Articles

The Sharpest Photographs Ever Taken of the Night Sky

by Allison Meier on August 23, 2013

A close-up of the central region of the Orion nebula, taken with the Schulman Telescope at the UA's Mount Lemmon SkyCenter. (Photo: Adam Block/UA SkyCenter)

A close-up of the central region of the Orion nebula, taken with the Schulman Telescope at the UA’s Mount Lemmon SkyCenter. (photograph by Adam Block/UA SkyCenter) (all images courtesy the University of Arizona)

A new technology is allowing astronomers to take sharper than ever photographs of the night sky, revealing secrets of the solar system and the universe beyond.

Equipped with the newly developed MagAO adaptive optics system, the Magellan Telescope revealed details about the Orion nebula. The background image, taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, shows the Trapezium cluster of young stars (pink) still in the process of forming. The middle inset photo reveals the binary nature of the Theta Ori C star pair. The bottom insert shows a different binary young star pair shaped by the stellar wind from Theta 1 Ori C. (Photo credits: Laird Close and Ya-Lin Wu; NASA, C.R. O'Dell and S.K. Wong)

The background image, taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, shows the Trapezium cluster of young stars (pink) still in the process of forming in the Orion Nebula. The middle inset photo from MagAP reveals the binary nature of the Theta Ori C star pair. The bottom insert shows a different binary young star pair shaped by the stellar wind from Theta 1 Ori C. (photograph by Laird Close and Ya-Lin Wu; NASA, C.R. O’Dell and S.K. Wong)

Deployed at the Magellan telescope in the Chile desert, the new space camera technology, called MagAP (for Magellan Adaptive Optics), was developed by the University of Arizona, the Arcetri Observatory near Florence, and the Carnegie Observatory. It involves a staggering mirror 21-feet in diameter mirror, making its images twice as sharp as those made by the Hubble Space Telescope with its puny eight-foot mirror.

As UA astronomy professor Laird Close stated on UA News: “We can, for the first time, make long-exposure images that resolve objects just 0.02 arcseconds across – the equivalent of a dime viewed from more than a hundred miles away. At that resolution, you could see a baseball diamond on the moon.”

The Magellan Telescope with MagAO’s Adaptive Secondary Mirror (ASM) jmounted at the top looking down some 30 feet onto the 21-foot diameter primary mirror, which is encased inside the blue mirror cell. (Photo: Yuri Beletsky, Las Campanas Observatory)

The Magellan Telescope with MagAO’s Adaptive Secondary Mirror (ASM) mounted at the top looking down some 30 feet onto the 21-foot diameter primary mirror, which is encased inside the blue mirror cell. (photograph by Yuri Beletsky, Las Campanas Observatory)

Maybe that golf ball Alan Shepard hit on the moon is still around. Let’s look! The sharp eye on the night sky, which cuts through atmospheric flickering by vibrating a thousand times a second, has already made some discoveries that were published this week in Astrophysics Journal, such as the previously visually undetectable separation between two stars in the Orion Nebula. What will be revealed next? Perhaps we can find out what the Voyager is up to since it left the solar system, or get an insanely close look at Mars as it comes close to us in its orbit this month.

Click here to view more images taken by the telescope.

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  • Andrew Payne

    I would love to see some space photos with the actual visible colors instead of false coloration.

    • Allison C. Meier

      Check out the link at the end for plenty from the Magellan telescope!

      • Andrew Payne

        Thanks :).

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