Keck Observatory Completes $4 Million Adaptive Optics Fund

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

The W. M. Keck Observatory has successfully completed a $4 million campaign that will give astronomers the most detailed Adaptive Optics images of the cosmos ever created by mankind. Furthermore, the campaign was funded entirely by private philanthropy.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the W. M. Keck Foundation and The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation awarded three grants totaling $3.7 million to significantly upgrade the Keck II Laser Guide Star Adaptive Optics (LGS AO) system. The balance of the campaign came from individual gifts from Friends of the Keck Observatory.

“We’re thrilled to support the Keck II Laser Guide Star Adaptive Optics, because we believe in the inherent value of science and the importance of basic research,” said Cyndi Atherton, Program Director for Science at the Moore Foundation. “Upgrading the Keck II instruments will help us answer — and even think of new ways to ask — fascinating and significant questions about our universe and the place we occupy within it.”

“Ever since Galileo, astronomers have been building bigger telescopes to collect more light to observe more distant objects,” said Peter Wizinowich, who leads the Adaptive Optics development at Keck Observatory. “In theory, the larger the telescope, the more detail you can see. However, because of the blurring caused by Earth’s atmosphere, a 10-inch or a 10-meter telescope sees about the same amount of detail.”

Keck 2 Laser Before and After
On the left is an image of the Galactic Center using the current Keck II LGS AO. On the right is a simulation of what the new system will capture. The new 20-watt, continuous wave laser will increase the coupling efficiency by more than 15 times and improve the relative Strehl ratio by a factor of 1.5 to 2.5. Credit: TMT/UCLA/WMKO

One rather expensive solution to this problem is to put a telescope in space. Another solution is to remove the atmospheric distortion using AO.

Keck Observatory, which operates the two biggest telescopes in the world, has been a prime innovator in the field of AO, currently delivering images three to four times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope. Keck commissioned the first large Laser Guide Star (LGS) AO system on Keck II in 2004. It is the most productive LGS AO system in astrophysics, responsible for 70 percent of the refereed-science papers using laser AO published to date, revealing unprecedented details within our solar system, our galaxy, and beyond.

“In its Science and Engineering Research Program, the W. M. Keck Foundation has long focused on supporting cutting-edge research and the development of new technologies that may lead to breakthrough achievements in a particular field,” said Robert Day, Chairman of the W. M. Keck Foundation. “The Keck Foundation is pleased to make this award to the Keck Observatory in recognition of its outstanding work in the field of astronomy.”

The current LGS AO system on the Keck II Telescope projects a 13-Watt, pulsed dye laser beam to excite sodium atoms in the mesosphere, 90 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. Those excited sodium atoms couple with the laser photons and fluoresce — creating an artificial guide star — which is used to measure and remove the turbulence of Earth’s atmosphere, sharpening images by up to a factor of 20.

The new laser, designed with the collaboration of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), TOPTICA Photonics AG and MPB Communications Inc., is a state-of-the-art, 20-watt, continuous wave laser that will increase the coupling efficiency over the current laser by more than 15 times and improve the relative Strehl ratio by a factor of about two.

“Since time began, humans have stared into the night sky wondering what is out there,” said Bob Parsons, who, together with his wife Renee, founded The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation. “The Keck Observatory is a world leader in its field and this important upgrade will enable them to continue answering those questions for generations to come.”

Keck Observatory’s LGS AO system was instrumental in UCLA astronomer Andrea Ghez’s pioneering work in characterizing the super-massive black hole and several important stars in the center of our galaxy, which earned her the coveted Crafoord Prize in Astronomy in 2012.

The new laser will be commissioned in mid-2015 and is the cornerstone of the Next Generation Adaptive Optics program.

Many lines of research will make critical advances with the new LGS AO system, including:

  • The study of brown dwarfs and low-mass stars, which are blurring the line between planets and stars;
  • More precise measurements of stars orbiting closest to the Galactic Center’s super-massive black hole;
  • Improved determination of the origins of gamma ray bursts and supernovae in extragalactic science; and
  • A closer look at objects within our solar system in areas of research where Keck has already contributed, including weather aberrations on Uranus, and Kuiper Belt Objects like Eris, which led to the demotion of Pluto from planet to dwarf planet.

“This is the first time private philanthropy will fund an instrument project for us in its entirety,” said Taft Armandroff, Director of the W. M. Keck Observatory. “They clearly see the value putting their resources into the Keck Observatory, and for that, we are delighted.” A combination of federal grants and private support fund most of the technology enhancements to the Observatory.

“The generous donations from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the W. M. Keck Foundation and The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation come as we are poised to celebrate the Observatory’s 20th Anniversary this month,” said Debbie Goodwin, Director of Advancement for the W. M. Keck Observatory. “Hundreds of Keck’s supporters will be traveling to the Big Island from around the world to participate in Keck Week 2013. We are thrilled to have this opportunity to publicly thank representatives from these foundations and provide everyone with a look at what exciting science lies ahead with this new capability.”

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

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