Image of Adaptive Optics Adaptive Optics
Adaptive Optics, MIT Lincoln Laboratory, 1980s

“Twinkle, twinkle, little star… .”  If you’re lying outside on a summer’s night, the constantly shifting light of a star is pleasant—but if you are an astronomer trying to look beyond the turbulence caused by wind and temperature layers in the atmosphere, it is a problem. Further, this problem increases with the size of your telescope. Adaptive optics systems use linked sensors, computers, and deformable mirrors to constantly adapt to the changing conditions of the atmosphere. The sensor measures aberrations in the atmosphere, and the computer uses this information to reshape the mirror to provide a more accurate image. MIT Lincoln Laboratory was among the leaders in developing this technology. The two mirrors on display are from larger apparatus developed for highly classified military research projects. It was front-page news of the New York Times on June 22, 1985, when Lincoln’s ACE system successfully completed the first experiment in President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”). This research continues to benefit the military, but has since been declassified for use by all astronomers.

On loan from the MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

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