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Our Lucky Stars


A team of astronomers from Cambridge and Caltech recently used a ground-based camera called “Lucky” to take stellar pictures that are much sharper than those taken by the beloved Hubble telescope—and cost 50,000 times less.

The photos above show the famous Cat’s Eye Nebula (NGC 6543), 3,000 light-years away from us, as taken by a standard 200-inch telescope (left) and with the Lucky Camera attached to the same telescope (right). The Lucky camera can zoom in on the kots, jets and arcs that make up the Nebula’s core.

Ground-based telescopes are usually less than ideal for space photos because the Earth’s atmosphere gets in the way, blurring the images. But the Lucky technology—around since the ’70s—overcomes this by taking images of the same stars at a super-high rate: 20 frames per second. Because the Earth’s atmosphere constantly fluctuates, some of these shots blur less than others. The team used computers to merge the best images into the final product.

Check out the researchers’ website for photos of shiny Lucky itself and to read more about its latest gazings.

Images Credit: Caltech’s Palomar Observatory/University of Cambridge Institute of Astronomy


  1. #1 Thad
    September 14, 2007

    It seems that at that frame rate, there won’t be much light collected from faint objects, and averaging such low signal-to-noise results in just more noise. So the Hubble should still win with faint objects that require very long exposures.

  2. #2 Kate
    September 25, 2007

    It’s cheaper that Hubble, yes, but better? As Thad pointed out, there’s a lot of fine print behind the Lucky headline. Future funding for both space- and ground-based telescopes depends on policymakers having an accurate understanding of the complementary functions of each, and it’s irresponsible to spin Lucky this way. Lucky is a real technological innovation–but it won’t be replacing Hubble any time soon.