UC Santa Cruz receives $9.1 million grant to establish a Laboratory for Adaptive Optics to develop new tools for astronomers

The University of California, Santa Cruz, has received a grant of $9.1 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to establish a Laboratory for Adaptive Optics. The new laboratory strengthens UCSC's position as an astronomy powerhouse and a national center for research on the exciting new technology of adaptive optics. The grant is the largest contribution from a private foundation in the history of UC Santa Cruz.

The Laboratory for Adaptive Optics will develop innovative instrumentation for the application of adaptive optics technology in astronomy. Adaptive optics sharpen the vision of ground-based telescopes by removing the blurring effects of turbulence in the Earth's atmosphere.

The new laboratory complements the Center for Adaptive Optics, headquartered at UCSC and established in 1999 with a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The center focuses on the advancement of adaptive optics technology in astronomy and vision science. The Laboratory for Adaptive Optics will be administered by UC Observatories/Lick Observatory (UCO/Lick), which already oversees a set of world-class technical facilities for astronomical instrumentation on the UCSC campus, including an optical lab and shops, an engineering lab, and an advanced detector lab.

"This grant builds on UCSC's existing strengths in astronomy, astronomical instrumentation, and adaptive optics, and we are extremely grateful to the Moore Foundation for their very generous support of this important work," said UCSC Chancellor M.R.C. Greenwood.

The new grant will help establish the campus as the leading institution in the world for research in adaptive optics, Greenwood said. As the home campus for UCO/Lick, UCSC has long been prominent in the field of astronomy. Its Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics has been ranked number one in the country for the impact of its faculty's research in the field of astrophysics.

"UC Santa Cruz is a superb location for the Laboratory for Adaptive Optics, which will play a major role in the future of astronomy and other fields where high-quality images are important," said Ed Penhoet, senior director of science and education at the Moore Foundation.

The Laboratory for Adaptive Optics will enable researchers to develop prototypes of advanced adaptive optics equipment and concepts and test them in a controlled laboratory setting. It will also serve as a training facility where researchers and students can gain experience with adaptive optics equipment. It will be the first such comprehensive university laboratory dedicated to adaptive optics in the United States, said Joseph Miller, director of UCO/Lick.

"In many ways, adaptive optics is still in its infancy, and the potential is great for the development of powerful new equipment and techniques. A laboratory like this is important for furthering the development of this technology," Miller said.

The Laboratory for Adaptive Optics will serve as a testing facility for ideas and concepts developed at the Center for Adaptive Optics (CfAO), which does not have laboratories or experimental facilities directly associated with it at UCSC, said Claire Max, professor of astronomy and astrophysics and an associate director of CfAO. Max is the lead scientist on the Moore Foundation grant; Miller and CfAO director Jerry Nelson are coprincipal investigators.

"The Laboratory for Adaptive Optics gives UCSC and UCO/Lick an entirely new capability that will be the foundation for many future projects and significant advances in adaptive optics systems," Max said.

The laboratory will focus initially on developing equipment for two cutting-edge concepts in adaptive optics: extreme adaptive optics and multi-conjugate adaptive optics. Extreme adaptive optics promises to give astronomers the ability to directly detect and study planets around other stars far beyond our own solar system. More than 80 of these "extrasolar" planets have been detected in recent years by indirect measurements of the gravitational effects the planets have on their parent stars. Direct imaging of such planets would enable astronomers to learn more about their properties and perhaps even to detect signs of life.

Multi-conjugate adaptive optics involves making multiple corrections to account for the effects of turbulence at different levels in the atmosphere. It also enables the adaptive optics system to correct for the effects of turbulence over a much larger area of the sky. Multi-conjugate adaptive optics will be essential for the extremely large telescopes astronomers plan to build in the near future. According to Max, however, considerable advances over existing technology are needed to put the theory of multi-conjugate adaptive optics into practice.

The Laboratory for Adaptive Optics will enable researchers to build and test prototype equipment for both extreme adaptive optics and multi-conjugate adaptive optics, Max said.

"We will be able to test new components and new algorithms under controlled conditions, and compare different ways of optimizing the performance of adaptive optics systems," she said. "One of the problems with testing equipment on a telescope is that you never know exactly what the atmosphere was doing during your test, whereas in the lab you can impose a known mock-up of what the atmosphere might do."

Miller said he expects the new laboratory to be up and running within a year. Several options are under consideration for the lab's location, including sites adjacent to the existing UCO/Lick optical labs.

"I am overjoyed that UC Santa Cruz has been awarded this sensational gift," commented Marion Cope, chair of the Development Committee for the UC Santa Cruz Foundation. "I have watched this young campus attain national and international recognition for its outstanding research. Support from private sources is crucial to maintain this upward trajectory. Many thanks to the Moore Foundation."

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is a private, family, grant-making institution dedicated to the improvement of the quality of life through education, science, and conservation. The Foundation emphasizes grant outcomes that affect future generations. Established by Intel cofounder Gordon Moore and his wife, Betty, the foundation funds projects in four program areas: higher education, scientific research, the environment, and selected San Francisco Bay Area projects. The foundation began operations in late 2000 and is headquartered in San Francisco.


Editor's note: Reporters may contact Miller at (831) 459-2991 or miller@ucolick.org, and Max at (831) 459-2049 or max@ucolick.org.