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Working Papers: Astronomy and Astrophysics Panel Reports
Figure 1. (Left) Optical interference fringes observed with an aperture mask (4.5 meter baseline) on a conventional telescope (Readhead et al 1988); (Middle) between subapertures on the Multiple Mirror Telescope (Hege et al, 1985); (Right) between independently mounted telescopes (15 meter baseline) at the CERGA observatory in France (Koechlin, 1984).
being carried out, albeit in a limited way. Aperture synthesis, which combines beams from multiple apertures to achieve the resolution of a much larger aperture, has been extended to the optical regime. Already an astrometric interferometer operates regularly on Mt. Wilson, actively controlled with a precision exceeding the optical tolerances of many large telescopes, while nearby an infrared interferometer monitors the formation of dust in the shells of stars. Interferometry is the most accurate technique for measurement of stellar diameters, with results from France, Australia, and most recently in the United States surpassing the accuracy of lunar occultation techniques.
Infrared/Optical interferometry will have a profound impact on astronomy. Current seeing and aperture limits to resolution will be surpassed by orders of magnitude. Telescope arrays planned for this decade may revolutionize stellar astronomy, yielding unprecedented detail about stellar surfaces, atmospheres, shells, companions, and winds. These future instruments will allow imagery with msec resolution of oblateness of rotationally distorted stars, of chromospheric structures, of jets from young stellar objects, and of narrow line emission regions in Seyfert galaxies. Arrays of the next decade, on the ground and in space, will advance IR/optical interferometry to a sophistication comparable to that achieved by the radio astronomy community in the Very Large Array.
Interferometry also promises remarkable opportunities for astrometry. Already ground-based interferometry is approaching a precision of 1 msec. Space missions of the 1990's and beyond should improve this performance initially by at least two orders of magnitude. It will be possible to determine an accurate parallax for any observable point source in the galaxy, and to measure proper motions of stars throughout the galaxy and the local galaxy group.
Numerous research groups, including several in the U.S., have initiated construction of arrays of two or three telescopes for imaging interferometry and astrometry in the visible and infrared. We recommend significant support, to assist rapid continued progress in this area. Specifically, we recommend support for a range of facilities operating in the visible and infrared with small and medium-aperture telescopes. Such breadth of activity is critical to the development of the field. By the end of the decade it will be essential to have in operation an array of five or more telescopes of medium aperture (1.5-2.5 meters). This array is required to achieve important infrared science objectives, to fully develop interferometry in the extreme multi-ro condition, and to serve as a critical stepping stone to a very large optical array. This array of medium apertures will extend the reach of interferometric imaging to many YSO's and galactic nuclei, returning the science and technical experience needed for developments of the next decade.
As with radio interferometry, IR/optical interferometry will reach its full potential with large, well populated arrays of moderate to large aperture telescopes. We therefore recommend, for the latter part of the decade, the development of a plan for a Very Large Optical Array, to be built in the period 2000-2005. Composed of perhaps 20 medium-aperture telescopes, each equipped with adaptive optics, this array will achieve aperture synthesis imaging with sub-msec resolution of active galactic nuclei, novae, stellar accretion disks and QSO's.