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ESO Telescope Designer Raymond Wilson Wins Kavli Award For Astrophysics

June 4, 2010

Raymond Wilson, whose pioneering optics research at ESO made today’s giant telescopes possible thanks to “active optics” technology, has been awarded the 2010 Kavli Prize in astrophysics. The founder and original leader of the Optics and Telescopes Group at ESO, Wilson shares the million-dollar prize with two American scientists, Jerry Nelson and Roger Angel.

The biennial prize, presented by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the Kavli Foundation, and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, was instituted in 2008 and is given to researchers who significantly advance knowledge in the fields of nanoscience, neuroscience, and astrophysics, acting as a complement to the Nobel Prize. The award is named for and funded by Fred Kavli, the Norwegian entrepreneur and phi­lanthropist who later founded the Kavlico Corpora­tion in the US “” today one of the world’s largest suppliers of sensors for aeronautic, automotive and industrial applications.

Wilson, who joined ESO in 1972, strived to achieve optical perfection, developing the concept of active optics as a way to enhance the size of telescopic primary mirrors. It is the size of these mirrors that determines the ability of a telescope to gather light and study faint and distant objects. Before active optics, mirrors over six meters in diameter were impossible, being too heavy, costly, and likely to bend from gravity and temperature changes. The use of active optics, which preserves optimal image quality by continually adjusting the mirror’s shape during observations, made lighter, thinner so-called “meniscus mirrors” possible.

Wilson first led the implementation of active optics in the revolutionary New Technology Telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory, and continued to develop and improve the technology until his retirement in 1993. Since then, active optics have become a standard part of modern astronomy, applied in every big telescope including ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), a telescope array with four individual telescopes with 17.5 cm thick 8.2-meter mirrors. Active optics has contributed towards making the VLT the world’s most successful ground-based observatory and will be an integral part of ESO’s European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) project. Active optics technology is also part of the twin 10-meter Keck telescopes, the Subaru telescope’s 8.2-meter mirror and the two 8.1-meter Gemini telescopes.

Co-prize winners Jerry Nelson and Roger Angel respectively pioneered the use of segmentation in telescope primary mirrors “” as used on the Keck telescopes, and the development of lightweight mirrors with short focal ratios.

A webcast from Oslo, Norway, announcing the prize winners is available at www.kavlifoundation.org and www.kavliprize.no.

More information

ESO, the European Southern Observatory, is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organization in Europe and the world’s most productive astronomical observatory. It is supported by 14 countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious program focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organizing cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and VISTA, the world’s largest survey telescope. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 42-meter European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

Image Caption: Former ESO optical engineer Dr Raymond Wilson, recipient of the 2010 Kavli Prize. Wilson shares the million-dollar prize with two American scientists, Jerry Nelson and Roger Angel. Dr Wilson has made contributions of the utmost importance to the technology of astronomical telescopes during the last two decades of the 20th century. His profound theoretical and practical knowledge of optics and his vision for achieving optical perfection led him to the concept of active optics, which revolutionized the world of large telescopes: all major ground-based optical and infrared telescopes are now built with this technology. Credit: EAS/ESO

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