Hubble Inspires New Technologies
March 31, 2013

Hubble Inspires Advances In Astronomical Research, Ophthalmologic Technology

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Drawing inspiration from NASA´s Hubble Space Telescope, two different teams of researchers have developed both an easy-to-use, fully searchable 3D map of the universe and new technology that could improve the quality of laser eye surgery, various media outlets reported late last week.

A Microsoft team collected data and images from Hubble and other similar instruments to create what has been dubbed the WorldWide Telescope (WWT). It will allow users to “do a flyby of any planet, star or galaxy known to man,” TechCrunch´s Greg Barto explained on Thursday. “You can even view the entire universe in a single frame, which makes us all seem insanely insignificant.”

The telescope “enables you to explore the universe, bringing together imagery from the best ground and space-based telescopes in the world and combining it with 3D navigation,” the company touts on the official WWT website. “Experience narrated guided tours from astronomers and educators featuring interesting places in the sky. You can research and import your own data and visualize it, then create a tour to share with others.”

Beyond the cool factor associated with this Web-based exploration tool, Program Director Dan Fay told Barto that he hopes that NASA will be able to use WWT as an educational aid for students ranging from elementary school to graduate school. It features a handful of buttons and “pinch to zoom” functionality, and will soon be available for use on mobile devices.

In related news, Rebecca Boyle of Popular Science wrote Friday about another innovation that resulted from what she called  “one of NASA´s greatest blunders” — the discovery that the Hubble telescope had blurred vision shortly following its initial launch in 1990.

In the wake of Hubble´s problems, Dan Neal, a research fellow at Abbott Medical Optics and a former engineer who had worked on correcting the telescope´s optics, devised a new measuring tool called an infrared Scanning Shack-Hartmann Sensor. The sensor allows the surface of a telescope´s mirrors to be tested immediately after the grinding process is completed — conducting an infrared laser sweep across the surface, taking three by four centimeter snapshots and creating a highly detailed map of where the mirror needs to be polished and perfected.

Now his work is also being applied to the field of ophthalmology. Eye doctors currently use wavefront sensors to detect imperfections in the surface of our eyes, but doing so involves “hours of painstaking work,” said Boyle. The process is essential for fitting contact lenses and mapping the topography of the eye prior to laser surgery, though. The new technology developed by Neal and his associates could be the solution, however.

“There´s a similarity and a difference between doing something for NASA, and doing something for medical patients. The similarity is, it has to be right,” Neal told Popular Science. “If you are putting a space telescope a million miles up, and will never see it again, it has to be right. The same is true for people. If you are doing laser surgery on someone, and you are working on their eye, it has to be right.”

“Using the same techniques, Abbott workers built a new system that can project a spot of near-infrared light onto the retina,” Boyle added. “The scattering of that light is collected by the lens and cornea, and the instrument, which analyzes the light, can measure that scattering. It even accounts for the eye´s tear film, an ever-changing coating whose thickness is affected by everything from your level of hydration to the temperature in the room.”

The eye-mapping technology was released in 2012 following six years of research and development. The unit, which is known as the iDesign Advanced WaveScan Studio, can account for both near and farsightedness, astigmatism, and other ocular issues. The data is transmitted to the laser, which then performs the surgical procedure.

It was approved for use in Europe last summer, and is currently awaiting approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The next step, according to Neal, is to develop an enhanced sensor that can also map the density of cataracts in order to improve that procedure.