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The Adaptive Optics Revolution

A History

Robert W. Duffner; Foreword by Robert Q. Fugate

Publication Year: 2009

Duffner has compiled the history of the most revolutionary breakthrough in astronomy since Galileo pointed his telescope skyward--the technology that will greatly expand our understanding of the universe.

Published by: University of New Mexico Press

Front Cover

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Title Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. ix-xii

For nearly 400 years, astronomers have lived with blurry images of the planets, stars, galaxies, and indeed the universe when looking through their ground-based telescopes. Looking through the atmosphere with a high magnification telescope is like looking through shower glass with your eye. You can see shapes on the other side of the glass, but you can’t make out any...

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pp. xiii-xviii

An important reason for undertaking this project was to assess the contribution of the Department of Defense (DoD) in the relatively new field of adaptive optics. The intent was to capture a history that serves as a bridge between a narrow group of highly specialized scientists and a wider general audience. In the past, the DoD has often been accused of...

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pp. xix-xxiv

Adaptive optics is the most revolutionary technological breakthrough in astronomy since Galileo pointed his telescope skyward to explore the heavens 400 years ago. The recent marriage of large ground-based telescopes capturing huge amounts of light with advanced adaptive optics technology has resulted in spectacular high-resolution...

List of Acronyms

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pp. xxv-xxviii

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1: Sputnik, Reality, and Technology

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pp. 1-16

Military research on adaptive optics originated in a small Department of Defense research and development organization known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency or ARPA. That organization pursued cutting-edge research beginning in the 1970s that led to the development...

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2: Early Days: The Romans

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pp. 17-39

ARPA and the Air Force realized that before any serious work could be performed to design, develop, and build a working adaptive optics system to produce high-resolution images, scientists at several Air Force laboratories would have to better understand the main problem that adaptive optics needed to fix: turbulence caused by temperature...

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3: Rome and Itek: First Adaptive Optics Systems

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pp. 41-64

As RTAC took off, Urtz went to his boss in 1973 and asked for more people to accommodate his increased workload. He understood the long-term significance of the RTAC work. The more competent people he could assign to this project, the more he believed he could build...

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4: Laser Guide Stars

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pp. 65-87

At the same time that Rome researchers were making significant headway with programs such as RTAC and CIS, the Air Force Weapons Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base began assuming a more active role in the development of adaptive optics. Although Rome and Kirtland pursued similar programs, there was a fundamental difference in...

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5: Fugate’s Rayleigh Guide Star Experiments

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pp. 89-118

The Jasons’ 1982 summer meeting represented a major turning point in the development of adaptive optics. Rett Benedict became convinced that DARPA should fund parallel programs to investigate two different techniques for creating laser guide stars to measure wavefront distortion—the Rayleigh backscattering method and the sodium-layer...

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6: Lincoln Laboratory

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pp. 119-144

At the same time that Bob Fugate’s team of Air Force scientists were conducting the Rayleigh guide star experiments, Charles Primmerman was leading a Lincoln Laboratory team at White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico that would be the first to experimentally verify the sodium guide star concept. Located in Lexington...

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7: Sharing the Gold: Astronomical Nuggets

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pp. 145-167

Bob Fugate’s team at Kirtland and Chuck Primmerman’s team at Lincoln made pioneering contributions to laser guide star technology in the 1980s that had a lasting effect not only on the United States Air Force, but also on academic astronomy. The military, through DARPA, RADC (later Rome Laboratory), the Air Force Weapons Laboratory...

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8: Strategic Defense Initiative

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pp. 169-202

By early 1978, the Lincoln Laboratory work at West Palm Beach had wound down and come to a halt because Lincoln scientists believed they had accomplished what they had set out to do. Interest within the Air Force had also moved to shorter-wavelength lasers—such as the chemical oxygen-iodine laser or COIL, first developed at AFWL in 1977, and the Navy’s...

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9: Airborne Laser

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pp. 203-235

By the early 1990s, the Air Force, DARPA, Lincoln Laboratory, the Navy, and a number of independent contractors had been actively engaged in adaptive optics research for two decades. During that time, there were many impressive technical accomplishments in this relatively new field of science. The military suspected early on that adaptive...

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10: 3.5-Meter Military Telescope Complex: Starfire Optical Range, New Mexico

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pp. 237-276

The application of adaptive optics to the Airborne Laser program brought closer the day this revolutionary weapon system could be introduced into the Air Force operational inventory. But that was not the only mission that the Air Force envisioned for adaptive optics technology...

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11: 3.67-Meter Military Telescope Complex: Maui, Hawaii

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pp. 277-312

The 3.5-meter (11.5-foot) telescope developed for SOR was the Department of Defense’s largest and most advanced operational telescope for most of the 1990s. But toward the end of the decade, the Starfire telescope would be surpassed in size by the slightly larger AEOS telescope installed on the summit of Haleakala in July 1997; it became fully...

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12: Sodium Guide Star Laser: The Future

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pp. 313-337

At the Jasons’ 1982 summer session in La Jolla, Will Happer from Princeton presented the revolutionary concept that the mesospheric sodium layer could be used to generate a high-altitude artificial guide star for use with an adaptive optics telescope. He proposed using a specially tuned yellow laser beam to excite the sodium atoms in the mesosphere...

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pp. 339-347

From the late 1960s to the present, the United States Air Force has played a leading role in the development of the revolutionary technology of adaptive optics. The Air Force laboratory system served as the focal point for pioneering research energized by the brainpower and persistence of an extremely competent team of military and civil service...

List of Interviews

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pp. 349-353


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pp. 355-438


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pp. 439-457

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780826346933
E-ISBN-10: 0826346936
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826346919
Print-ISBN-10: 082634691X

Page Count: 485
Illustrations: 69 halftones, 22 line illustrations
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Optics, Adaptive -- History.
  • Optics, Adaptive -- Research -- United States -- History.
  • Laser guide star adaptive optics.
  • Lasers -- Military applications.
  • Space telescopes.
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