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Staff Profile: Joe Ritter

Joe Ritter

Joe Ritter is a physicist and optics/electronics engineer at the IfA Maikalani Advanced Technology Research Center on Maui. He is working on a number of cutting-edge projects that sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but in fact are very real.

Perhaps the most fascinating of these projects is the development of novel materials for large ultra-lightweight space telescopes. This project involves a material called a photonic muscle, a new invention that converts light to motion. Ritter is applying this technology to advanced optical instrumentation with the goal of making a large, lightweight, inflatable space telescope that uses beams of light to actively and precisely control the shape of a flimsy telescope mirror. The mirror would be as thin as plastic wrap, would weigh only a few pounds, and would unravel the mysteries of the Universe at one percent the cost of current technologies.

Using devices to control light that are themselves controlled by light opens the possibility of innovative optical feedback devices. The hope is to develop adaptive optics that measure, compute, and correct atmospheric distortions using beams of light rather than digital computers and expensive electronics.

At the Maikalani labs, Ritter has also constructed a prototype of a new kind telescope. Instead of using a mirror, this device collects light with a flat low-cost grating, a grooved surface that splits light into its component colors. Gratings for this telescope can be very large, produced by the mile and simply unrolled, and cost a tiny fraction of what high-quality scientific gratings normally cost. The hope is to make a large inexpensive spectral survey space telescope capable of acquiring over a million stellar spectra per night.

Ritter collaborates with colleagues at IfA Maui, Manoa, and Hilo on two federally funded adaptive optics programs to make AO systems that can actively adapt to changing conditions and that can image objects 100 times dimmer than currently possible.

Besides his research, Ritter has taken the lead for developing several new laboratories at Maikalani. "Our new interdisciplinary laboratory facilities will not only further scientific research, but also collaborations. We work with government agencies, educators, and technology partners from Hawai'i, the mainland, and other nations. Science builds bridges. Green high-tech industries pumped $145 million into the Maui economy last year alone. The Maikalani labs are a nexus for people to come together, share resources, and to jointly innovate," Ritter says.

Ritter also chairs the Maui County Outdoor Lighting Committee, which tries to keep Hawai'i skies dark at night. "Light pollution is the easiest kind to prevent," he says. "It affects not only our ability to see dim and distant galaxies, but also can be devastating to infant sea turtles, insects, migrating birds, bats, and other animals." He adds that studies show it even can be harmful to humans. The committee's goal is to work with community leaders and civil agencies to find the balance between safety and environmental concerns, to lower energy use, and of course to protect and enhance astronomy in Hawai'i.

Joe Ritter believes that having the big picture (an interdisciplinary view) is critical to scientific advancement. His previous research has covered many fields, including biochemistry, space plasma physics, and satellite oceanography. He was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and received his PhD in physics from the University of Miami. He enjoys scuba diving, hiking, cooking, and building novel devices.