Conjugate Plane Photometry: Reducing Scintillation Noise in Ground-Based Astronomical Photometry

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Physics


Scintillation is the phenomenon that we observe as the 'twinkling' of stars. It results from the optical effect of high-altitude turbulence in the Earth's atmosphere which, at any given time, diverts a fraction of the starlight into or out of the receiving aperture (e.g. telescope or eye) at the ground. This results in a rapid fluctuation of the total light intensity observed. For a large telescope, these fluctuations are averaged over the aperture area, so that the degree of 'twinkling' seen through a large telescope is much less than for the naked eye. However, for some types of telescope observations, these small residual intensity fluctuations are of critical importance: in particular for high-speed measurements of rapidly changing phenomena, such as the reduction in the measured light intensity which results when an extra-solar planet passes behind its parent star, as seen from Earth.

The dip in brightness resulting from such an exoplanet eclipse is usually very small (much less than 0.1%), since the planet contributes only a small fraction of the total light from the system. However, accurate observations of such eclipses can provide a wealth of information about the planet and its orbit around the parent star. For observations from the ground, scintillation noise limits the accuracy with which the eclipse 'light curve' can be determined so that, until now, the best data have typically been obtained with space-based telescopes, above the effects of the Earth's atmosphere.

Here we propose to develop a new technique, known as 'Conjugate Plane Photometry' to effectively 'un-twinkle' photometric observations with ground-based telescopes. In this method, the high-altitude turbulent layer is focused onto a circular mask within the optical system of the instrument. The mask aperture is slightly smaller than the diameter of the telescope itself. This mask rejects that part of the starlight, close to the edge of the telescope aperture, that could have been diverted by the high turbulence into or out of the telescope, causing scintillation. The size of intensity fluctuations due to scintillation are then greatly reduced, so that more accurate photometric observations become possible with ground-based telescopes.

Our proposed research seeks to demonstrate the full potential of the conjugate-plane photometry technique by developing a prototype instrument and deploying it on a large telescope. The ultimate goal of the work will be to demonstrate that photometric observations of phenomena such as exoplanet eclipses can be made from the ground with an accuracy approaching that which is possible with space-based telescopes.

Planned Impact

The main long-term science application of the technology to be developed under this proposal is in the area of exoplanet research - specifically, physical characterization of exoplanets and their atmospheres via the observation of eclipse light-curves. Exoplanet science is of enormous and widespread public interest: no astronomy topic engages public imagination more. The development of new astronomical technologies is also of wide interest, and is a good subject on which to base public outreach topics and events - it combines the popular topic of astronomy with the application of new technologies (e.g. adaptive optics) that span a range of industrial applications and other fields. In our experience, this combination of pure science and the application of developing technologies is also very effective in attracting students into physics via astronomy at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. In the current economic climate we may also expect favourable public perception of projects such as this, which aim to achieve results via ground-based observations that could previously only be made from space at far greater cost

Historically there are a number of precedents for developments in imaging technology and methods pioneered within astronomy finding applications in other fields, such as medical imaging and surveillance; for example aspects of the development of CCDs, adaptive optics, interferometric and 'lucky' imaging methods. It will be important to achieve suitable dissemination of the theoretical and applied developments in scintillation suppression within the frame of this study, to promote possible adaptation and exploitation in other disciplines.

The PI and Co/I will ensure the wide dissemination of the results of this work by building on their previous experience in public engagement, and via the resources available to them within the host institutions and more widely through the research councils and the HEA. The PI has previously produced astronomy-based outreach material for schools and has initiated and supervised Durham undergraduate projects based on the development of school resources for the teaching of astronomy. The Co/I regularly issues press releases announcing major Ultracam results, e.g. see the Ultracam web pages:

Specific paths for dissemination will include Departmental and group web pages that are actively maintained at Durham (CfAI) and Sheffield. Public engagement in the topic through public lectures and outreach activities, including department open days and school visits, will be facilitated by the PI and Co/I individually, and in collaboration with departmental Outreach Officers. We anticipate writing an article for the STFC Innovations Club newsletter on the general technique of scintillation suppression and its possible applications.


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Fritzewski D (2016) Long-term photometry of IC 348 with the Young Exoplanet Transit Initiative network in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Hardy L (2017) Hunting for eclipses: high-speed observations of cataclysmic variables in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Muñoz-Darias T (2017) Flares, wind and nebulae: the 2015 December mini-outburst of V404 Cygni in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters

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Osborn J (2015) Atmospheric scintillation in astronomical photometry in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Shepherd H (2014) Stereo-SCIDAR: optical turbulence profiling with high sensitivity using a modified SCIDAR instrument in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

Description The technique of Conjugate-Plane Photometry for correction of scintillation noise in astronomical photometry was developed and demonstrated successfully at the La Palma observatory. The technique reduces the effects of atmospheric scintillation ('twinkling') which is a limiting noise source for accurate photometric studies of bright stars.
Exploitation Route The technique may be applied to improve the accuracy of ground-based telescope observations of transiting exoplanets, so that the astrophysical parameters of exo-planetary systems can be determined in greater detail than was previously possible.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine

Description ERC advanced grant
Amount £51,623 (GBP)
Organisation European Research Council (ERC) 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 01/2014 
End 12/2018
Description Collaboration with Sheffield University on scintillation correction 
Organisation University of Sheffield
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Conception, development and testing of the conjugate plane photometry technique.
Collaborator Contribution Scientific drivers and application of the conjugate plane photometry technique.
Impact Further funding through ERC advanced grant funding (Sheffield P.I.).
Start Year 2010