Adaptive Optics on the Cheap

I can’t believe this actually works. Can the answer really be this simple and this cheap? Back when I was doing astronomy in grad school, some of my colleagues were spending huge amounts of time, money, and effort to create really fast adaptive optics systems that would bend mirrors just the right way to account for atmospheric noise. Instead can we really just take a bunch of pictures and paste them together in Photoshop?

Well maybe not quite that easy. The more technical release notes:

The camera works by recording the images produced by an adaptive optics front-end at high speed (20 frames per second or more). Software then checks each one to pick the sharpest ones. Many are still quite significantly smeared but a good percentage are unaffected. These are combined to produce the image that astronomers want. We call the technique “Lucky Imaging” because it depends on the chance fluctuations in the atmosphere sorting themselves out.

So they’re still using adaptive optics, but then applying this additional averaging filter to further improve the image. Apparently high speed cameras are also part of the equation so they can take more pictures closer together, which we couldn’t do 15 years ago. (Astronomical photography is harder than regular photography because you have so much less light to use.) Still if you could remove the need for adaptive optics completely, you’d really have something. Adaptive optics systems are still well beyond the reach of the amateur. Computers, CCDs, and Photoshop aren’t though.

Leave a Reply