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14 October, 2002 For immediate use


New 'eye' for infrared astronomy wins award

An astronomical instrument built by the Anglo-Australian Observatory has taken out top honours in the annual Engineering Excellence Awards of the Institution of Engineers, Australia (Sydney Division).

The presentation was made in a ceremony at the Sydney Convention Centre on Friday 11 October.

The IRIS2 instrument, for studying stars and galaxies at infrared wavelengths, was awarded the prestigious JJC Bradfield Award, which recognises an outstanding engineering achievement.

IRIS2 was one of 63 engineering projects entered for this year’s awards (

The instrument was also the winner in its category, "Innovations and Inventions".

IRIS2 is a combined infrared imager and spectrograph for the Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory, NSW, and was built by staff of the Anglo-Australian Observatory at its Sydney headquarters.

"I’m really pleased on behalf of the team who put so much work into this instrument," said Mr John Dawson, Head of Mechanical Engineering at the AAO. The team members included: Greg Smith, Vladimir Churilov, John Barton, Lew Waller, Brian Hingley, Jeremy Bailey, Keith Shortridge, Tony Farrell, Chris Tinney, Stuart Ryder, Denis Whittard, Don Mayfield, Rolf Muller, Chris Evans, John Dawson, Roger Haynes, Peter Gillingham, Mark Hilliard, Jurek Brzeski, Anthony Dunk, Gabriella Frost, John Straede, Neal Schirmer, Dwight Horiuchi, and Tim Young.

IRIS2 will be one of the world's first instruments able to take infrared spectra of dozens of stars or galaxies simultaneously. This will boost the telescope's productivity 25-fold and let astronomers make large-scale surveys that they couldn't before.

The instrument will be used to study star-formation, 'failed' stars called brown dwarfs, distant clusters of galaxies, and more.

IRIS2 was fully commissioned in April this year. It has already become the instrument most requested by users of the Anglo-Australian Telescope, Australian and UK astronomers.

And it has already taken data that has helped crack a 35-year-old mystery – the cause of powerful explosions called gamma-ray bursts. (See .)

"Instruments like IRIS2 keep the Anglo-Australian Observatory at the forefront of astronomical research," said Dr Chris Tinney, AAO Project Scientist for IRIS2.

IRIS2 follows in the footsteps of an earlier instrument for the Anglo-Australian Telescope, called IRIS (Infrared Imager and Spectrograph). IRIS was an outstanding instrument and won the Bradfield Award in 1993. In that same year it captured a ground-breaking image of jets of material travelling at up to 400 km s-1 shooting out of a region where stars are forming.


Engineering features of IRIS2

• The instrument's heart is an infrared detector, a 1024 by 1024 pixel array. It's a standard device but AAO-designed electronics make it give a world-leading performance.

• AAO engineers have extensively modified standard components for use in the demanding cryogenic environment. To cut detector 'noise' and background thermal radiation, IRIS2 is evacuated and cooled with a helium cryogenic refrigerator. The infrared detector is cooled to 67 K (-206° C) for operation.

• IRIS2 is the first infrared instrument with multislit masks to be operational on a telescope. These masks allow it to observe up to 50 different stars or galaxies at once. The slits through which the light from a star or galaxy comes have to be positioned with an accuracy of 15 micrometres – less than a fifth the width of a human hair.

• IRIS2 is also the first astronomical instrument to use sapphire-based dispersing elements ("grisms") to create spectra. These have a higher refractive index than conventional fused-silica grisms, letting astronomers take higher-resolution spectra.

More information:

• Mr John Dawson, Head of Mechanical Engineering, Anglo-Australian Observatory

02-9372-4830 (work) 02-9875-4290 (home)

• Dr Chris Tinney, Project Scientist for IRIS2, Anglo-Australian Observatory

Tel: 02-6842-6279 (AAT, 3pm-5pm and 6pm-4am on Saturday 12 & Sunday 13 October)

02-9372-4849 (office)

• Dr Stuart Ryder, Anglo-Australian Observatory 02-9372-4843 (work) 0419-970-834 (mob.)



AAO engineer Denis Whittard with the IRIS2 instrument under construction. Photo: D. Smyth.