Big science

Big Science

noun: scientific research that requires massive capital investment but is expected to yield very significant results

One of the arguments for government funding of science is that without massive funding that no private organization can realistically be expected to provide, realms of reality remain inaccessible to scientists, in particular the very small, the very distant, the very brief, the very high energy, and so on.

At any given time, it is surely true that the more you spend, the more you can do. But what if you're willing to wait ten or twenty or thirty years? Can a modest investment in 2007 rival a massive investment in 1990? In one case, apparently, it can.

Can a $20,000 camera coupled to a 60-year-old telescope shoot sharper images than the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope? Absolutely, say astronomers from the University of Cambridge and the California Institute of Technology.

To prove their point they suggest looking at the top of the Mount Palomar Observatory near San Diego. This summer a team from both universities grafted their “Lucky imaging” system onto the observatory’s Hale Telescope and aimed it at M13, a star cluster that’s 25,000 light years away. The results were much better than they expected. “What we’ve done for the first time is produce the highest-resolution [images] ever taken--and we took them from the ground,” says Craig Mackay of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, who led the team. “We are getting twice the resolution of Hubble.”

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That's not the same thing

As far as I can tell that isn't the same object. What if the hubble picture was a galaxy and the other picture were of a star in that galaxy.

How often do you get lucky?

It is a useful technique, but not all that new. See http://www.ast.cam.ac.uk/~optics/Lucky_Web_Site/index.htm
Basically, they capture sequential frames with a fast framing camera, select out the ones that "look good" (i.e., the "lucky" ones), and add them up. The problem is, they throw away a lot of photons, so can only look at fairly bright objects and only over a very narrow field of view. There is a good discussion at the website.

There are other techniques for "speckle imaging" and actual wavefront correction ("guide stars") that should be compared to this technique.

The real question is, is 1.5

The real question is, is 1.5 Billion plus having the results in 1990 better than waiting 17 years to get the same picture for $20,000? What is the time value of a scientific finding?