The epic 'battle' that astronomers fight on a nightly basis — against clouds, the ticking clock and even the very air itself — probably seems a bit more real to the rest of us lately, as new technologies have made their normally sedate activities look more like a war with alien invaders.
In order to capture the amazing and awe-inspiring images of the universe around us, astronomers need to have the absolute best viewing conditions of the night sky. However, the weather doesn't always cooperate. Even when it's clear out, the movement of the air itself can cause the light from distant stars to flicker enough that they just become an indistinct blur. This is where the epic space battle comes in, as this video from the observatories at the summit of Mauna Kea, in Hawaii, reveals:
The lasers that the telescopes fire into the air essentially act as 'false stars'. The light from the laser beam gets bent and distorted as it passes through the air, just as the light from the telescope's target does. The difference is that the astronomers know the exact characteristics of the laser beam. By reading how the beam gets distorted, they can adjust the 'adaptive optics' mirrors of the telescope to compensate for the distortion and their target comes into sharp focus.
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I guess when it comes down to it, when you know what you're up against, sometimes shooting first is the best option. Apparently, Han Solo would have made a good astronomer.
(Photo courtesy: Sean Goebel Photography)
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