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On-sky Laser Propagation at Gemini South Telescope

January 20, 2011

Editor's Note: Photos are available in high-resolution for publication at: http://www.gemini.edu/node11599

A 50-watt laser propagated successfully on the sky from the Gemini South telescope on the summit of Cerro Pachón in Chile.

This technology took 10 years of work and is part of a much more complex system called the Gemini Multi-Conjugate Adaptive Optics System (GeMS). This system is designed to provide extremely high angular resolution over a relatively wide area of the sky.

It is expected that this new system will have applications diverse areas of astronomy such as the study of star-forming regions, stellar evolution, the center of our Milky Way and other galaxies, and the formation and evolution of chemical elements.

The laser is unique because it produces 5 laser guide stars. GeMS will allow astronomers to see more detailed images on a large portion of the sky, allowing the detection of very distant objects with low brightness.

The technical tests of the laser and the Multi-Conjugate System Adaptive Optics will continue throughout this year and is expected to be fully operational for scientific use in 2012.

A team of scientists, engineers and technicians from Gemini propagated the faint yellow-orange light to an altitude of about 90 kilometers above Earth's surface on the night of January 21-22, 2011. At this altitude, the laser excites the atoms in the sodium layer of the atmosphere and generates artificial guide stars wherever they are needed in the sky for adaptive optics.

This system promises to provide very sharp images of similar quality to those obtained from space, but with the advantage of using Gemini’s larger 8-meter mirror from the ground.

(For more information contact: Manuel Paredes)

The Gemini South telescope is part of the AURA Observatory in Chile.