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New Faculty: Christoph Baranec

Christoph Baranec with Robo-AO.

Christoph Baranec with Robo-AO on the 60-inch Palomar telescope. Photo courtesy C. Baranec.

Christoph Baranec joined the IfA faculty at the beginning of July. Although his bachelor’s degree is in astronomy, his PhD is in optical sciences, and he specializes in creating adaptive optics systems, which compensate for turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere that normally blurs light from celestial bodies. (See “Adaptive Optics: Taking the Twinkle Out of Stars” in Nā Kilo Hōkū no. 21.) He is particularly interested in using adaptive optics systems to study exoplanets and their environments.

While most large telescopes with mirrors 5 meters (16 feet) in diameter or more are equipped with adaptive optics systems, most smaller telescopes forgo the enhancing technology due to complexity and cost. As a postdoctoral researcher at Caltech, Baranec led an international team that created an innovative laser adaptive optics system called Robo-AO for the 60-inch (1.5-meter) telescope on Mt. Palomar in California. Because this system is automated, it can be used to carry out large-scale surveys with maximum efficiency, respond to new discoveries such as supernovae, or observe the same target over and over to see how it changes over time. The system is currently being used to take high-resolution images of all the candidate exoplanet host stars identified by NASA’s Kepler mission.

He also helped create the Palomar Observatory’s PALM-3000 adaptive optics system, the first of the so-called extreme adaptive optics systems, which allow astronomers to peer ever closer to the area around nearby stars to find planets. The system has already been used to take simultaneous spectra of the four extrasolar planets orbiting a star called HR 8799. For his PhD research at the University of Arizona, he worked on building and commissioning a multiple-laser wide-field adaptive optics system for the MMT Observatory.

While at IfA he plans to bring his expertise to the telescopes of Hawai‘i. He intends to deploy an improved version of Robo-AO on the UH 2.2-meter telescope, as well as develop new technologies and techniques for the existing large telescopes. This technology will ultimately be used on the future Thirty Meter Telescope.

Aside from research, Baranec is interested in surfing, canoeing, and mountain biking on the Big Island. He also has a passion for electronic music and enjoys building his own stereo equipment.

Video about Robo-AO