New Adaptive Optics Center at UC Santa Cruz aims to improve telescopes, human eyesight

By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs

The University of California, Berkeley, is part of a new, $20 million project that promises to make ground-based telescopes as powerful as orbiting observatories while dramatically improving the diagnosis and treatment of eye disease and vision correction techniques.

The project proposal, approved July 29 by the National Science Foundation's governing body, the National Science Board, establishes a Center for Adaptive Optics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The multi-institutional center, which expects to begin operation in November, is one of five Science and Technology Centers approved for the NSF this year. NSF program guidelines allow for financial commitments of up to $20 million over five years for each center, but the final awards under these cooperative agreements are subject to negotiations between NSF and the lead institutions.

"In astronomy, our needs are for increasingly complex and sophisticated systems, whereas in vision science, the emphasis is likely to be on miniaturization and creating more human-friendly systems for use in health care," said Jerry Nelson, director of the Center for Adaptive Optics and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC. While at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the 1980s he designed the twin Keck Telescopes at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and is a leading expert on the technology of large telescopes, optics, and instrumentation.

UCSC's 27 partner institutions in the Center for Adaptive Optics will include UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, UCLA, UC Irvine, the University of Chicago, the California Institute of Technology, the University of Rochester, the University of Houston, Indiana University, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and 17 other national laboratory, industry, and international partners.

Adaptive optics is a method to actively compensate for changing distortions that cause blurring of images. It is used in astronomy to correct for the blurring effect of turbulence in the earth's atmosphere and in vision science to compensate for aberrations in the eye that affect vision and impede efforts to study the living retina.

"Up to now astronomers and vision scientists have been working independently on adaptive optics: astronomers to remove the distortion caused by the astmosphere, and optometrists and ophthalmologists to remove distortion caused by the inner parts of the eye," said Marc Davis, professor of astronomy and physics at UC Berkeley. "Now hopefully we can work togeher to develop the next generation of adaptive optics technology."

Other members of the UC Berkeley team are astronomy professors Imke de Pater and James Graham, professor of physics Bernard Sadoulet, and professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences Richard Muller, an expert on MEMS (microelectromechanical systems).

An adaptive optics (AO) system requires several highly advanced technologies, including precision optics, sensors, and deformable mirrors, plus high-speed computers to integrate and control the whole system. Basically, the AO system uses a point source of light as a reference beacon to measure precisely the distortion created by the atmosphere (or by internal imperfections and fluids in the eye); then an "adaptive optical element," usually a deformable mirror, is used to cancel the effect by applying an opposite distortion. For astronomy, the system must measure atmospheric distortion and apply a correction hundreds of times per second.

First-generation adaptive optics systems have been installed on the 3-meter Shane Telescope at Lick Observatory and the 10-meter Keck II Telescope in Hawaii. Although these systems have yielded impressive results, AO is not yet in routine use, Nelson said.

"Adaptive optics is enormously complex, and to bring this technology to maturity and make AO systems practical tools for scientists will require a coherent national program that brings together scientists and engineers with diverse areas of expertise," Nelson said.

"As far as we've come in adaptive optics, we've only just begun to realize its potential," said Joseph Miller, director of UCO/Lick.

For astronomers, adaptive optics can give ground-based telescopes the same clarity of vision that space telescopes achieve by orbiting above earth's turbulent atmosphere.

"This is the gateway to an unimaginable future," said UCSC astronomer Sandra Faber. "Adaptive optics makes the Keck Telescope 20 times sharper, so it's like bringing the universe 20 times closer," she said.

With adaptive optics, the Keck Telescopes, currently the largest optical telescopes in the world, can achieve four times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope in the near-infrared wavelengths, noted Claire Max, who heads the group at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) that helped developed the AO systems for the Keck and Lick Observatories.

Max said she expects most of the large ground-based telescopes will have AO systems within the next few years. Very few astronomers, however, have any experience using adaptive optics, she said. "One goal of the center is to bring adaptive optics to the broader astronomical community through conferences and workshops," said Max, who is director of university relations for LLNL.

In vision science, adaptive optics has made it possible to obtain images of the living human retina with unprecedented resolution, enabling researchers to see the individual receptors involved in vision, said David Williams, director of the Center for Visual Science at the University of Rochester. Williams and his coworkers recently used AO to obtain images showing how the three types of cones involved in color vision are arranged in the human retina.

"We've also just begun to explore the potential of adaptive optics for looking at retinal diseases," Williams said. "In addition, by measuring aberrations in the eye better than before, we may be able to develop better contact lenses or better laser surgery procedures. So this technology has a lot of potential for improving vision."

While astronomy and vision science use similar AO technology, they have different needs for future technology development, Nelson said. "In astronomy, our needs are for increasingly complex and sophisticated systems, whereas in vision science the emphasis is likely to be on miniaturization and creating more human-friendly systems for use in health care," he said.

The Center for Adaptive Optics will provide the sustained effort needed to bring adaptive optics from promise to widespread use. The center will conduct research, educate students, develop new instruments, and disseminate knowledge about adaptive optics to the broader scientific community. The center will concentrate on astronomical and vision science applications and will reach out to scientists in other fields to share technologies.

The center will also develop a range of science education and outreach programs, which will be coordinated with UCSC's existing programs through the campus's Educational Partnership Center. Partnerships are planned with local public schools and with institutes such as the Chabot Observatory and Science Center in Oakland, which operates a planetarium, after-school science programs for youth, training for teachers, and summer science camps. In the Chicago area, the center will work with similar programs through the Adler Planetarium and the Yerkes Observatory.

"Everyone involved in the center will devote some of their time to education and outreach programs," Nelson said.

Industry partnerships will be important for developing practical new devices and implementing adaptive optics applications in health care and other fields. Bausch and Lomb, ERIM International, and Lucent Technologies will be among the center's industrial partners.

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