NFS Funds Center for Adaptive Optics Headquartered at UCSC

July 29, 1999

Tim Stephens
UCSC Public Information Office

SANTA CRUZ, CA: The National Science Foundation’s governing body, the National Science Board, today approved a proposal to establish a Center for Adaptive Optics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The multi-institutional center will coordinate the efforts of researchers across the country involved in the rapidly developing field of adaptive optics, which has major applications in astronomy and vision science.

The Center for Adaptive Optics, expected to begin operation in November, is one of five Science and Technology Centers approved for the National Science Foundation (NSF) this year. NSF program guidelines allow for financial commitments of up to $20 million over five years for each center, but final awards under these cooperative agreements are subject to negotiations between NSF and the lead institutions.

UCSC’s 27 partner institutions in the Center for Adaptive Optics will include UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, UCLA, UC Irvine, the University of Chicago, the California Institute of Technology, the University of Rochester, the University of Houston, Indiana University, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and 17 other national laboratory, industry, and international partners (see complete list of partners below).

Adaptive optics is a method to actively compensate for changing distortions that cause blurring of images. It is used in astronomy to correct for the blurring effect of turbulence in the earth’s atmosphere and in vision science to compensate for aberrations in the eye that affect vision and impede efforts to study the living retina.

An adaptive optics (AO) system requires several highly advanced technologies, including precision optics, sensors, and deformable mirrors, plus high-speed computers to integrate and control the whole system. Basically, the AO system uses a point source of light as a reference beacon to measure precisely the distortion created by the atmosphere (or by internal imperfections and fluids in the eye); then an “adaptive optical element,” usually a deformable mirror, is used to cancel the effect by applying an opposite distortion. For astronomy, the system must measure atmospheric distortion and apply a correction hundreds of times per second.

The director of the Center for Adaptive Optics will be Jerry Nelson, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC, who designed the twin Keck Telescopes at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and is a leading expert on the technology of large telescopes, optics, and instrumentation.

UCSC Chancellor M.R.C. Greenwood said the center is a natural fit for the UCSC campus, which is also headquarters for UC Observatories/Lick Observatory (UCO/Lick). The NSF funding will enable UCSC to construct a new building on campus to house the Center for Adaptive Optics. Construction of the building, to be located in the campus’s “Science Hill” area, is expected to be completed by fall 2000.

“Our astronomers are leaders in the development and use of new technologies, and adaptive optics is an exciting interdisciplinary field that will benefit tremendously from the collaborations and synergism fostered by an NSF Science and Technology Center,” Greenwood said.

First-generation adaptive optics systems have been installed on the 3-meter Shane Telescope at Lick Observatory and the 10-meter Keck II Telescope in Hawaii. Although these systems have yielded impressive results, AO is not yet in routine use, Nelson said.

“Adaptive optics is enormously complex, and to bring this technology to maturity and make AO systems practical tools for scientists will require a coherent national program that brings together scientists and engineers with diverse areas of expertise,” Nelson said.

“As far as we’ve come in adaptive optics, we’ve only just begun to realize its potential,” said Joseph Miller, director of UCO/Lick. For astronomers, adaptive optics can give ground-based telescopes the same clarity of vision that space telescopes achieve by orbiting above earth’s turbulent atmosphere. “This is the gateway to an unimaginable future,” said UCSC astronomer Sandra Faber. “Adaptive optics makes the Keck Telescope 20 times sharper, so it’s like bringing the universe 20 times closer,” she said.

With adaptive optics, the Keck Telescopes, currently the largest optical telescopes in the world, can achieve four times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope in the near-infrared wavelengths, noted Claire Max, who heads the group at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) that helped developed the AO systems for the Keck and Lick Observatories. Max said she expects most of the large ground-based telescopes will have AO systems within the next few years. Very few astronomers, however, have any experience using adaptive optics, she said. “One goal of the center is to bring adaptive optics to the broader astronomical community through conferences and workshops,” said Max, who is director of university relations for LLNL.

In vision science, adaptive optics has made it possible to obtain images of the living human retina with unprecedented resolution, enabling researchers to see the individual receptors involved in vision, said David Williams, director of the Center for Visual Science at the University of Rochester. Williams and his coworkers recently used AO to obtain images showing how the three types of cones involved in color vision are arranged in the human retina.

“We’ve also just begun to explore the potential of adaptive optics for looking at retinal diseases,” Williams said. “In addition, by measuring aberrations in the eye better than before, we may be able to develop better contact lenses or better laser surgery procedures. So this technology has a lot of potential for improving vision. ”

While astronomy and vision science use similar AO technology, they have different needs for future technology development, Nelson said. “In astronomy, our needs are for increasingly complex and sophisticated systems, whereas in vision science the emphasis is likely to be on miniaturization and creating more human-friendly systems for use in health care,” he said.

The Center for Adaptive Optics will provide the sustained effort needed to bring adaptive optics from promise to widespread use. The center will conduct research, educate students, develop new instruments, and disseminate knowledge about adaptive optics to the broader scientific community. The center will concentrate on astronomical and vision science applications and will reach out to scientists in other fields to share technologies.

The center will also develop a range of science education and outreach programs, which will be coordinated with UCSC’s existing programs through the campus’s Educational Partnership Center. Partnerships are planned with local public schools and with institutes such as the Chabot Observatory and Science Center in Oakland, which operates a planetarium, after-school science programs for youth, training for teachers, and summer science camps. In the Chicago area, the center will work with similar programs through the Adler Planetarium and the Yerkes Observatory. “Everyone involved in the center will devote some of their time to education and outreach programs,” Nelson said.

Industry partnerships will be important for developing practical new devices and implementing adaptive optics applications in health care and other fields. Bausch and Lomb, ERIM International, and Lucent Technologies will be among the center’s industrial partners.

List of Participating Institutions

Academic Partner Institutions:

National Laboratories and Observatories:

Industry Partners:

International Collaborators:

Editor’s Notes:

Jerry Nelson will be available for interviews on Friday, July 30; he can be reached at 831-459-5132 or

Reporters can also contact Joseph Miller at 831-459-2991 or; Claire Max at 619-459-9701 or; and David Williams at 716-275-8672 or

Images of adaptive optics applications in astronomy and vision science can be downloaded from the Web at If you are unable to download the images, please contact Tim Stephens in the UCSC Public Information Office at 831-459-2495 or

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