Astronomy innovation is a world first
16 January 2009
Professor Joss Bland-Hawthorn, Federation Fellow in the School of Physics, with colleagues at the Anglo-Australian Observatory and Redfern Optical Components, are transforming astronomy with their innovative new light filter system for telescopes.
The filter system, which uses 'smart' optical fibres, blocks out unwanted light arising from the earth's glowing atmosphere. Oxygen and hydrogen combine to form hydroxyl molecules in the upper atmosphere and these radiate huge amounts of light in hundreds of extremely narrow spectral lines. The new optical fibres knock out these lines while allowing the good light to reach the telescope.
"Astrophotonics is the key to solving the problem of the bright sky. It's a problem that astronomers around the world have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on trying to overcome," said Professor Bland-Hawthorn.
"Our optical fibre filter system is radically cheaper to install on large telescopes, compared to traditional methods that do not even solve the problem."The new technology was successfully installed and trialled on the Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring Mountain in north-western NSW in December 2008.
"The telescope focuses light from the universe onto an optical fibre that transports the light, through an adaptor, into a complex filter that suppresses the unwanted light. The good light that's left after passing through the filter is then transported via an adaptor to another optical fibre which carries the light to the astronomical spectrograph which produces the final clear image or spectrum," explained Professor Bland-Hawthorn.
"These Australian-made devices are by far the most complex filters ever made. The curse of bright sky in the infrared for astronomers has an astrophotonic solution!"
International interest in the new astrophotonic system has been substantial, with six of the eight major observatories in the world getting in contact to find out more about the technology and be kept up to date with developments.
"On the back of our research and successful trials, our group are the only non-USA team to have been asked to make a submission to the Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey, run by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences in USA.
"This survey will recommend priorities for the most important scientific and technical activities in astrophysics for 2010-2020 - it's great that our Australian research is really making a significant international impact," said Professor Bland-Hawthorn.
Senator Kim Carr, federal Minister for Science, said of the innovation, "I sincerely hope the technology can realise the potential that has been demonstrated to date. This is exactly the type of innovation Australia needs to be globally competitive and shows why public investment in our National Innovation System is so vital."
"It is great to see that, in the International Year of Astronomy, Australian researchers are making a significant contribution with breakthrough research."
Contact: Katynna Gill
Phone: 02 9351 6997