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New sight for Mount Palomar’s famous telescope
Posted: 22 June 2011

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Scott Kardel, Palomar Observatory Public Affairs Officer, talks exclusively to Astronomy Now during the first light commissioning run on the Palm 3000 system.

The iconic 5.1 metre Hale Telescope at Mount Palomar, California, is to be fitted with what promises to be the most advanced adaptive optics on Earth, in order to try and image exoplanets directly. Adaptive optics (AO) are designed to beat the turbulence of the atmosphere by using a deformable mirror. The Palm-3000 AO system on the Hale Telescope will have the world’s highest number of actuators on a deformable mirror (3,888) and an incredibly innovative and cost effective wavefront sensing system, based on off-the-shelf video game cards from NVidia. The system, which will update 2,000 times per second, will bring the legendary telescope, which is now over 60 years old, back to the cutting edge of scientific research.

“PALM-3000 and its specialised coronagraphs will, for the first time, allow astronomers to obtain scientifically unique spectra of exoplanets more than a million times fainter than their parent star,” says the AO system’s Principle Investigator, Dr Richard Dekany. “That is an improvement of ten to fifty times over that achieved on any telescope on Earth or in space today.”

The famous Hale Telescope on Mount Palomar. Image: Nick Howes.

The science goals will range from spectroscopy, the surface mapping of Solar System bodies like Jupiter’s ever changing and volcanic moon Io, and directly photographing planets around other stars. “We want to put the Earth in its true context,” says Dekany. “Our goal at Palomar is to image some of the larger of these worlds directly, to provide chemical knowledge of their atmospheres and surface materials. We know that through time Earth has changed its orbit, rolled with a changing Sun, evolved different atmospheres, and somehow has been blessed with an expansive water ocean. All of these processes are likely going on in different ways now on exoplanets. By looking at hundreds of worlds, we can understand how the key physics of planet formation, differentiation, and interactions may have shaped our home.”