How Adaptive Optics Are Improving Cosmic Observations

Adaptive optics is a widespread technology that is utilized for increasing the power of telescopes and microscopes. As many know, the turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere is the source of much distortion in stargazing, such as twinkling stars. In order to fight these distortions, space agencies have sent costly telescopes up into space in order to make observations, free of Earth-based distortions. While many great discoveries have been made thanks to projects like the Hubble Space Telescope, the costs for these types of projects are, of course, staggering. By developing adaptive optics, scientists have been able to analyze crisp data from ground-based observation. In fact, ground-based AO telescopes can be more powerful than even the Hubble.

The nuclear region of the nearby galaxy NGC 7469 (via the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope)

The nuclear region of the nearby galaxy NGC 7469 (Image Source: Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope)

By adjusting for various degrees of turbulence as the observations occur, faint and distant cosmic objects can be developed through long exposures, so long as the observed object is close to a bright source of light. Earth-based light pollution is another source of distortion that adaptive optics works to correct. For more information on light pollution, check out the Penny4NASA blog post on the topic.

As with most astronomy-based technology, adaptive optics has been used for making strides in other scientific fields. In 2011, scientists for the first time were able to use these methods to reveal the cellular structure of the human eye in astonishing detail. This development has been significant for detecting signs of degenerative eye disorders, leading to earlier and more effective treatment.

“While therapies are only emerging, the ability to see the cells you are trying to rescue represents a critical first step in the process of restoring sight,” says researcher Alfredo Dubra.

AO has helped map the smaller rods of the eye, which outnumber cones 20 to 1 in the retina (Credit: University of Rochester/Biomedical Optics Express)

AO has helped map the smaller rods of the eye, which outnumber cones 20 to 1 in the retina (Image Source: University of Rochester/Biomedical Optics Express)

This historic breakthrough has brought vision science to a new era. “One of the major hurdles in detecting retinal disease is that by the time it can be perceived by the patient or detected with clinical tools, significant cellular damage has often already occurred,” adds team member Joseph Carroll.

If you’re interested in learning more about how adaptive optics works in a telescope, be sure to explore this video from the Gemini Observatory.

Funding projects that lead to cosmic discoveries allow us to make human health related discoveries here on Earth. Utilize the Penny4NASA POPVOX tool to voice your support for scientific investment:


“Adaptive optics pinpoints two supermassive black holes in colliding galaxies”. Stephens, Tim. May 2007.

“Astronomy in Adaptive Optics”. Series via Coren, Emily. October 2011.

“Historic First Images of Rod Photoreceptors in the Living Human Eye” Science Daily. July 2011.

“What is Adaptive Optics?”. University of California Science and Technology Center.