Virginia Astronomical Instrumentation Laboratory

In 2001 the Astronomy Department established a new optical, infrared and radio instrumentation lab with a charter to train future instrument builders and to develop cutting edge instrumentation for current and future telescopes, particularly those owned and operated by the Department. Generous support for the lab has come from a gift from the Celerity Foundation of Frank and Wynette Levinson, and from the University of Virginia. While fulfilling this charter the lab has enhanced the capabilities of our local Fan Mountain Observatory, enabled the University of Virginia to join the Astrophysical Research Corporation which operates the telescopes of Apache Point Observatory, supported the Department's participation in the Large Binocular Telescope Project, and launched Virginia's participation in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey project, ultimately leading to the Department's leadership of the SDSS-III and -IV Apache Point Galactic Evolution Experiment (APOGEE). Key instruments developed include FanCam, CorMASS, TripleSpec, LMIRcam, and the APOGEE spectrograph(s). In the last couple of years the lab's emphasis has transitioned toward space and near-space applications focusing on cubesat design and a large-scale NASA-APRA funded stratospheric balloon project to explore the feasibility of maintaining diffraction-limited telescope optics in the near-space environment as a precursor to long-duration near-space telescope platforoms. Professor Michael Skrutskie established and directs this laboratory.

A summary of the instrumentation related papers produced by the lab can be found here.

What’s New

June 2017... August 2018 - Instrumentation lab staff and UVa undergraduates travel to South Africa, southern Argentina, and Senegal chasing the shadow of 2014MU69 (Arrakoth), the Kuiper Belt target of the NASA New Horizons mission post-Pluto. Adding three UVa 14" telescopes to the SwRI-led ensemble of twenty 16" skywatchers, the team captured the profile of Arrakoth in detail in Argentina and added to that observation in Senegal.

January 2017 - APOGEE-South spectrograph arrives at Las Campanas Observatory - After two years of (sometimes more exciting than expected) development the second APOGEE spectrograph, largely a duplicate of the one operating at Apache Point Observatory since 2011, has arrived in Chile. Driven by the instrumentation and logistical genius of APOGEE Instrument scientist Senior Research Scientist John Wilson, separate pieces of the spectrograph have converged by land, sea, and air at the appointed destination - the 100-inch duPont Telescope at Las Campanas Observatory and are now undergoing final interation. Full operation of the southern installation of SDSS/APOGEE began in Spring 2017.

September 2016 - SkyHopper takes shape. The instrumentation lab is collaborating with the University of Melbourne in the development of Australia's first space telescope - a near infrared gamma ray burst afterglow and exoplanet transit mission known as SkyHopper. SkyHopper is a 12U cubesat with a 20x10cm telescope feeding a 1.7-micron cutoff HAWAII-2RG array. Planned for launch in late 2019, SkyHopper will have a 2-year operational lifetime in sun-synchronous polar orbit.

September 2016 - Astronomy undergraduates reach near-space. On September 22 a team of undergraduates culminated nearly a year of work to design a trackable and recoverable balloon payload and fly it into the stratsophere. The experiment reached an altitude of 111,028 feet (33 kilometers/ 21 miles) sending telemetry and recording imagery along the way. The flight is a precursor to more aggressive balloon instrumentation activities being pursued by the lab.

December 2015 - Integration of the second APOGEE spectrograph is underway. Planned for delivery to the 100-inch du Pont Telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile in mid-2016, this instrument will enable an extension of the northern hemisphere SDSS APOGEE project to the south. UVa Today recently highlighted the project team's work in the the Virginia instrumentation lab.

plutoocc June 2015 - The instrumentation lab designs, delivers, and deploys a two color visible/infrared high-speed imaging system for occultation observations. Operating on a 14-inch Meade telescope in Timaru, New Zealand and at the 1.3-meter Greenhill Observatory in Tasmania these systems captured the occultation of a bright star by Pluto only two weeks before the New Horizons spacecraft flew through the system. plutoocc

ales March 2015 - The integral field spectrograph mode within LMIRcam sees first light at LBT. ALES is a 100x100 grid of dispersped pupil images that samples a 3"x3" region of the LMIRcam focal plane providing an R~25 spectrum of 10,000 spatial locations in that field of view, initially from 2.8-4.2 microns. ales

hpf February 2013 -- The Habitable-Zone Planet Finder spectrograph scale model thermal testbench has demonstrated milli-Kelvin stability. The HPF project, led by Penn State, aims to develop a velocity stable spectrograph for the Hobby Eberly Telescope capable of detecting the influence of habitable-zone Earth-mass planets on cooler, lightweight stars by operating at near-infrared wavelengths. Key to this stability is precisely maintaining the temperature of the entire spectrograph assembly in a vaccum cryostat cooled by liquid nitrogen. Fred Hearty and Matt Nelson lead this effort at UVa. Fan Mountain Camera

Orion December 2012 -- FanCam begins its 9th year of operation. The Fan Mountain Infrared Camera, designed and constructed by graduate students Chan Park and Srikrishna Kanneganti has continued in regular operation at the Fan Mountain 31-inch telescope since its installation in 2004. Funded by NSF Major Research Instrumentation the camera has seen a variety of uses including characterizing dusty supernova, detailing young stellar object variability, exploring the structure of small self gravitating molecular clouds, probing the surface porosity of Neptune's moon Triton, characterizing the atmosphere of Pluto via stellar occultation, and contributing to the hunt for room temperature brown dwarfs by aiding candidate selection from the NASA WISE all sky survey. Fan Mountain Camera

Jarron May 2011 -- LMIRcam sees first light at the Large Binocular Telescope. The L and M-band infrared camera (LMIRcam) operates behind the University of Arizona's Large Binocular Telescope Interferometer beam combiner. Led by graduate student Jarron Leisenring, LMIRcam provides LBT with mid-infrared imaging capability exploiting, ultimately the full 22.8-meter width end-to-end of the pair of LBT mirrors to deliver 30 milliarcsecond resolution. With the extremely capable AO secondaries at LBT LMIRcam/LBTI achieves better contrast and inner working angle than any other system. hr8799

August 2012 --APOGEE Spectrograph completes first year of operation for SDSS-III. The APOGEE Spectrograph has been in regular operation at the Sloan 2.5-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory since its installation in commissioning in May 2011. Each APOGEE exposure produces a high resolution infrared spectrum fed by 300 fibers. Typically eight different plug plates are exposed per night yielding over 2000 stellar spectra. After a year of operation APOGEE has collected more than 100,000 spectra - nearly 100 times more than that available prior to APOGEE.

Orion September 2011 -- TripleSpec 4(!) underway. NOAO is supporting the development of a fourth copy of the TripleSpec spectrograph (originally developed jointly by Cornell, Virginia, and Caltech for Palomar, Apache Point Observatory, and Keck) for the 4-meter Blanco telescope at CTIO in Chile. Research Scientist John Wilson is leading UVa's contribution to this development effort while Charles Lam and our machine shop cuts metal to support the project. TripleSpec

May 2011 --APOGEE Spectrograph delivered to and commissioned at Apache Point Observatory. The APOGEE spectrograph left the Instrumentation Laboratory after two years of construction. After a smooth trip to Apache Point Observatory on an air-ride truck it was installed in its private room adjacent to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope. Thanks to the SDSS plug plate and observatory infrastructure and to tremendous support from the on-site (and off-site) staff a screefull of infrared spectra of hundreds of stars appeared within minutes of going on sky with the instrument.

November 2009 -- CorMASS retires, sort of.... After an eventful life providing low resolution spectroscopic capability simultaneously from 0.7-2.5um at the Palomar 60", Vatican Observatory 1.8-meter, Apache Point 3.5-meter, and Magellan 6.5-meter telescopes CorMASS has returned to the laboratory at UVa where it is currently serving as a testbed for characterization of extended-wavelength InGaAs material. The latest generation of this new detector material has been demonstrated under rigorous conditions obtaining spectra as a new focal plane for CorMASS.

March 2008 --TripleSpec delivered to and operational at Apache Point Observatory. UVa's version of TripleSpec emerged from the labortory and was installed at Apache Point Observatory operating flawlessly at first light.

January 2006 -- CorMASS is now at home at Apache Point Observatory (APO) on the 3.5-meter telescope there.

June 2007 -- The NSF ATI program has funded the development of the LBT Fizeau mid-infrared imager, LMIRcam.

Spring 2007 -- InGaAs detector array testing continues through a collaboration with Goodrich Corp./Sensors Unlimited and funded by an NSF grant. After successful production of low dark current extended-wavelength detector material, fabrication of an "astronomical" prototype array has succeeded. CorMASS will soon provide the testbed for this device.

September 2006 -- Graduate student Ori Fox (right) has received a NASA GSRP fellowship and will work at Goddard Space Flight Center this semester testing detectors for the NIRSpec instrument on the James Webb Space Telescope.

February 2007 -- Design and definition work has begun on the APOGEE project. The laboratory will have responsibility for designing and fabricating the multi-fiber H-band (1.6um) high-resolution (R=20000) spectrograph that will be used to probe the chemical evolution history of the Milky Way at the SDSS 2.5-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory. APOGEE is one of four projects being developed for the "After-Sloan II" suite of projects that will occupy the 2.5-meter through approximately 2013.


Faculty, scientists and staff with instrumentation interests include:

Graduate students who received Ph.D.'s working on instrumentation :

Laboratory Space

Our lab is located in the west wing ground floor portion of the Astronomy Building. Previously unfinished space at the foundation level, we now have four experimentation rooms and two common area for instrument development and research. Some pictures of the completed space are below.