Speckle imaging

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Speckle imaging describes a range of high-resolution astronomical imaging techniques based either on the shift-and-add ("image stacking") method or on speckle interferometry methods. These techniques can dramatically increase the resolution of ground-based telescopes.


The principle of all the techniques is to take very short exposure images of astronomical targets, and then process the images so as to remove the effects of astronomical seeing. Use of these techniques led to a number of discoveries, including thousands of binary stars that would otherwise look like a single star to a visual observer working with a similar-sized telescope, and the first images of sunspot-like phenomena on other stars. Many of the techniques remain in wide use today, notably when imaging relatively bright targets.

In theory the resolution limit of a telescope is a function of the size of the main mirror, due to the effects of Fraunhofer diffraction. This results in images of distant objects being spread out to a small spot known as the Airy disk. A group of objects spread out over a distance smaller than this limit looks like a single object. Thus larger telescopes can not only image dimmer objects because they collect more light on the larger mirror, but are also able to image smaller objects as well.

This breaks down due to the practical limits imposed by the atmosphere, whose random nature disrupts the single spot of the Airy disk into a pattern of similarly-sized spots covering a much larger area (see image of binary on right). For typical seeing, the practical resolution limits are at mirror sizes well within existing mechanical limits, at a mirror diameter equal to the astronomical seeing parameter r0 - about 20 cm in diameter for visible observations under good conditions. For many years telescope performance was limited by this effect, until the introduction of speckle interferometry and adaptive optics provided paths to remove this limitation.

Speckle imaging recreates the original image through image processing techniques. The key to the technique, found by the American astronomer David L. Fried in 1966, was to take very fast images in which the atmosphere is effectively "frozen" in place.[1] For infrared images, exposure times are on the order of 100 ms, but for the visible region they drop to as little as 10 ms. In images at this time scale, or smaller, the movement of the atmosphere is too sluggish to have an effect; the speckles recorded in the image are a snapshot of the atmospheric seeing at that instant.

Of course there is a downside: taking images at this short an exposure is difficult, and if the object is too dim, not enough light will be captured to make analysis possible. Early uses of the technique in the early 1970s were made on a limited scale using photographic techniques, but since photographic film captures only about 7% of the incoming light, only the brightest of objects could be processed in this way. The introduction of the CCD into astronomy, which captures more than 70% of the light, lowered the bar on practical applications enormously, and today the technique is widely used on bright astronomical objects (e.g. stars and star systems).

The fact that many of the speckle imaging methods have multiple names results largely from amateur astronomers re-inventing existing speckle imaging techniques and giving them new names.

More recently, another use of the technique has developed for industrial applications. By shining a laser (whose smooth wavefront is an excellent simulation of the light from a distant star) on a surface, the resulting speckle pattern can be processed to give detailed images of flaws in the material.


Techniques based on the shift-and-add method[edit]

In one technique called shift-and-add (also called image stacking), the short exposure images are lined up by the brightest speckle and averaged together to give a single output image.[2] In the Lucky Imaging approach, only the best few short exposures are selected. Early shift-and-add techniques aligned images according to the image centroid, giving a lower overall Strehl ratio.

Techniques based on speckle interferometry[edit]

In 1970 the French astronomer Antoine Labeyrie showed that information could be obtained about the high-resolution structure of the object from the speckle patterns using Fourier analysis (speckle interferometry).[3] In the 1980s methods were developed which allowed images to be reconstructed interferometrically from these speckle patterns.

One more recent type of speckle interferometry called speckle masking involves calculation of the bispectrum or closure phases from each of the short exposures.[4] The "average bispectrum" can then be calculated and then inverted to obtain an image. This works particularly well using aperture masks. In this arrangement the telescope aperture is blocked by astronomers apart from a few holes which allow light through, creating a small optical interferometer with better resolving power than the telescope would otherwise have. This aperture masking technique was pioneered by the Cavendish Astrophysics Group.[5][6]

One limitation of the technique is that it requires extensive computer processing of the image, which was hard to come by when the technique was first developed. Although the almost-universal Data General Nova served well in this role, it was slow enough to limit the application to only "important" targets. This limitation has faded away over the years as computing power has increased, and nowadays desktop computers have more than enough power to make such processing a trivial task.


Speckle imaging in biology refers to the underlabeling of periodic cellular components (such as filaments and fibers) so that instead of appearing as a continuous and uniform structure, it appears as a discrete set of speckles. This is due to statistical distribution of the labeled component within unlabeled components. The technique, also known as dynamic speckle enables real-time monitoring of dynamical systems and video image analysis to understand biological processes.

See also[edit]

Example images[edit]

All of these were obtained using speckle imaging and have higher resolution than can be obtained with e.g. the Hubble Space Telescope:


  1. ^ Fried, David L. (1966). "Optical Resolution Through a Randomly Inhomogeneous Medium for Very Long and Very Short Exposures". Journal of the Optical Society of America 56 (10): 1372. doi:10.1364/JOSA.56.001372. 
  2. ^ Baba, N; Isobe, Syuzo; Norimoto, Youji; Noguchi, Motokazu (May 1985). "Stellar speckle image reconstruction by the shift-and-add method". Applied Optics 24 (10): 1403–5. Bibcode:1985ApOpt..24.1403B. doi:10.1364/AO.24.001403. PMID 20440355. 
  3. ^ Labeyrie, Antoine (May 1970). "Attainment of Diffraction Limited Resolution in Large Telescopes by Fourier Analysing Speckle Patterns in Star Images". Astronomy and Astrophysics 6: 85L. Bibcode:1970A&A.....6...85L. 
  4. ^ Weigelt, Gerd (April 1977). "Modified astronomical speckle interferometry 'speckle masking'". Optics Communications 21 (1): 55. Bibcode:1977OptCo..21...55W. doi:10.1016/0030-4018(77)90077-3. 
  5. ^ Baldwin, John; Haniff, C. A.; MacKay, C. D.; Warner, P. J. (April 1986). "Closure phase in high-resolution optical imaging". Nature 320 (6063): 595. Bibcode:1986Natur.320..595B. doi:10.1038/320595a0. 
  6. ^ Baldwin, John; MacKay, C. D.; Titterington, D. J.; Sivia, D.; Baldwin, J. E.; Warner, P. J. (August 1987). "The First Images from Optical Aperture Synthesis". Nature 328 (6132): 694. Bibcode:1987Natur.328..694B. doi:10.1038/328694a0.