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The concept of adaptive optics almost seems metaphysical. It was originally developed at the University of Arizona to make distant objects appear clearer to both telescopes and the cameras attached to them.

The idea is to bend the telescope mirror in very minute amounts to compensate for atmospheric changes. Thermals and other factors often distort the image of distant objects, when seen through miles of the earth's sometimes volatile atmosphere.

It's what makes stars twinkle in the night sky. But it can ruin a good astronomical observation.

So adaptive optics tries to analyze such fluctuations. As it does, it tells a system of more than 580 'hands' to change the shape of the telescope mirror, often up to a thousand times a second.

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Photo: Laird Close, University of Arizona

A “normal” image of a binary star, unresolved, before using the Mag-AO adaptive optics system.

This reduces the 'blurring' effect of seeing distant objects through the atmosphere.

Now, a team of researchers from the UA's Steward Observatory, Italy's Arcetri Observatory, and the Carnegie Observatory have taken adaptive optics a step further.

They built a new type of camera, so powerful and accurate that it lets them take the highest resolution images ever of the night sky.

What makes this imaging device different is that, for the first time, scientists are using a 'large' telescope to make extremely high-resolution digital images in visible light.

“Up until now, large telescopes could make the theoretically sharpest photos only in infrared light,” said instrument scientist Jared Males

The result is that the new Magellan AO system, or MagAO, is taking the sharpest pictures ever of distant celestial objects.

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Photo: Katie Morzinski, University of Arizona

MagAO project scientist Laird Close (right) and Jared Males, camera instrument scientist, standing in front of the camera and sensors installed in the 6.5-meter Magellan telescope.

The system is installed at the Magellan Telescope at Carnegie's Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

The Magellan uses twin mirrors 6.5-meters, or 21-feet, in diameter.

But for initial testing, scientists used the Large Binocular Telescope on Mount Graham in eastern Arizona, with its dual 8.4-meter mirror array.

UA professor Laird Close, the project’s principal scientist, says the camera is powerful enough to bring a baseball diamond on the moon into sharp focus.

It can also make out individual stars in what previously appeared to astronomers as blurry clusters.

As befits a system of such complexity, MagAO has already made some important discoveries.

When astronomers train a new telescope or imaging device on a celestial body for the first time, they refer to it as "First Light."

Often, it's a fairly routine observation. But using the MagAO system, the Magellan Telescope taught researchers something new about the star at the center of the Green Orion Nebulae. They knew it was actually a binary star, or pair, but had never actually seen both.

But once they pointed the Magellan and MagAO system at it, they could clearly see two stars.

“These are images sharper than any photographs, by any telescope, from the ground or space,” said Close.

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Photo: Laird Close, University of Arizona