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Putting astronomy to work March 10, 2009

Posted by Sarah in science.
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We astronomers often get asked about the point of our research. Why do we care about galaxies, about dark matter and dark energy? It happens at the best of times, but in these economic climes even more so – see my previous post. Phil Plait made a great video telling us exactly why astronomy, and scientific research in general, matters a great deal to everyone – even to those who think it is far removed from their beds. Watch it here.

This week’s issue of the Economist has the Technology Quarterly, where new technological developments are highlighted, and as usual it contains some really interesting stuff. One story in particular put a big smile on my face, as it’s applying astronomy research that I myself have worked on in the past,  albeit indirectly, to a hugely relevant issue, both economically and environmentally: scientists in San Diego are using astronomical  wavefront sensing technologies to determine when and how much fields need to be irrigated. Many modern telescopes use a technique called adaptive optics to remove the blurring effects of the turbulence in the atmosphere – the effect that causes the familiar twinkling of stars in the sky, from the light as it enters the instrument. By measuring the distortions in real time, several hundreds of times per second during every exposure, and feeding the information to a thin flexible mirror, the light can literally be bent back into shape. The process of measuring the blur of the light is called wavefront sensing.