Scientists have captured the clearest, highest-resolution images of space yet, with a new type of telescope camera that has an ultra-thin, shape-shifting mirror. The first images captured by the MagAO camera system in Chile are over twice as detailed as those captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, and are capable of resolving details down to 0.02 arcseconds. That's "the equivalent of a dime viewed from more than a hundred miles away," said Laird Close, an astronomy professor at the University of Arizona involved in developing the camera. "At that resolution, you could see a baseball diamond on the moon," he added in a statement.

The initial images focus on the Orion nebula. One image reveals for the first time the separation between a pair of stars that previously appeared as a singular, blurry blob. "As soon as we turned on the MagAO system it was beautifully split into two stars," Close said. Other new imagery captured with the camera includes better, far more detailed views of the disks of gas and dust surrounding young stars in the nebula.

"you could see a baseball diamond on the moon."

The system is in place on one of the twin Magellan telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. The AO stands for "adaptive optics," which refers to the key feature of the new camera system: a mirror 1/16th of an inch thick that's capable of automatically changing its shape in 585 places, 1,000 times a second, to correct the visual distortion effects caused by Earth's atmosphere. The shape-shifting mirror is actually floating 30 feet above the telescope's own mirror on a magnetic field. The system has been in the works for the past 20 years, and previously installed upon another, smaller telescope at the University of Arizona. Scientists published the initial results of their work in three papers this week in The Astrophysical Journal [1][2][3].