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Last Updated: Friday, 2 December 2005, 09:54 GMT
UK stargazers enjoy 'Lucky' break
By Pia Harold
BBC News

The same stars, using an ordinary camera (left) and Lucky Imaging (right)
Stars on an ordinary camera (L) and with Lucky Imaging (R)

UK astronomers are finding new stars in the sky using a remarkable low-cost camera technique.

Known as Lucky Imaging, it has helped the Cambridge team overcome the problem of turbulence in the atmosphere which makes stars twinkle and hard to see.

The group's camera takes millions of images very quickly in the hope that just a few are not blurred.

The scientists say the clearest pictures are as sharp as those captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Lucky Imaging is an approach previously only used by amateurs, who cannot afford the imaging methods now used on the world's most sophisticated telescopes.

Governments around the world have spent hundreds of millions of pounds on Active and Adaptive Optics, which use a complicated system of mirrors and computers to get detailed pictures.

But the Institute of Astronomy project has so far cost just 20,000.

Scientists fitted a new camera to the Nordic Optical Telescope in The Canary Islands, which has a diameter of 2.56m.

Lucky Imaging camera hooked up to  the Nordic Optical Telescope in La Palma
Luckycam, attached to La Palma's Nordic Optical Telescope

Incorporating a new component that lets the camera run faster and more quietly, it has seen a step change in the quality of image the La Palma facility can obtain when looking through our turbulent atmosphere.

The Cambridge team observed 48 stars, and by choosing only the clearest images, they saw that 10 of them were actually double, or binary stars.

The scientists were looking for low-mass binary stars in particular.

Such stars were born at the same time, and the group used the fact that they orbit each other to measure how heavy they are.

Often, the fainter a star is, the lower its mass.

Dr Hodgkin explained further: "The mass of a star is the fundamental parameter that governs the life of a star.

"If a star is heavy, it lives very fast; it's a James Dean. It lives fast, dies young, burns bright.

"If a star is very low mass, it just glows faintly and dimly for the lifetime of the Universe."

Adaptive Optics specialist Professor Chris Dainty, of the National University of Ireland, Galway, praised the new development.

But he said the technique would not replace the more advanced technologies.

"There's a lot of work being done on [future] extremely large telescopes, with a 30-100m diameter - Adaptive Optics is crucial to their operation.

"Lucky Imaging works best on moderate-sized telescopes in the visible and near infra-red. The only dispute is how far can you push this technique?"

But the Cambridge researchers have high hopes for Lucky Imaging. If their results continue to be so positive, they want one day to be able to calculate singles stars' masses by their brightness, by comparing them with binary stars.

This way they might bypass first principles, where you calculate everything from scratch.

The astronomers' next aim is to double the number of known very low-mass binary star systems.

With any luck, it should not cost them the Earth.

'Failed star' delights astronomers
08 Jan 02 |  Sci/Tech

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