Another world-first for Glyndŵr scientists in telescope race

Scientists polishing mirrors for a £900million telescope have achieved another world-first.

Led by Project Manager Tony Fox-Leonard, the team at Glyndŵr University St Asaph has polished the 1.5 metre optic down to just 7.5 nanometres – which equates to around the size of a haemoglobin molecule.

It is the best measurement ever managed in the UK and was produced for ESO’s (European Southern Observatory) European-Extremely Large Telescope.

This is the first time such a feat has ever been achieved using computer-operated machinery, coupled with the University’s unique polishing process and metrology system.

The news comes just six months after the Glyndŵr team, with the support of collaborators, met the ESO compliance figure of < 15nm over the full optical aperture.

Once completed, the giant eye on the sky will gather light from distant stars and galaxies, be 39 metres in diameter, made of 798 segments and located on Mount Cerro Armazones in Chile, where it is set to gather 15 times more light than the largest telescopes around today.

Work began this week on blasting away part of the 3,000m mountain’s peak to make way for the new observatory, due to be completed by 2022.

The news delighted scientists at the Denbighshire site, already celebrating their own ground-breaking landmark.

“The levelling of the mountain top is very exciting and provides confidence to those on the periphery that this ground-breaking venture is going ahead,” said Tony.

“It is coincidental that it happened as we completed yet another segment to meet the demanding requirements of the optics for the E-ELT.

“Reaching 7.5nm is a significant achievement by the team here in St Asaph and marks another major milestone for the UK’s optical manufacturing industry.

 “The specifications for the E-ELT primary mirror segments issued by ESO were recognised as severely challenging and bordering on the impossible by the optical component manufacturing industry.

“But we did it, and have gone even further in achieving a measurement of 7.5nm – we must now maintain and improve on that standard.”

He added: “We have shown we have the capabilities to lead the world in this field, what we must now do is get there more quickly. That is our next challenge, and it’s one that we relish.

“It is a major development for Glyndŵr University St Asaph and shows our commitment to pioneering science and engineering in north east Wales.”

Two ground-breaking objectives have already been achieved by Glyndŵr University; a world first in the ability to polish to a ‘straight’ edge on a hexagonal optic – led by Caroline Gray, and the acceptance by ESO of the only compliant Optical Test Tower – designed and led by Professor Paul Rees.

The  group is now discussing collaboration with potential project partners across the globe with a view to win or participate in a final £200million contract to produce all of the segments required for the telescope’s primary mirror.

The move reinforces the Wrexham-based University’s position as a leader in science, engineering and research, heavily linked with the private sector across north east Wales, and could also lead to hundreds of jobs being created when the mirrors are mass produced in the UK.

A spokesperson for ESO had earlier applauded the University’s achievement in meeting its compliance figure, one many experts in the sector deemed impossible.

They said: “We would like to congratulate all of the team members there at Glyndŵr University St Asaph, your accomplishment is a useful contribution towards the success of the E-ELT Project.”

Last year, Chancellor George Osborne committed £88m towards the construction of the E-ELT, to the delight of Glyndŵr’s Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive, Professor Michael Scott.

Prof Scott said the team at St Asaph deserves huge credit for achieving the ESO specification and said they will now look to build on that and contribute to procuring the eventual manufacturing contract for all of the mirrors required for the telescope, securing high technology jobs in Denbighshire.

“The team in St Asaph have once again proved they are at the cutting edge of technology with another world-first,” said Prof Scott.

“Their efforts have helped to put Glyndŵr University on the map and garnered the respect of the global optics industry. We are all extremely proud of them and would again like to congratulate Tony and his team for their hard work and innovation.”