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UNC telescopes could get robotic lasers

A new robotic laser technology could change that.

Physics professor Nicholas Law worked on the Robo-AO, a 60-inch telescope that uses a robotic laser to clarify images of outer space, at the California Institute of Technology  for the past five years.

The Robo-AO  uses special technology to automatically observe celestial objects. Other telescopes require astronomers to spend time differentiating between real objects and visual static. Law hopes to install this Robo-AO-like system in UNC’s South American telescope soon.

Carl Ziegler , a second-year graduate student at UNC, worked remotely on the Robo-AO project by reviewing observations of NASA’s Kepler satellite . While he didn’t get to see the system in person, he said he is excited to bring the technology to UNC’s telescope.

“We are going to build a new adaptive optics system, much like the Robo-AO system on the telescope,” Ziegler said. “That means we can have very high efficiency surveys with it. We can look at many more objects than a traditional adaptive optics system.”

Christoph Baranec , a professor at the University of Hawaii and Robo-AO’s principal investigator, said the technology replaces the need for people to operate the telescope and adaptive optics system and track airplanes in the laser’s path.

“What we’ve done that’s new and innovative is that we’ve fully automated the entire process,” Baranec said.

Baranec, Law and Reed Riddle , a programmer at the Palomar Observatory, said they did about 90 percent of the project’s work but enlisted the help of undergraduate and graduate students.

Law is also enthusiastic to bring this opportunity to UNC.

“It’s the perfect telescope to deploy a Robo-AO-like system on,” he said. ”(UNC’s telescope) is a much bigger telescope than we’ve used with Robo-AO. We can beat the Hubble Space Telescope  in terms of resolution, which will give us a unique capability.”

Baranec said adaptive optics, first utilized by the military in the 1970s, measures the atmospheric turbulence and uniquely corrects a mirror which allows a clear picture to be taken. The technology was later declassified and used more commonly by astronomers.

Law said the telescope is used for detailed, high-resolution images.

“(The Kepler satellite) monitors a large patch of sky. Robo-AO does almost the opposite.” Law said. He explained that while Robo-AO looks at a small patch of sky, it is at a higher resolution as well as quicker than Kepler.

When asked if he anticipated more telescopes using this technology, Law had no doubts.

“Absolutely,” he said.

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