Twinkling stars may inspire poets, but the distortions caused as starlight passes through the atmosphere are a headache for astronomers. Soon, thanks to adaptive-optics technology, scientists may get an unprecedented view of the heavens. Developed so the military could hit missiles with laser weapons, the technology uses computers and sensors to detect how light is being distorted, then special flexible mirrors to compensate for the distortions.
Scientists at Georgia State University and Georgia Institute of Technology are designing an adaptive-optics observatory consisting of seven small telescopes in a Y-shaped array. Besides correcting for atmospheric distortion, computers will combine the seven images to achieve the resolution of a telescope a quarter-mile across. That would enable astronomers to see details 5,000 times smaller than with the best ground-based telescopes--and even 150 times better than the Hubble space telescope was designed to provide. The cost? Roughly $10 million, or less than 1% of the Hubble's price. Scientists say the observatory could be operating in New Mexico's Sacramento Mountains by late 1995.