Newswise — The problem has been known for decades. The turbulent mixing of air at different temperatures continually changes the speed and direction of starlight as it passes through the atmosphere, causing celestial objects to be blurred when viewed through Earth-based telescopes. The same effect distorts the view of distant objects seen through the shimmer above a hot parking lot.
Today, a new technology called adaptive optics is, in effect, removing the atmospheric tremor. And the improvements that it brings to today's telescopes represent an advance at least as great as the invention of the telescope itself. The technique brings together the latest in computers, material science, electronic detectors, and digital control in a system that warps and bends a mirror in the telescope to counteract, in real time, the atmospheric distortion.
The advance promises to let ground-based telescopes reach their fundamental limits of resolution and sensitivity, outperforming space-based telescopes and ushering in a new era in optical astronomy. Using this technology, it may soon be possible to see gas-giant-type planets in other solar systems in our Milky Way galaxy. Although about 100 such planets have been found in recent years, all were detected through indirect means, such as their gravitational effects on nearby bodies; none has actually been seen directly.