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Sharpening the focus.

In the heart of County Durham, a team of researchers is working in the frontier science of adaptive optics ( a world that links microsurgery to the furthest stars.

Their prime purpose is to improve the quality of astronomical imaging but the technology and the instrumentation that go with their task have the potential to yield benefits in the shape of industrial and medical applications.

The Centre for Advanced Instrumentation outgrew its research space in the Durham University Physics Department more than two years ago and moved in as the first activity in the NetPark Research Institute in Sedgefield.

It now has a staff of more than 40, some generally based in Physics, and some at NetPark, with a built-in video-conferencing link for meetings and discussion between the two groups.

The staff also collaborate with observatories around the world in the design, construction, commissioning and exploitation of innovative hi-tech instruments for optical and infrared astronomy. Key research areas are: advanced spectroscopy, adaptive optics, applied optics, low light level detectors and precision engineering/metrology.

The expansion meant that the research could grow in scale to develop its commercial potential.

Their facilities range from a massive positioning test rig for telescope equipment, three metres across, that can take up to six tonnes of kit. It has been used in connection with the international VLT ( Very Large Telescope ( project of the European Southern Observatory. The VLT, at the Paranal Observatory, about 8,000 ft up in Atacama, Chile is the world's largest and most advanced optical telescope.

It comprises four 8.2-metre reflecting Unit Telescopes and several moving 1.8-metre Auxiliary Telescopes, the light beams of which can be combined. With its unprecedented optical resolution and unsurpassed surface area, the VLT produces extremely sharp images and can record light from the faintest and most remote objects in the Universe.

Professor Ray Sharples, the principal investigator for this collaborative and Durham-led activity, said: "Turbulence in the earth's atmosphere distorts the light beams entering astronomical telescopes, resulting in what we know as the twinkling of the stars.

"Using adaptive optics to correct these distortions, scientists are now able to obtain much sharper images from the far reaches of the universe."

This research could also hold the key to the further development of free space communications. By shining a laser between two points, data can be transmitted along the beam ( providing scientists can overcome the problems of atmospheric distortion. Such technology would have a huge impact on telecommunications.

Other applications could be in the field of ophthalmology and in finely-tuned infra-red cameras to explore machinery for internal "hot spots" that could affect performance or cause a breakdown.

The versatility of the CAI is reflected in its specially- commissioned workspace at NetPark, including a completely blacked-out lab where all unnecessary light is kept out to prevent it ruining the very fine optical measurements the scientists need to make. Another is a large environmental test chamber that can reproduce various temperature and humidity levels, typical of different mountain locations, or extreme hot and cold zones.

The research team has also built and commissioned more than 10 new instruments for the UK's largest telescopes in the Canary Islands, Australia and Hawaii.

Durham University's Physics Department has been ranked as the UK's No 1 by The Times newspaper university tables for the last four years. The department undertakes research ranging from elementary particle physics and cosmology to applied areas receiving substantial support from industry.

The expansion of such research, that has diverse commercial potential beyond the academic environment, into business locations like NetPark, underlines the University's commitment to playing an integral role in knowledge-transfer in the region.
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Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jul 17, 2006
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