen affiliated labs, institutes, and industrial associates, the CfAO develops AO for extremely large telescopes, extreme AO for ultra-high contrast observations to detect extra-solar planets, instrumentation for AO in clinical and research applications in vision science, and education at all levels from the public to the research community. UCSC faculty associated with CfAO include the Director, Claire Max, as well as Sandy Faber, Raja GuhaThakurta, David Koo, and Jerry Nelson. The Laboratory for Adaptive Optics, which is part of the University of California Observatories (UCO), is headed by Dr. Donald Gavel. Many graduate students and postdocs are members of the CfAO and participants in the Laboratory for Adaptive Optics.
Space and Near-space Missions
UCSC is a significant player in a large number of space missions exploring the solar system, galaxy, and beyond. To name a few:
- UCSC played a major role in the genesis and construction of FERMI, the recently-launched NASA space telescope that probes the universe through gamma-rays and explored high-energy phenomena such as neutron stars, black holes, galactic nuclei, galaxy clusters, and dark matter.
- David Smith is project scientist for the RHESSI satellite, built to study high-energy radiation in solar
- UCSC plays a strong role in the Balloon-born 'Balloon Array for RBSP Relativistic Electron Losses (BARREL)' and upcoming 'Gamma-Ray Imaging Polarimeter (GRIPS)' missions.
- Prof. Erik Asphaug and Assoc. Researcher Donald Korycansky, both of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UCSC, are co-investigators on the LCROSS mission, which recently completed its primary goal in a precise experiment looking for direct evidence of water ice, or water-bearing soils, on the Moon.