Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, Turbulence and Adaptive optics

Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, Turbulence and Adaptive optics

Von Gogh's starry night

Van Gogh’s The Starry Night is a stunning painting that artistically brings out the effect of turbulence in our atmosphere.

And this turbulence of air in addition to the effect of varying refractive index of the layers in our atmosphere causes the twinkling of stars:

Refraction of light from a start in our atmosphere
     Source: Enhanced Learning

twinkling of stars

If you are an astronomer trying to study the cosmos from the earth, this turbulence of air and twinkling of stars is a total nightmare.

The last thing that you want the light that painstakingly took millions of years to get to the earth is to be wiggled away from your telescope through refraction and turbulence!

f you have seen lasers coming out of telescopes. That's part of the Adaptive Optics system used to correct for atmospheric disturbances due to turbulence and refraction.
If you have seen lasers coming out of telescopes. That’s part of the Adaptive Optics system used to correct for atmospheric disturbances due to turbulence and refraction.

But Astronomers found a way to deal with this, a technique called ‘Adaptive Optics’ which uses deformable mirrors to account for the disturbances in the atmosphere.

With and Without Adaptive Optics

Using this technique, the following is the difference between capturing an image with and without adaptive optics.

Adaptive optics- On vs off

What can you find with this technique?

Here’s an interesting question: What exactly is at the center of our galaxy? Is there a black hole ? How do we go about studying it?

Prof.Andrea Ghez and her research group at the UCLA’s Galactic center group were inspired by the same question and decided to look at a region in the sky which they believed was the center of our milky way galaxy.

And this is what they found of the trajectories of stars surrounding the proposed center of the galaxy:

  Trajectories of stars surrounding the proposed center of our galaxy.
    The star in the middle is the proposed center of our galaxy.These images were taken through the years 1996 – 2016 (see top right of gif).

The first thing that you notice about these stars is that they are orbiting a point in space. This is very similar of how planets in our solar system are orbiting the sun.

Solar system animation

One of the special stars in that animation is S0-2 which completes its elliptical orbit in only 15 years!

S0-2 completes its entire elliptical orbit in just 15 years!
S0-2 completes its entire elliptical orbit in just 15 years!

( it takes the sun approximately 225-250 million years to complete one journey around the galaxy’s center )

But having this knowledge of how small the orbit is, we can use Kepler’s law to find out the Mass at the center of the galaxy. And we get the mass of the center of our galaxy as a staggering 4 million times the mass of the Sun

How massive is that?

Let’s take a look at the orbits once again:

Orbits of solar system vs SO-2 star

The radius of this object at the center, in order to avoid collision with the rest of the objects has to be about the diameter of Uranus’s orbit.

So, an object that has 4 million times the mass of the Sun. and diameter of Uranus’s orbit .. Hmm.. The only astronomical object that would fit this characteristic is a Super Massive Black Hole (SMBH)

And that’s why we believe that at the center of our galaxy is a SMBH: Something we would not have been able to realize without adaptive optics.

So, the next time you go out to gaze at the cosmos, just remember that whatever you are seeing in the night sky right now is through the looking glass of our beloved atmosphere.

And astronomers put in immense effort to nullify the dynamic atmospheric effects that it loves to entertain us with.

All images/animations featured in this post were created by Prof. Andrea Ghez and her
research team at UCLA and are from data sets obtained with the W. M.
Keck Telescopes

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