By Patricia Daukantas
By now, I hope most OPN readers have had a chance to read the feature articles in this month’s issue of the magazine. I also hope you’ve been able to find the online-only list of additional references and resources, including links to “star parties” on four continents.
The past few months have been great for astronomy, as Comet Lulin (now fading) put in a special appearance and the planet Venus has been dazzlingly brilliant. Hubble Space Telescope scientists continue to release awesome images. And tonight, if all goes well, NASA will launch Kepler, a spacecraft dedicated to finding Earth-like planets elsewhere in the galaxy.
As you may have noticed, Optics Express, OSA’s open-access journal, published a special focus issue on astrophotonics back in February. The guest editors describe astrophotonics as “the interface of astronomy and photonics,” and it’s an interesting field in itself.
Astronomers may be stereotyped as folks with their minds focused solely on the sky, but in reality a fair number of them are techies with a passion for building the cutting-edge equipment that will extend human vision farther and farther. I got acquainted with this phenomenon in the early 1990s, when I spent a summer interning at Kitt Peak National Observatory.
Back then, one of the hot new developments in instrumentation was called “multi-object fiber-fed spectroscopy” – a blend of fiber optics and robotics. The device was designed for those situations when a number of target objects fit into the field of view of the telescope. A small “button” containing a prism would hold one end of an optical fiber at the desired spot in the focal plane, and the other end of the fiber would remain connected to the business end of the spectrograph. Between exposures, a robotic arm would move the button to the target site for the next desired object. A single multi-object spectrograph could have a dozen or a hundred fibers.
What struck me at the time was the amount of work several astronomers at Kitt Peak and other institutions put into designing and building these instruments so that the rest of the astronomical community could take advantage of them. Over the years, other astronomers have joined optical scientists and engineers in putting in countless hours on the Hubble Space Telescope and other instruments, both space-based and ground-based, for the benefit of the whole scientific community.
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