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Astronomy

A video interview with Jerry Nelson: giant telescope design

The segmented-mirror telescope pioneer talks about the challenges and innovations of designing the Keck and Thirty Meter Telescope mirrors.

1 October 2010, SPIE Newsroom. DOI: 10.1117/2.3201010.01

SPIE Fellow Jerry Nelson is professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Astronomer for the UC Observatories/Lick Observatory. He received his PhD in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1972.

He is Chief Scientist for the Thirty Meter Telescope project, and previously served as Project Scientist for what is now the Keck Observatory. He was responsible for many parts of its development, including the ideas and implementation of segmented optics, fabrication, and control systems. He was also Founding Director of the Center for Adaptive Optics at UC Santa Cruz (1999-2004).

Nelson's innovation in mirror design was to piece together a large mirror from a number of smaller tiles which would be much lighter. He devised a way to grind the tiles into the unusual asymmetric shapes needed and a system of sensors, actuators and computer control to make the tiles act as a single reflecting surface.

Nelson was named a winner of the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics -- along with Ray Wilson, formerly of Imperial College London and the European Southern Observatory, and Roger Angel, of the University of Arizona -- for innovations in the field of telescope design. They received the prize at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway, in September 2010.

He was interviewed in June 2010 at the SPIE Astronomical Telescopes and Instrumentation symposium in San Diego, where he was a keynote speaker.