Reach for the stars - UK ATC site visit

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Posted by APM on 30th Jul 2012

Your multimillion pound, extremely complex and sensitive, cryogenic equipment calibrated in microns has to be shipped thousands of miles to a location in one of the worlds most extreme places (a mountaintop or a desert) where scientists who have waited years for a research slot stand by impatiently failure is not an option.

APM Scotland members arrived at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, on a beautiful summer evening, to find that the stunning hilltop location with its magnificent Victorian buildings was the portal to an astounding virtual journey through time and space. The UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) offered us exclusive behind the scenes access to this spectacular facility.

World leaders in supplying equipment for the worlds great observatories, UK ATC designs and creates stateoftheart scientific equipment supporting a vast range of technologies. Precision engineering on scales ranging from tiny to huge includes cryogenic, thermal and vacuum designed technology, much of which has applications outside astronomy. Innovation and diversification are key words for UK ATC which is dedicated to maintaining a position at the forefront of scientific research and education. UK ATC project manage both national and international collaborations.

APM Scotland members at this sellout event were divided into smaller groups which visited three key locations at the site. First up the Victorian Telescope Dome with David Lunney. This is not only an important site in the history of astronomy but an Alisted building. This specialist and distinctive structure is also notable in that the telescopes are housed in cylindrical drum shaped towers rather than the more usual hemispherical shaped ones.
Then off to the modern lab with Michele Cirasuolo for a look at one of the current projects. As well as terrestrial projects, the UK ATC designs and builds instruments and modules for spacebased astronomy. An introduction to the computer modelling principles, which allow the scientific data from astronomical research to be interpreted, saw us look back over 13.7bn years and see pictures of dead stars and hot stars.

Finally to Karen Moran in the library one of the most comprehensive collections of astronomical literature in the world containing manuscripts dating from the early 13th century to the present day. Here we learned about the history of astronomy through the lens of the fabulous manuscripts and the works of great people like Copernicus, Galileo and Isaac Newton.

This was a unique and fascinating site visit which APM Scotland members enjoyed immensely. The project management challenges faced by UK ATC are often mind boggling as, to avoid light pollution and adverse atmospheric conditions, equipment has to be shipped to, and function in, inhospitable locations often in high altitudes. Numerous logistical, physical and operational challenges must be overcome during the construction and operation of observatories so to complement the technology, state-of-the-art project management skills are also essential.

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