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Professor Philip Choi Wins $637,138 Grant for Advanced Telescope Optics System

Professor Philip Choi

Pomona College Professor Philip Choi is the lead investigator of a team that was awarded a four-year, $637,138 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Major Research Instrumentation program. The grant will be used to develop an advanced adaptive optics system for the College’s one-meter telescope on Table Mountain.

The project, "CCAO-Cam: A Remote-Access, Dual-Band (Optical/NIR) Adaptive Optics System for the Table Mountain 1-meter telescope," will help enable Pomona's telescope to approach Hubble Space Telescope quality by removing the effects of atmospheric distortion using advanced deformable mirrors under rapid computer control. One of the team’s end goals is to develop an instrument that could eventually be replicated for other comparable, earth-bound telescopes.

The team includes co-investigators Pomona Prof. Bryan Penprase, Erick Spjut (Harvey Mudd College) and Scott Severson (Sonoma State); and collaborators Ann Esin (Harvey Mudd) and Cristoph Baranec (Caltech).

“Looking at stars through the atmosphere can be likened to looking from above at a penny sitting at the bottom of a swimming pool,” explains Choi. “If the water is completely still, you will see a fairly clear image of the penny. However if there are ripples, the penny will appear to be distorted. If you could freeze the ripples and characterized them perfectly, you could correct for the distortion. What our instrument will do is measure the turbulence in the atmosphere once every 1/1000th of a second, effectively freezing the atmosphere, and then correct for it at each of these time-steps using a camera with a deformable mirror. Since the atmosphere is constantly changing, this has to happen very quickly.”

Once the project is complete, Pomona's telescope will be able to see the stars and galaxies more clearly than any other telescopes of its size, and will be able to reveal previously invisible faint stars, weather patterns on Jupiter and Saturn, binary asteroids, and other previously invisible wonders of the cosmos.

This summer, several Pomona students will work on the project: Alex Rudy ‘11, Rachel Chin '12, Daniel Contreras '13 and Lorcan McGonigle '13. In the development stages, Pomona students Daniel Beeler '09 and Zev Gurman '11, and Harvey Mudd students Brandon Horn '09 and Oliver Hoidn '11 all worked on the instrument.

Pomona College, one of the nation’s premier liberal arts colleges, is known for small classes, close relationships between students and faculty, and a range of opportunities for student research.