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: Jonica Newby
: Caoline Penry Davey
: Lucy Andrew
11 August 2005
Narration: When you're surrounded by a typical Australian
physics department, it's easy to see why your thoughts might drift to
the heavens ...
... to dream of seeing things no human has ever seen.
Tuthill wasn't just searching for any old star - he dreamed of finding
one of the rarest; the Wolf-Rayet; the stellar dragon.
Dr Peter Tuthill:
They're big and powerful. They're maybe five or six times hotter than
our own sun. And they breathe fire. They actually breathe fire. They
have these immense powerful winds and they puff smoke, yeah they're
Narration: But like any good quest, Peter was
about to face some serious obstacles. First, a barrier that had
frustrated astronomers for centuries. It's called the atmosphere.
JN PTC: Now don't worry - we're not trying to invite you to a physics party. We're just trying to create a little atmosphere.
JN: So how's this like the atmosphere exactly?
Dr Peter Tuthill:
The atmosphere's a turbulent column of air and it distorts our ability
to make clear pictures of the starts. It's why stars twinkle. And we're
creating an exaggerated version of the atmosphere by looking at the
heat coming off this barbecue. You can see the image is very distorted:
JN: Oh yeah. So that's what the atmosphere does to your vision of the stars - how annoying.
Narration: It's an annoyance modern humans have gone to extreme lengths to get around.
The Hubble telescope has been placed in space.
massive earth bound telescopes use flexible mirrors and complex
software to compensate constantly for atmospheric distortion.
Despite costing billions, none have managed a close enough look at a Wolf - Rayet.
Dr Peter Tuthill: We've just had this fuzzy shimmering blobs and we've had to try and guess what they look like.
Narration: But then Peter thought: forget the futuristic technology - what if the secret to seeing dragons lay in the past?
He decided to try a bit of time travel.
PTC: This is Sydney Observatory and this telescope was built in the 1870's. Isn't it stunning.
Narration: Even if it does look a bit like a Dalek.
1868, a man called Fizeau came up with an unusual method of atmospheric
avoidance. He made a little mask - a bit like this one.
Dr Peter Tuthill: You can see it's really simple its just got these two holes and its simply mounts on the front of the telescope like this.
It works like this. Imagine a choir, where each singer is like a beam
of light. Put the atmosphere in front though, and they're all out of
But the mask removes most of the singers.
Dr Peter Tuthill: It's much easier to then pick out a couple of singers - a couple of rays of light - and to get them in perfect harmony.
Whereas Fizeau used his eyes, Peter found he could harmonise key light
rays coming through the mask using modern computing power.
designed a sophisticated mask - it cost all of $100. Now for his
biggest challenge - convincing a whole lot of guys in Hawaii to lend
him their beautiful hundred million dollar Keck telescope, and let him
put his little Aussie invention on top.
Dr Peter Tuthill: Firstly they thought I'd take my big heavy mask and drop it on something and break something.
the second thing I had to convince them of was - I'm taking the world's
biggest telescope and I'm turning it into one of the world's smaller
telescopes. So persuading people that this wasn't a silly idea was
actually quite challenging.
Narration: But eventually, the Hawaiians let him in.
Later, back in his humble physics hovel in Australia, Peter crunched the numbers.
He began to home in ... past the Hubble images ...
And there, astonishingly, the worlds first clear view of a dragon.
Dr Peter Tuthill:
Oh the first picture of the wolf-rayet - I actually believed we must
have got something wrong. We saw this amazing little spiral thing. And
I thought there's just got to be something crazy here. There's no star
that looks like a spiral.
Narration: But it was - a bright star with a spiral tail.
more, for incredibly small but bright objects like a Wolf Rayet, Peters
old fashioned masking method gave 5 times the resolution of the Hubble
Dr Peter Tuthill: Astronomy is very driven by
technology So to beat a lot of really high tech modern approaches with
this relic, with this dinosaur. It's been a lot of fun.
Narration: It just shows if you dream of exploring the universe sometimes it pays to look to the past.
Dr Peter Tuthill
University of Sydney
Peter Tuthill's website
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