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New Mirror-Coating Technology Promises Dramatic Improvements in Telescopes

Materials scientist Nobuhiko Kobayashi wasn't quite sure why the astronomer he met at a wine-tasting several years ago was so interested in his research, but as he learned more about telescope mirrors it began to make sense.

"It turns out that improving the performance of mirrors is all about thin-film materials, and that's what I do. So then I got hooked," said Kobayashi.

The astronomer was Joseph Miller, former director of UC Observatories (UCO), whose interest led to a thriving collaboration between Kobayashi and UC Santa Cruz astronomers Andrew Phillips and Michael Bolte. With funding from the National Science Foundation and support from current UCO director Claire Max, the researchers are developing new protective coatings for large silver-based telescope mirrors by adapting a technique widely used in the microelectronics industry.

According to Phillips, most astronomical telescope mirrors use aluminum for the reflective layer, despite the superior reflective properties of silver. "Silver is the most reflective material, but it is finicky to work with, and it tarnishes and corrodes easily," he said. "You need barrier layers on top that can keep anything from getting through to the silver without messing up the optical characteristics of the mirror."

Existing telescopes could substantially increase their efficiency by recoating their mirrors with silver instead of aluminum. "It is by far the cheapest way to make our telescopes effectively bigger," said Bolte. "The reason we want bigger telescopes is to collect more light, so if your mirrors reflect more light it's like making them bigger."

The new coating technology being developed at UC Santa Cruz could make that feasible. The researchers are using a technique called atomic layer deposition (ALD), which gradually builds a thin film of material, one molecular layer at a time, with excellent uniformity, thickness control, and conformity to the surface of the substrate. In a pilot study, ALD provided much better protective coatings for silver mirror samples than traditional physical deposition techniques.



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