$6M rebuild of burnt instrument first job for astro-engineers

A new Advanced Instruments and Engineering Facility will be established on Mt Stromlo, establishing new capability for precision optics manufacture and an expanded research and development program.

While the Facility is being developed, Mt Stromlo Observatory’s internationally-renowned technical and research staff will focus their attention on the $6 million rebuild of an astronomy instrument that was destroyed in January’s fires.

ANU has signed an agreement with commercial aerospace partner Auspace to rebuild the Near-infrared Integral-Field Spectrograph, (NIFS) for the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii.

ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Chubb said the agreement was an important milestone in the recovery of Mt Stromlo.

“We have taken a very important commercial, practical and symbolic step by signing the contract to rebuild the NIFS,” Professor Chubb said.

NIFS and Instrument Team In May 2002 The NIFS Instrument after the fires of 18 Jan 2003 NIFS to be rebuilt by 2005


The NIFS is an infra-red device which will allow researchers to probe areas of the Universe which are shielded from view by cosmic dust. Work packages will be shared between ANU and Auspace to save time and the instrument is expected to be completed by 2005.

The Director of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Professor Penny Sackett, said the contract was an uplifting triumph after the destruction of the fires.

“This first Australian instrument for the Gemini telescopes is of enormous importance to Australian science and Stromlo staff.

“By combining the superb image quality of the telescope and its adaptive optics system with the resolution achievable with NIFS, astronomers will be able to view the Universe more clearly than if they were looking through the Hubble Space Telescope.”

Mr Roger Franzen, the Managing Director of Auspace Limited said he was delighted to be again working with the Research School on the project.

“In order to meet the challenging schedule requirements needed to bring the replacement instrument online and exploit its scientific potential, we will make maximum use of our combined resources. The delivery of NIFS is a key priority for both our organisations.”

The Stromlo Facility is also on track to build a $6.3 million Adaptive Optics Imager for the Gemini South Observatory in Chile. ANU won the contract to build the imager in December last year and as development was in the planning stage when the fires hit, progress was not substantially disrupted.
The Adaptive Optics Imager will be the second of Australia’s instruments for the international Gemini telescopes.

The Facility’s research program will focus on equipment to help construct and use the Extremely Large Telescopes planned around the world for the coming decade. Telescopes with mirror diameters as large as 100m and as tall as the Eiffel Tower are already on the drawing board, providing unprecedented observational capabilities and requiring equipment from specialised production facilities

“Extremely Large Telescopes promise an exciting new future for astronomy and the focus of the Advanced Instruments and Engineering Facility in researching and developing equipment for these new telescopes will ensure Mt Stromlo retains a very strong position at the heart of international astronomy,” Professor Sackett said.

NIFS Background

The Near-infrared Integral-Field Spectrograph, (NIFS) is bigger than an oil drum, yet must be built with more precision than the finest Swiss watch.

All interior components are cooled to –208 degrees Celsius during operation, to allow them to pick up the faint radiation from stars in the far reaches of the universe. Simply making machinery and electronics that works at these temperatures is a daunting challenge – most equipment simply freezes shut.

All optical components are manufactured with a precision more than 100 times finer than the thickness of a human hair. The whole device must work perfectly despite being swung around on the bottom of a telescope, on a distant mountain in the middle of the night.

The NIFS instrument will help Astronomers study black holes in the centers of galaxies such as this one - The Andromeda Galaxy

NIFS will search for giant black holes in the middle of galaxies, and will map the formation of galaxies such as our own Milky Way. It will watch as new stars and planets form.