New Camera Technology Offers Unparalleled Telescope Photography

Traditionally, space photography has posed a great challenge to astronomers. The thickness of the Earth's atmosphere has rendered earth-based telescopes far less effective than their space-based counterparts. However, a new high-speed camera/software pairing, co-developed by the California Institute of Technology and the University of Cambridge, offers the chance for earth-based telescopes to rival the Hubble Space Telescope for the first time.

LuckyCam, as it is being called, is a telescope camera that combines high-speed space photography, called Lucky Imaging, and optical distortion technology, called Adaptive Optics. The combination of Lucky Imaging and Adaptive Optics has created phenomenal improvements. Although both of them have been used separately in the past, LuckyCam marks the first time that the two have been combined.

LuckyCam works by recording images produced by an adaptive optics camera at high-speed. Software then checks each image and selects the sharpest. These images are combined to produce the clearest image. The name Lucky Imaging was developed because the process depends on chance fluctuations in the atmosphere cancelling each other out.

"It's the first time we've combined the two and used that to get better performance than anyone's been able to get before using the visible light spectrum," said Nicholas Law, one of Caltech's lead scientists on the LuckyCam development.

"The system performed even better than we were expecting. It was fantastic to watch the first images come in and see that we were easily doing better than Hubble."

According to Law, the practical uses of the device are numerous.

"For a start, in the visible part of the spectrum, there are a lot of emission lines, excited molecules and atoms, which indicate what elements are present in nebula. And you want to get high-resolution photos of these nebulae to work out what exactly is going on and to see the structure of them properly," he said.

"Before, you could only do this on the Hubble. But now, using our system, you can do this kind of thing from the ground."

However, nebulae and emission lines are just the beginning. Law said LuckyCam's relative accessibility is also a plus.

"It works now and we know it gets this superb resolution, so you can do a lot of science with this kind of performance. And of course it's much easier to get telescope time on the ground from a ground-based telescope than it is to get time on the Hubble."

Despite the benefits of the LuckyCam system, there are some limitations. Law explained that they need a big telescope equipped with an Adaptive Optics camera for the system to be usable.

Law also claimed that the Hubble remains the ideal solution since it is capable of doing more versatile photography.

"LuckyCam might not be better than the Hubble overall," he admitted. However, LuckyCam does have one large benefit.

"It's easier and much cheaper to obtain images using LuckyCam; a lot more accessible compared to the Hubble," Law said.

This means that those beautiful images you saw on the Discovery Channel could become a lot easier to obtain.

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