In astronomy, seeing farther and fainter than ever before requires three simultaneous approaches.
1.) Building bigger telescopes, gathering more light and yielding higher resolutions.
2.) Upgrading your instruments, optimizing the data from each arriving photon.
3.) Overcoming the distortive effects of Earth’s atmosphere.
The easiest way to overcome the atmosphere is from space, avoiding it entirely.
However, space telescopes are expensive, hard to service, and size/payload-limited.
Significantly larger telescopes can be constructed on the ground, where Earth’s atmosphere is unavoidable.
Even at high altitudes, with smooth, dry air and cloudless skies, atmospheric distortion is severely limiting.
That’s where the science of Adaptive Optics comes in.