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Center makes prototypes for community research

With a combined total of 250 years of machining and welding experience, the staff at the University Research Instrumentation Center specialize in designing and building prototype components for many of the university's advanced research projects.


The center,  located in the Gould-Simpson building,  utilizes the expertise of both machinists and welders to aid UA researchers across campus in the construction of gamma ray tubes, vacuum chambers and painstakingly precise telescope masks, among other things.

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""The center is a grown man's tinkering set,"" said director Robert Kingsley.


While most production machine and welding centers mass-produce components for buyers, the university instrumentation center uses specialized equipment and metals to produce parts for some of the UA's most advanced telescopes and mechanical devices.


Many of the projects the center takes on require specialized materials and equipment in order to shape them into a finished product, Kingsley said.






""We work with all types of metal from aluminum to titanium, however titanium is the hardest metal to weld,"" said instrument shop supervisor Larry Acedo.  ""We have to weld titanium inside an argon gas chamber to prevent it from being exposed to impurities.""


The center uses titanium to construct durable parts for sophisticated space cameras, high-powered radio telescopes and other applications.


Components of both the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory's Spacewatch Telescope on Kitt Peak and the UA components of the Mars Pathfinder were produced at the center.


""Our work on the Spacewatch telescope took around 18 months to complete, but it went by in a blur,"" Kingsley said. ""This is a prototype shop, not a production one.""


Kingsley has been director for the center for two decades, a period during which the instrumentation center contributed to the design and manufacture of imaging spectrographs on board the space transportation system shuttle missions during the ‘90s and the Large Binocular Telescope located on Mt. Graham.


The machines used in the center have the capability of producing components ranging from the size of a watch to the large support structures used in the fabrication of radio telescopes. 


""We use precision machining and grinding equipment, as well as more specialized tools for precise cuts and measurements,"" Acedo said.


The center's coordinate measuring machine is capable of measuring up to 5x10x20 instruments to a precision of 3 microns.


""Our newest machine is the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory's $250,000 laser cutter,"" Acedo said. 


The cutter allows technicians to cut precision masks for large binocular telescopes. The masks are used to help telescope technicians capture clear images of celestial bodies by blocking out interfering light sources during long-term exposures.


Many of the center's milling and welding machines are linked to computers to allow for maximum control and accuracy when cutting or welding.


The majority of projects that find their way into the hands of the center's technicians come from campus departments such as the Steward Observatory and the Optical Sciences Center. 


Technicians at the center work with researchers who are interested in participating in the design and manufacturing process.


""If you're a researcher you can come into the shop and work with our personnel,"" said Kingsley.


In addition to producing specialized parts for the university's research needs, the center offers a machine shop safety course for undergraduate and graduate students.


""We have 13 students this semester enrolled in the six-week safety course,"" Kingsley said.


The course is open to all students interested in applying machining and welding techniques to their field of study.


""We have several machines set aside specifically for students to practice welding and machining techniques with,"" Kingsley said.


The university's cryogenics facility is another critical component of the instrumentation center. With the capability to produce 26 liters of liquid helium in an hour, the cryogenics and gas facility is the only location in the state that produces the substance that is used to cool down electronics in devices such as radio telescopes, said Chris Redondo, the facility manager. In addition, the cryogenics and gas facility produces various substances such as liquid nitrogen and dry ice for research on and off campus.


""We are the guys that make things work,"" said Acedo.

 


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