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!