BIG Science doesn’t happen without technicians
Meet Lee! He started his career as a mechanical engineering apprentice, and now he’s the lead mechanical technician on the ERIS-NIX imager – a state-of-the- art, and completely new, infra-red camera system being built at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) in Edinburgh.
Big science doesn’t happen without technicians, and here Lee shares his experience of building a career as a highly skilled technician, constructing instruments for some of the world’s most ground-breaking astronomy research.
You’re building ERIS-NIX; what is it?
“NIX is a major component of ERIS – what will be a next-generation instrument for the European Southern Observatory (ESO)’s Very Large Telescope (VLT).
“The NIX part refers to the infra-red imager – a state-of-the-art camera system – and it’s NIX that we are building here at UK ATC. When we’re finished building it, it will be shipped to Germany, where a team there will integrate it into ERIS.”
What will ERIS do when it goes on the VLT?
“ERIS stands for Enhanced Resolution Imager and Spectrograph, and in 2020 it will go on the VLT (one of the world’s largest and most advanced telescopes, at the Paranal Observatory in Northern Chile).
“Astronomers will then be able to see things like exoplanets (planets orbiting stars, that aren’t our Sun), and the gas and dust around young stars – things we struggle to see with the current tech.”
Building a component of an instrument that will enable such ground-breaking research, must be very exciting?
“Yes, knowing that I am contributing to something that will ultimately expand our knowledge is very exciting. I essentially take a lump of metal and turn it into something that astronomers will get science out of.
“Making things, putting them together, modifying them and making new things – is the kind of work I’ve been doing since I was an apprentice. But doing this work to build cutting-edge instruments for space research, is what makes it really interesting for me. Every day is different.”
What is the most innovative aspect to you about the build of ERIS-NIX?
“ERIS-NIX is about the size of an average airline hold bag (about 0.8m x 0.4m x 0.6m) – which is really quite small. And in that small space, we need to pack in all of the capability of this state-of-the-art camera system.
“Most cryogenic camera systems are built in a similar way – the mechanisms sit in a vacuum-sealed vessel, but NIX is particularly innovative because all of the hardware has to fit into a very small space. The mechanisms and the detector have therefore each been tailor-made – designed and configured, almost in miniature.”
What are your day-to-day responsibilities in the build of this state-of-the-art instrument, for ground-breaking astronomy research?
“I start with the drawings from the designers, and from there it’s my job to make sure that all of the components are made, and made to the correct specifications too.
“I work with a team in the workshop to make the components and I work too with the different engineering teams – the optical engineers, the electrical engineers and the mechanical engineers to make sure the specifications are correct.
“Once all ‘the bits’ are made, it’s my responsibility to plan out what goes where, and to build the actual mechanisms.
“The completed mechanisms are then tested by the engineering teams. I set up the testing for the engineering teams, and then it’s my responsibility to work with the team in the workshop to make any modifications or changes to the component pieces.
“The individual mechanisms are tested again. Here we are testing two of the four mechanisms in NIX:
When the engineering teams are happy with how each of the individual mechanisms are performing, it’s then my responsibility to assemble all of the mechanisms into the vacuum-sealed vessel (the cryostat).
“The engineering team then tests the whole instrument assembled when it’s warm (sitting at room temperature).
“The next step is the cool the instrument down. ERIS-NIX has been cooled down to a very chilly -200°C.”
What has kept you awake at night in the build on ERIS-NIX?
“Instruments like these are only built once. You can’t make a prototype and learn from it before you make the real thing, and so every aspect of its functionality must be carefully tested as you go. I am always on tenterhooks when testing begins.”
When did you join UK ATC, and what was your first job?
“I joined the UK ATC in September 2011, on a 4 year apprenticeship programme. My first jobs were manufacturing components for Goniometer (an instrument for the UK’s Diamond Light Source), and KMOS (an instrument for the VLT).”
How has your role changed?
“When I first started, someone would tell me what to build and I would build it. I didn’t have a sense particularly of how everything fitted within the bigger picture. Now I’m the lead mechanical technician for ERIS-NIX and I have oversight of the entire project.
“I need to be really organised. I manage the collection of drawings for all of the component parts of ERIS-NIX, and I manage the build schedule for all of the component parts so that the workshop delivers the right bits to the right engineering team at the right time.”
What are the best bits about your job?
“As well as working on something that will do cutting-edge science, I also really enjoy working across the engineering departments, and being part of the wider UK ATC team. UK ATC really does provide an opportunity for its mechanical technicians to get involved across the engineering disciplines – from optics, to cryogenic performance.”
What’s next for ERIS-NIX?
“We will complete all of the testing in the coming weeks, and then it will be ready for ESO to ‘formally accept’ it.
“It will then be delivered to Germany for assembly onto ERIS. There will be a further 6 months of testing, and then the new completed instrument will be delivered to the telescope in Chile.”
What would be your advice to any budding technicians?
“I would recommend that anyone interested in being a manufacturing technician, do an apprenticeship. It really worked for me. I got hands-on practical experience right from the very beginning. I was learning on the job, which meant as my skills and experience developed, I could really grow my role.”
Last updated: 04 September 2019