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Gemini Observatory Board Goes Forward with Extreme Adaptive Optics Coronagraph

August 15, 2005:   The Gemini Board of Directors has announced its decisions on Phase I of the $75M "Aspen" Program of next generation instruments for the two Gemini 8m telescopes.

The highest priority is the Extreme Adaptive Optics Coronagraph (ExAOC). This specialised instrument will combine very high order adaptive optics and a coronagraphic capability to search for gas giant planets around nearby stars.
  To detect extra-solar planets, ExAOC will need to achieve a contrast ratio of 107 at separations down to 0.1 arcsecond from the central star. This challenging goal will require a 3000 actuator adaptive optics system, and a very high level of scattered light suppression. ExAOC will operate at near-IR wavelengths, where the contrast between the planet and the star will be greatest, and where the optical engineering issues are more tractable.

Two competitive design studies for ExAOC had been carried out earlier, one led by the Centre for Astronomical Adaptive Optics at the University of Arizona, the other by the Centre for Adaptive Optics at the University of California. Gemini will now be entering contract negotiations to build the instrument.

Along with the ExAOC decision, the Gemini Board also issued an Announcement of Opportunity for a
Science With Adaptive Optics, Brandner
site-testing program on Mauna Kea, where the Gemini-North telescope is located, to determine whether the site's low altitude turbulence characteristics would justify the development of a Ground Layer Adaptive Optics system on Gemini North. A similar site-testing study at Gemini-South has recently been completed.

In a rival development, the European Southern Observatory is also studying a "Planet Finder" instrument, based on extremely high order adaptive optics, for its Very Large Telescope. The MPIA-led CHEOPS project completed a Phase-A design study in November 2004. CHEOPS would use a 1600-actuator AO system to feed spectroscopic and polarimetric differential imagers.

The new coronagraph on the U.S.A.F 3.6m AEOS telescope on Mount Haleakala, Maui, combined with that facility's existing 941-actuator AO system, have a head-start on these exo-planet searches, albeit on a smaller telescope.
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