This week's Planetary Radio looks at the Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment, or IRVE. On "Questions and Answers" I answered my this question:I read that adaptive optics can only be used for infrared, not visible wavelengths. Why is that?
My answer comes from the European Southern Observatory's introduction to Active & Adaptive Optics, with a little help from Heidi Hammel. Thanks Heidi!
The Keck II and Gemini North telescopes on Mauna Kea, and the Very Large Telescope in Chile, are all equipped with Adaptive Optics systems that allow them to outperform Hubble. Adaptive Optics uses a light source such as a bright star or a laser system to measure exactly how the scintillating atmosphere blurs what should be a pointlike image, and employs a flexible mirror whose shape is continuously deformed with tiny motors to correct for that blur.
But these systems work better with infrared than visible light. One reason is because longer infrared waves are less affected by atmospheric turbulence than shorter visible light waves are. Also, the fineness with which the correction needs to be performed goes up as wavelength goes down; for an 8-meter telescope you need 250 motors behind your deformable mirror for infrared adaptive optics, but you'd need more than six thousand motors for visible-wavelength correction. It just gets too expensive to do adaptive optics in the visible.
So while the big scopes can beat Hubble at infrared wavelengths, Hubble's got the sharper view in visible light. On top of that, Hubble can take pictures in ultraviolet wavelengths that can't even get through the atmosphere to telescopes on the ground.