No target practice, please

Most people know that Americans have a special relationship with their flag, and with firearms. This sometimes pose challenges and some interesting solutions when expensive astronomical equipment needs to be transported by rail or road to remote locations.

Sometimes, people are taking pot shots at containers on cargo trains and at freight trucks on highways in the US (or in rural areas elsewhere, for that matter). It’s not an uncommon occurrence. But naturally one wants to avoid this when transporting sensitive equipment.

During the construction of the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona in 2003, the two 8.4m mirrors needed to be transported from the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab in Tucson (they do public tours and it’s worth visiting), to Mt. Graham, the site of the telescope. Transporting such large chunks of glass is no small feat and it requires great care, to ensure that the mirror is not shaken, bent, or otherwise damaged during transportation. The transport crew, mainly being veterans, were understandably proud of playing an important role in the construction of the telescope. They had mounted ahuge American flag on the side of the transport box, primarily out of patriotism, but it had the added benefit that this typically discourages people from shooting, out of respect for the flag and not wanting to damage it. The history of shooting at big boxes goes all the way back to the transportation of the 200 inch mirror to Mt. Palomar by rail in 1936, so mounting the flag had multiple purposes

The drive from Tucson to Mt. Graham takes a couple of hours by car, but when transporting sensitive equipment, one is typically not driving at highway-type speeds. So the transport of the mirrors took more than a day, and the truck spent the night parked at the side of the road. The next day, the transport crew attached a number of fake bullet hole stickers to the transport box, to prank the crew on the telescope construction site. Whether they were fooled or not remains unknown, but one shouldn’t let a good opportunity for a prank be wasted.


One of the LBT mirrors on it’s way to Mt. Graham. Photo credit: University of Arizona LBT project group.

Thanks to John Hill and Tom Herbst for providing details for this story.

The casket with an IMPACT

Most astronomical instruments do not come in anything that resembles standard shapes and sizes of normal cargo. It’s not like you go down to the local post office and ask for “one of those boxes for shipping satellites you have out back”. Getting the instruments from A to B usually requires a little more effort, as it is sensitive equipment, often in odd shapes. But sometimes you are in the lucky situation where a more ordinary container can be used with success.


Artists’ illustration of one of the STEREO satellites. Photo credit: NASA STEREO

In October 2006, NASA launched the STEREO mission, which consists of two, nearly identical satellites, with the purpose of making stereoscopic observations of the Sun to study, for instance, coronal mass ejections and other Solar phenomena. But first the satellite and the instruments on board had to be assembled, which involved shipping some instrument parts in… non-standard containers.

The IMPACT instrument, which is used to study the energetic particles from the Sun, is mounted on a large extendable boom that would be deployed after the satellite had launched. But first the boom and the instrument had to get to the facility where the satellite would be assembled.

On one of many travels from a STEREO meeting, the IMPACT project manager, Dave Curtis, and IMPACT engineer Jeremy McCauley were discussing the status of the instrument. They had come up with a stable and functional design for the boom, but schedule was getting tight. The boom had to be sent to Los Angeles for testing, only a few weeks in the future.

Jeremy had been running the preliminary design numbers and figured that they needed a roughly man-sized box to transport the boom. To this, Dave quipped, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could just use a coffin?” They had a good laugh about that, and went back to work.


The STEREO boom transport case. Thanks to Eric Bellm for providing the photo.

A few days later, Jeremy returned to Dave’s office, asking if he had been serious about using a coffin. He had researched both options, and learned some interesting facts about caskets along the way.

Caskets can be made from metal, which was a requirement for STEREO, and one could be bought for $6000 and delivered within two days. For comparison, a custom built metal case would’ve cost more than $12,000 and taken 6 weeks to get delivered. Being on a tight schedule, the choice was obvious. A casket was ordered, and the boom shipped to LA in this rather unconventional container.

One additional thing had made using a casket especially attractive – it turned out that every wide-body airplane has a special space for a casket to be transported in the nose of the plane.  So, not only was it cheaper and faster, but shipping was significantly easier since it was a container in a standard form that people were used to dealing with.

This shipment no doubt raised more than a few eyebrows, and one can only imagine what went through the heads of the people dealing with it. Was some old, worn-out instrument getting retired and transported to its final resting place? Do NASA really send dead aliens in caskets? Or had some high-ranking official within the organization passed away? Sadly it was not nearly that interesting, it was merely some astronomers being dead serious about getting their instruments delivered on time.

It’s also a good example that not everything in astronomy needs to be custom-made. Sometimes less will do just fine, even if less means something unconventional.

Thanks to Jeremy McCauley for providing this anecdote.

Under pressure

At the Australian Astronomical Observatory, there had been a problem with irregular air pressure in the mechanics for the robot positioning the optical fibers for the AAOmega multi-object spectrograph, mounted on the 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope. This is of course not ideal, since it is crucial that the optical fibers are positioned accurately and correctly. If not, they will fail to catch the light from the stars they are meant to observe, and no light will reach the spectrograph. What was needed, was something that could even out those irregularities, and maintain the pressure at a steady level, so one did not suddenly have a fault at a critical time during observing.

Naturally, this calls for specialized equipment, which here means something like “reach for the nearest container that can withstand some pressure and attach to instrument.” Luckily, a very specific kind of container is usually found in ample supply around telescopes. These containers can withstand a pressure of around 100 PSI, or approximately 7 bar, before they burst, so unless you are dealing with really high pressure, they are fairly sturdy.

The high tech pressure vessel attached to the 2dF fiber positioner robot at the AAT. Photo credit: Anna Sippel

The high tech pressure vessel attached to the 2dF fiber positioning robot at the AAT. Photo credit: Anna Sippel

They look something like what you see in this photo, it should be familiar to most people. This “pressure vessel” did perform its job well, and managed to even out the irregularities in the pressure, so the instrument could continue to perform observations as planned. It was kept as a working solution for a couple of weeks, until a more suitable solution was found and installed.

The replacement happened to be installed just before the Minister of Science was due to visit the telescope. Not that these things were necessarily connected, but one could envision a few raised eyebrows, had the bottle still been on when the officials were given the grand tour of the telescope.

Good thing that astronomers need lots and lots of sugary, caffeinated drinks to keep them going through the long hours of observing. So keep drinking that coke. It may not be healthy, but you never know when you’ll be in urgent need of a pressure container to keep your instrument running!

Shake it, baby

At the 2.5m Nordic Optical Telescope on La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain, efforts had been ongoing to improve the performance of the FIES spectrograph so that improved radial velocity measurements could be made.  This would hopefully lead to a higher success rate in the detection of exoplanets, as well as other areas of astronomy, requiring accurate measurements of the motions of stars.

One way to improve the accuracy is to ensure that the light entering the spectrograph, and hits the spectrograph grating, is as uniform as possible. If you have a spectrograph that is fed by an optical fiber, like FIES, it will usually suffer from modal noise which creates a speckle-pattern of the light hitting the grating. This pattern depends both on how the light enters the fiber and on the wavelength on the light itself. So, in other words, you do not have a uniform light. There are many ways of getting rid of this speckle pattern, most of which are referred to as “scrambling”. One way of achieving scrambling is to shake the fiber while you are observing your star. This will mean that the speckle pattern moves around and is effectively “smeared out”, resulting in a more uniform illumination of the instrument.

Always striving to make the most of their instrument, it was decided to implement a fiber shaker, with the expectation that this would be an efficient way to improve FIES. However, fiber shakers are not exactly off-the-shelf items,  so as the true entrepreneurs they are, the staff decided to build their own fiber shaker. After all, building something that shakes back and forth is not exactly rocket science.

The first fiber shaker prototype at the Nordic Optical Telescope.

The first fiber shaker prototype at the Nordic Optical Telescope. Photo Credit: Nordic Optical Telescope

Since the Nordic Optical Telescope is run by the Scandinavian countries, there was very little choice, really, as to what materials should be used to build the fiber shaker prototype. Staying true to the favourite building blocks of any sensible person from the Nordic countries, a shaking mechanism was quickly constructed out of LEGO, and set to work at the telescope. LEGO being as awesome as it is, this fiber shaker actually improved the performance, but unfortunately the shaker had to be decommissioned after a few weeks, as the person in charge (aka the instrument scientist’s son) demanded his toys back. It also turned out that although LEGO is great, it isn’t quite sturdy enough for prolonged use as a fiber shaking mechanism.

It was naturally disappointing that the shaker had to be taken out of use after such a short period of time, but these kind of setbacks are not something that kills the spirit of an instrument scientist. It merely represent a challenge to come up with a better solution. So once again, the staff was off hunting a shaking, vibrating contraption, to replace the LEGO scrambler. This did not take long, since people apparently have all sorts of things stashed away in attics and basements.

The fiber shaker upgrade at the Nordic Optical Telescope. Much more potent than the first version.

The fiber shaker upgrade at the Nordic Optical Telescope. Much more potent than the first version. Note the essential duct tape, holding the optical fiber in place. Photo credit: Nordic Optical Telescope.

Meet the fiber shaker prototype 2: Bigger, better, sturdier. An item more commonly known as a foot massager, but now enjoying a life as an integral part of  a modern-day telescope. That gotta be more exciting than retirement, or massaging people’s smelly feet! At the time of writing, the foot massager is still sitting comfortably in the dome of the Nordic Optical Telescope.

In related news, the staff at the Wendelstein Observatory outside of Munich, Germany, implemented a low-frequency fiber shaker, built from the car-wipe engine from an old car belonging to one of the observatory staff members. When the fiber optics specialists at one point asked in horror; “But aren’t you worried that you will damage the optical fiber with all this shaking?” the instrument scientist replied; “Well… a while back, someone forgot to turn the wiper engine off, so we had it running continuously for more than a month, and the fiber was just fine. So no, we’re not overly concerned about that.”

Due to the ingenuity of engineers and scientists such as these, functional solutions are made with whatever equipment they have in hand. Best part? It often works! And after all, being able to claim that a foot massager is an important part of an astronomical instrument, is rather cool, really.