UCSC Review Winter 1998
Windows on the Universe
Lick Observatory specialists quietly build some of the world's finest astronomical research tools.
30 years ago, astronomy was a simpler science. Basic instruments, often built by lone researchers, captured light from stars and galaxies. Cameras recorded the glory of the heavens. The romantic notion of an astronomer perched at a telescope in a chilly dome was still quite real...
Times have changed.
Telescopes are far bigger, and today's complex instruments can take years and millions of dollars to build. Gone are photographs and darkrooms, replaced by electronic detectors and banks of computers. And, astronomers observe the skies from warm control rooms or even their own offices.
Pioneering this transformation is a band of engineers and technicians at UCSC, ensconced within nondescript warehouses behind the campus's power plant. This setting befits the modest nature of the staff at the UC Observatories/Lick Observatory Laboratories, birthplace of the next generation of tools to study the universe.
"Today, it requires a team of experts to build an instrument," said astronomer Joseph Miller, director of UCO/Lick Observatory. "We have that team here. Almost any astronomical question we can ask--that it's conceivable to build an instrument to address--they can do it."
Most visitors are stunned to find world-class astronomy labs amid UCSC's redwoods. Yet to step into the UCO/Lick shops, as they are known, is to enter an arena of precision engineering, machining, optics, and electronics.
The long road to a finished instrument begins with a vision from one of UCSC's leading astronomers. Engineers work with the faculty to draw up detailed plans. Then, teams of specialists work on the guts of the device. Machinists create the metal skeleton and moving parts, usually from scratch; opticians grind the mirrors and lenses, often jaw-dropping in their size and complexity; and electronics technicians devise efficient ribbons of wiring.
Equally vital are millions of lines of computer code, written by UCO/Lick software whizzes. These programs run the instruments and, in some cases, allow them to diagnose their own problems.
At the heart of these efforts are craftspeople of the highest caliber, many of whom have worked at UCO/Lick for decades. "All of our technicians know how their parts fit into the overall instrument," said Erich Horn, instrument lab supervisor. "They take pride in their work and in the scientific results."
Such work has kept venerable Lick Observatory at the forefront of the field since its founding near San Jose in 1888. In a recent example, UCSC alumnus Geoffrey Marcy, now at San Francisco State University, used Lick's 120-inch Shane Telescope and its ultrasensitive Hamilton Spectrograph to detect tiny wobbles in nearby stars--evidence of the back-and-forth gravitational tugs of planets outside our solar system. Another key instrument, the Kast Double Spectrograph, lets scientists examine faint galaxies through the increasingly light-polluted skies above San Jose.
A brighter spotlight now shines on UCO/Lick technicians for their work on instruments for the twin W. M. Keck Telescopes in Hawaii. The Kecks' segmented mirrors, 400 inches across, now rank as the world's largest. New instruments for the telescopes help astronomers analyze nearly every precious bit of light from objects billions of light-years away, so distant that we see them as they were when the universe was a small fraction of its current age.
One such device, the $3.6 million High-Resolution Echelle Spectrograph (HIRES), arguably is the finest of its kind. HIRES, the size of an average living room, splits light into a rainbow and spreads it with unprecedented detail across an electronic detector. It has revealed the temperature of the early universe, probed the nature of distant quasars, and sampled the ingredients of ancient stars in our Milky Way.
"I couldn't imagine trying to build HIRES without the entire team at Lick," said UCSC astronomer Steven Vogt, its designer. "Every astronomer I've talked to thinks HIRES is totally awesome. That's a tribute to the top-notch work at the shops."
Also notable are the "secondary mirrors" for the Keck Telescopes--surfaces that reflect light from the main mirrors into the instruments. To mesh with the Kecks' compact design, UCO/Lick optician David Hilyard had to polish the 57-inch secondary mirrors to odd shapes with exquisite accuracy.
Under way are two more spectrographs, to be installed at Keck II later this year: the Echellette Spectrograph and Imager (ESI) and the Deep Extragalactic Imaging Multi-Object Spectrograph (DEIMOS). The latter instrument will displace HIRES as the most ambitious spectrograph ever built. Designed by UCSC astronomers Sandra Faber and Garth Illingworth, DEIMOS will scrutinize 15,000 faint galaxies to make a comprehensive map of the distant universe.
Chief engineer David Cowley, who manages UCO/Lick's technical facilities, said DEIMOS will require $5 million and 60,000 staff-hours to complete. "This is the leading edge of technology, for the most exciting telescope on earth," Cowley said. "This is as good as it gets."
To Joseph Miller, DEIMOS exemplifies why the Kecks were built--and why the UCO/Lick shops excel.
"This will be the deepest, most extensive survey of galaxies, and it promises to teach us much about how the universe has evolved," he said. "It's like Darwin's voyage: We're exploring the uncharted territories of the cosmos."