AAL 2021/22 Annual Report – Industry Engagement

The Decadal plan for Australian astronomy (2016-2025) called for the establishment of ‘a central body to promote and facilitate industry engagement with the next generation of global facilities’. Closer ties between astronomy and industry can connect Australian industry with new commercial opportunities here and overseas, provide career paths for astronomy graduates and support the original research through the commercial provision of services, facilities and equipment.

In its response to the Mid-term review of the Decadal Plan, AAL noted that ‘a central body to promote and facilitate industry engagement with the next generation of global facilities’ was not yet successfully established, however, during 2021/22 AAL’s industry engagement program expanded and changed focus. In previous years, AAL had focused on promoting existing commercialisation efforts while in the 2021/22 period, AAL shifted to actively advising and assisting departments or individual teams to prioritise activities. This was largely done with the collaboration of commercialisation expert Dr Ilana Feain – see the Astronomy Research Translation highlight below for more detail.

Throughout 2021/22, AAL also expanded its industry engagement website to showcase more success stories, capabilities and commercialisation activities of Australian astronomers. See below for some highlights from the 2021/22 period.

Industry Engagement Highlights

The Hector Instrument and Nicholas Hacko Watchmaker

A major new instrumentation project for the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) led to a partnership with one of the most specialised watchmakers in Australia. The instrument, Hector, is a multi-Integral Field Unit spectrograph built for the AAT by the Astralis Instrumentation Consortium. The team from Astralis, led by Associate Professor Julia Bryant from Astralis-USyd, built Hector on the back of another highly successful instrument created for the AAT called SAMI. While SAMI was Hector’s predecessor, the updated design requirements of this new instrument compelled Bryant and her team to source a new supplier for the machining of small parts – Hector called for a level of precision that was not achievable by any of the Astralis’s conventional machining suppliers.

To achieve this, Astralis formed a partnership with Nicholas Hacko Watchmaker, an Australian company specialising in very high precision machining of miniature parts for their range of exclusive watches. A team from Nicholas Hacko Watchmaker visited the project laboratory several times during the collaboration and worked through different prototypes, eventually manufacturing many tens of thousands of dollars of parts for Hector. Throughout the course of the project, the watchmakers were also brought up to speed on the instrumentation industry and its specialised requirements, leading to Nicholas Hacko Watchmaker expanding the application of their work – using existing equipment – into the science and medical fields. Through their connection with Astralis, Nicholas Hacko Watchmaker currently have new work packages from other groups, including biomedical companies and now a new arm of their business called NH Micro.

From the perspective of the Hector team, the partnership with Nicholas Hacko Watchmaker resulted in a more flexible and efficient design for the instrument, attributable to the much higher levels of precision achieved by the watchmakers. In turn, this collaboration has opened up a new and profitable line of business for Nicholas Hacko Watchmaker – a most successful collaboration on both fronts.

Working with Professor Bryant and her team has been an extremely rewarding experience – not only has it taught us how to interface with university clients and address their direct needs, it’s been extremely exciting to see the projects we’ve worked on succeed! Many of the parts we made for Hector were very challenging and helped push the boundaries of what we can achieve here in our workshop, and also within Australia.

Josh HackoTechnical Director, NH Micro, Nicholas Hacko Watchmaker

Hector was designed for the AAT to survey up to 15,000 galaxies, its powerful spectrographs now able to investigate the physical properties that drive the diversity in galaxies. With ‘first light’ achieved in late 2021 and the three full commissioning run successfully completed, Hector will soon begin the Hector Galaxy Survey. Already, the results have been impressive, with Hector observing galaxies simultaneously in its new-format, larger optical fibre imaging bundles – “hexabundles”.

Our partnership with Nicholas Hacko Watchmaker has enabled us significant flexibility to improve how we could build Hector due to the high precision machining achievable. We are now working with Nicholas Hacko Watchmaker on new concepts for future instruments that previously we would not have been able to contemplate having machined.

Associate Professor Julia BryantDirector Astralis-Usyd and Hector Project Lead
High precision hexabundle ferule, magnet casings and coupling components manufactured to align optical fibre bundles accurately to galaxies on the Hector field plate. Machining by Nicholas Hacko Watchmakers/NH Micro. Credit: Prof Julia Bryant, Astralis-USyd.
The Rosella Program

Former ANU researcher, Dr James Gilbert is the program lead for Rosella, a device that will translate the knowledge and high-end imaging technology employed by astronomers to other sectors that could benefit from a performance boost. Primarily developed as a tool for the burgeoning industry of space-based Earth observations, Rosella is a pixel digitisation device – a ‘detector controller’ that provides this intermediary connection between the incredibly high-performance, sensitive, optical/infrared image sensors used by astronomers and normal computing hardware.

While astronomers routinely use instruments with detectors that are worth half a million dollars for their observations, it is not possible to simply plug one of these into a computer and expect it to work – specialist control electronics are required to drive and direct these finely-tuned sensors. These electronic systems are usually about the size of a bar fridge – fine for putting into a big telescope, but not so fine for use in other industries – especially when that industry is located in Earth orbit.

Currently, many sectors can only get around this problem by using industrial-grade products that combine the image sensor and control electronics into one, easy-to-use package. While this may seem more convenient, devices like this have sensitivity and speed limitations that directly affect the quality of observations from orbit. Which is where Rosella comes in.

Rosella is unique in that it provides a miniaturised version of the electronics required to drive the most exquisite scientific detectors on the market – at approximately half the size of a standard cube-sat volume unit (10 x 10 x 5cm). The device is built for the harsh environment of space while being flexible enough to drive many different types of sensors – including new ultra-sensitive, fast avalanche photodiode (APD) sensors created by the Leonardo company in the UK and originally funded by the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

When designing Rosella, Dr Gilbert and his team actually developed much of the architecture using their experience with the ESO ‘New General Controller’ (NGC) detector control system. The NGC is the standard detector controller for ESO instruments and is currently being upgraded for the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), with some parts of this new ‘NGC-II’ system being collaboratively developed by ANU. The MAVIS instrument – due to be designed and built for ESO in Australia by the Astralis Instrumentation Consortium – will also be fitted with NGC-II controllers, as will future instruments for Australia’s largest optical telescope, the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT). While Dr Gilbert and his team have developed Rosella independently of ESO, it is clear to them that their close contact with the NGC controller environment paved the way for the creation of their own compact pixel digitisation device.

It is all interlinked. We wouldn’t be building Rosella in this way if we hadn’t had access to ESO NGC technology. Being involved in this ecosystem really allowed us to build Rosella right the first time.

Dr James GilbertRosella Program Lead

As well as Earth observation, possible future applications for Rosella may exist in defence and medical imaging, where portable, high performance and reliable electronics are required for creating visuals with high levels of sensitivity and speed.

Continued development of the Rosella Program will soon be supported by the Trailblazer Universities program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education.

The Rosella device – approximately half the size of a standard cube-sat. Credit: James Gilbert, ANU.
Astronomy Research Translation – Call for EOIs

Astronomy has an excellent record of scientific discovery but little process for repurposing the output of that discovery for commercial impact across adjacent (non-astronomy) sectors. It remains an exception when astronomy research or technology is successfully commercialised or translated into a non-astronomy industry. 

In February 2022, AAL sent out a call for the astronomy community to participate in a commercialisation discovery process to unlock potential opportunities from their research/projects. Led by Ilana Feain, this activity was free of charge to AAL member organisations and had an overarching goal of creating a sector-based shift in mindset between industry and academia. The National Research Infrastructure Roadmap, the ARC and NCRIS (to name just a few) are all being nudged toward a small set of priority manufacturing areas with KPIs clearly linked to boosted sovereign capabilities (resilience) and enhanced commercial benefits, hence this shift in mindset toward industry engagement and commercialisation from astronomy research and technologies is now – for better or for worse – being forced upon the sector through a clear shift in the research funding landscape.

To this end, AAL secured astronomy commercialisation specialist services (through Big Science Advisory) to work with interested university and similar astronomy research organisations to identify/explore opportunities through the lens of broadening or repurposing applications from astronomical research and technologies/instrumentation for non-astronomy markets. Called the Discovery Process, by the end of the 2021/22 period, astronomers from the University of Tasmania, Swinburne University of Technology and University of Melbourne had expressed interest and/or signed up to the Discovery Process.

Dr Ilana Feain, AAL Commercialisation Expert. Credit: CSIRO.