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Million-dollar boost for Aussie telescope

Dome of the 2.3-metre telescope at SSO

The ANU's 2.3-metre telescope at Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales. A million-dollar upgrade is underway.

A MILLION DOLLAR UPGRADE of one of Australia’s longest serving telescopes has just begun at Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarabran in New South Wales, involving the four principal designers who worked on the project when it began at Mt Stromlo in Canberra in the early 1980s.

Dr Gary Hovey from the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at The Australian National University has been dragged out of retirement to play a major part in the upgrade of the 2.3-metre telescope along with 87-year-old mechanical engineer Herman Wehner.

“The four of us have periodically worked on the telescope for 30 years but we haven’t worked together as a design team since the early 1990s,” he said.

“For most of us, building the 2.3 metre telescope was the major and formative experience of our careers so it is gratifying to see that ‘the old workhorse’ is still able to make a contribution to modern astronomical research.”

“The last decade has seen a marked degradation of the fabric of the building, frequent electronic damage from lightning strikes and increasing problems with the procurement of spares,” Dr Hovey added.

“The proposed refurbishment will address these issues and will ensure that the 2.3 metre telescope functions well as a remotely controlled observing facility for all Australian astronomers.”

ANU 2.3-metre telescope

The ANU's 2.3-metre telescope

Major upgrade

The two-year overhaul will involve substantial reconditioning of the mechanical and electronic systems of the telescope and the co-rotating building, which serves as a dome, as well as fixing the building cladding and redesigning the ventilation system.

The other members of the original design team involved are John Hart and Jan van Harmelen. They will be working with the past and current maintenance engineers at Siding Spring Observatory, Malcolm Harris and Geoff White, managed by Liam Waldron.

“Although telescopes such as the 2.3-metre seem small in comparison to the behemoths now being built overseas, they can play a vital role in defining the frontiers of research and in the training of post-graduate students,” Dr Hovey said.

“If the promise of high performance instruments such as the new Wide Field Spectrograph is to be realised, then it is essential that the performance and reliability of the telescope be secured for another decade.”

Adapted from information issued by ANU.

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Aussie ‘plasma thruster’ set for blast off

Plasma thruster-powered spacecraft

The Australian plasma thruster will help satellites travel for longer and further into deep space.

A $3.1 MILLION GRANT from the Federal Government will help the Australian National University (ANU) propel Australian satellite technology and exploratory missions into the furthest reaches of deep space.

The University will partner with national and international bodies to make a revolutionary plasma thruster engine, invented and developed at ANU, ready for spaceflight. If successful, the engine could be used in satellites and deep space missions as soon as 2013.

Project leader Professor Rod Boswell, from the Plasma Research Laboratory in the ANU College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, said the engine will be based on his colleague Professor Christine Charles’ Helicon Double Layer Thruster (HDLT).

“The HDLT is the first thruster of its kind in the world and can be used to keep satellites in their desired orbit as well as in interplanetary travel,” he said. “It is an elegant, almost fuel-independent as well as energy and cost effective, propulsion system.

The future of space propulsion

Plasma thruster engines are set to be the future of all space exploration and satellite activities. They have characteristics that will eventually lead to their wide deployment as space propulsion systems.

They are much less powerful than conventional chemical rocket engines, but in principle are more efficient, for long periods of time, making them ideal for deep space missions.

HDLT apparatus with Orson Sutherland, Dr Christine Charles and Professor Rod Boswell.

HDLT apparatus with Orson Sutherland, Dr Christine Charles and Professor Rod Boswell.

In the long term, the development of plasma thruster technology will extend the range of human and robotic exploration into the Solar System and beyond.

In the short term these types of thrusters will become important to the telecommunications industry because they are ideally suited for station keeping, or keeping satellites in their orbits, for long periods of time. This will extend their operational lifetimes and save huge sums of money.

Professor Boswell added that the HDLT can also be used to de-orbit satellites that have reached the end of their missions.

“These satellites are at risk of becoming hazards for other satellites,” he said. “This is something which spacecraft manufacturers take very seriously.

“An inexpensive, light, reliable way of moving satellites at the end of their life into a graveyard orbit or into an orbit where they eventually re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up is commercially very attractive.”

Australian know-how

The grant won by Professor Boswell and his colleagues in the Plasma Research Laboratory will also help build a space simulation facility at ANU. Based at Mt Stromlo Observatory in Canberra, the Space Simulation Facility will incorporate a thermal/vacuum device that will enable testing of the HDLT and other satellites in space-like conditions.

The facility will also be made available to other scientists, astronomers and industry bodies seeking to develop space equipment.

The grant to ANU forms part of a $6.1 million investment in space research and education announced last Friday by Innovation Minister, Senator the Hon Kim Carr.

Adapted from information issued by ANU. Images courtesy ANU and NASA.

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