Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Optics and Space

When I was a space-obsessed kid, I figured that if I couldn't someday be a military pilot and an astronaut, that I would at least end up being an astronautical engineer. But instead I majored in physics and later became an optical engineer, working mainly with optical design software. It's a long story, but the good news is twofold. First, optics has provided a diverse and enjoyable career. And second, there's a lot of optics in space. I've had some connection to many space related optics projects, through my company and through our customers, including many NASA and aerospace company engineers I have supported and trained over the years. Some examples of optics in space:
  • The Hubble Space Telescope is perhaps the most famous space-based optical system, and several of my colleagues actually worked on the design and other aspects of the repair optics (the company even won a NASA award for this and other space-related work).
  • In addition to the obvious imaging applications (e.g. amazing Cassini and Spitzer IR images), optics are also involved in science instruments such as spectrometers and polarimeters that provide scientific data on the atmospheres and surfaces of planets, moons, and stars.
  • Adaptive optics are widely used in astronomy, laser communication, and other applications where the distortions of the atmosphere must by dynamically compensated. A future application could be the laser power beaming systems for the space elevator.

And even carbon nanotubes have an optical side - a recent report indicates that under some conditions, single-walled carbon nanotubes can emit very bright and tunable (1-2 micrometer wavelengths) infrared light.

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