Patenting the Future: Academy physicist develops satellite imaging technology

Optical equipment lie on a working table Jan. 22 in the Laser and Optics Research Center at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Desiree N. Palacios)

Optical equipment lie on a working table Jan. 22 in the Laser and Optics Research Center at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Desiree N. Palacios)

Air Force Cadet Will Holmes conducts holographic adaptics optics research with Army Cadet Richard Carter and Geoffrey Andersen Jan. 22 at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo. Andersen is a research associate, teaches cadets and conducts experiments at the Laser and Optics Research Center. Cadet Carter is a junior in a exchange unit from West Point and Cadet Holmes is a senior at the academy. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Desiree N. Palacios)

Air Force Cadet Will Holmes conducts holographic adaptics optics research with Army Cadet Richard Carter and Geoffrey Andersen Jan. 22 at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo. Andersen is a research associate, teaches cadets and conducts experiments at the Laser and Optics Research Center. Cadet Carter is a junior in a exchange unit from West Point and Cadet Holmes is a senior at the academy. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Desiree N. Palacios)

Geoffrey Andersen conducts holographic adaptics optics research with Army Cadet Richard Carter and Air Force Cadet Will Holmes Jan. 22 at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo. Andersen is a research associate, teaches cadets and conducts experiments at the Laser and Optics Research Center. Cadet Carter is a junior in a exchange unit from West Point and Cadet Holmes is a senior at the academy. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Desiree N. Palacios)

Geoffrey Andersen conducts holographic adaptics optics research with Army Cadet Richard Carter and Air Force Cadet Will Holmes Jan. 22 at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo. Andersen is a research associate, teaches cadets and conducts experiments at the Laser and Optics Research Center. Cadet Carter is a junior in a exchange unit from West Point and Cadet Holmes is a senior at the academy. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Desiree N. Palacios)

Air Force Cadet Will Holmes adjusts an optical mount as he conducts holographic adaptics optics research Jan. 22 at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo. Cadet Holmes is a senior at the academy.(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Desiree N. Palacios)

Air Force Cadet Will Holmes adjusts an optical mount as he conducts holographic adaptics optics research Jan. 22 at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo. Cadet Holmes is a senior at the academy.(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Desiree N. Palacios)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- From childhood, most remember singing the song, "Twinkle, twinkle, little star," at one time or another.

There's just one problem with this little ditty.

"Stars don't twinkle," said Dr. Geoff Andersen, a physicist at the U.S. Air Force Academy. "This is just the effect of atmospheric turbulence on our ability to see into space."

This turbulence not only has led to the creation of catchy tune, but it makes it harder for ground-based telescopes to see into space. It also makes it harder for these telescopes to see satellites orbiting high above the earth.

So, Dr. Andersen, who works in the Academy's Laser and Optics Research Center, is developing a new capability that will allow satellites to be seen and see clearer.

Dr. Andersen developed and holds the patent for the process, which is called holographic adaptive optics. It uses sensors and lenses that can correct for disturbances in the atmosphere, making objects in space appear clearer.

The process uses adaptive technology to compensate for this turbulence.

"Think of it like wearing a pair of glasses," Dr. Andersen said. "When someone has poor eyesight, the prescription compensates for this and makes his or her eyesight better. This process is similar. It uses adaptive optics so telescopes can see into space better."

This is important to the Air Force because it will allow operators to better see satellites. For instance, if a satellite stops communicating with people on the ground, they can view it through a telescope to see if they can determine what caused it to go off the grid.

"Naturally, the clearer you can see the satellite, the easier it will be to diagnose the problem," Dr. Andersen said.

Air Force officials have been using various forms of technology to view satellites for several decades, but the equipment used to perform this is expensive, computer intensive and large.

"The computer itself is as large as a fridge," Dr. Andersen said.

The physicist's new system uses holograms and is condensed into a device the size of a standard DVD player.

This makes it cheaper and opens the door to new possibilities.

"We could place one of these devices on a satellite and then the satellite would be able to see down to earth with a crystal image," Dr. Andersen said.

Devices also could be placed on unmanned aircraft, allowing them to produce a clearer image for combatant commanders. UAs are perfect candidates for this technology due to their type and height of flight, Dr. Andersen said.

"UAs produce their own turbulence when flying and they tend to fly in the general area where atmospheric turbulence is high," he said. "This new technology would eliminate these problems and allow the UA to produce a high-quality, sharp image."

The adaptive optics technology goes beyond having only military applications. It also has uses within the medical arena, especially that of laser eye surgery.

"This technology will make eye surgery more precise and specialized," Dr. Andersen said.

Capabilities aside, Dr. Andersen said he is proud to be instrumental in the creation of this holographic technology. And being on the cutting edge of technology is nothing new to the physicist. Since beginning his 13-year tenure at the Academy he's earned a total of four patents.

But he doesn't look for new ideas and technologies just to add to his resume. He does it to help the students he teaches, cadets who will head out into the Air Force and take what they learn with them.

"They get hands on to help find solutions using research," he said.

The students are happy to help, knowing that the work they are doing today could possibly shape the imagery technology of tomorrow.

"It makes it really worth it knowing there's a real-world application for what we're doing here in the laboratory," said Cadet Will Holmes, a senior at the Academy. "And it's great getting to work with Dr. Andersen."

Stars may not twinkle, twinkle, but they sure will be easier to see.