UW Graduate Student Works on National Science Foundation

March 4, 2008
Man working on infrared camera
Andy Monson, a University of Wyoming graduate student from Mankato, Minn., works inside the Red Buttes Observatory south of Laramie. (UW photo)

There has been a few times lately when Andy Monson has spent the night on a small, uncomfortable-looking sofa at the Red Buttes Observatory (RBO) south of Laramie.

It's not because he's too cheap to pay his rent. It's because his work on a $1.5 million project funded mostly through a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant requires work in the middle of the night.

"That's where I slept last night," says Monson, pointing to the yellowish sofa that sits inside the control room of the observatory. "I usually go back into town, but I was just too tired to drive."

The off-and-on nights of sleep have been worth it, though.

Under the guidance of Mike Pierce, an associate professor in the University of Wyoming's Department of Physics and Astronomy, Monson has successfully built a test version of a 7-foot-long, 1,000-pound infrared camera that will be used to study the brightest stars in the night sky, study the birth process of stars and help calibrate the scale of the universe.

"When you look into the sky and you can't see anything, optically, that doesn't mean there isn't anything there," says Monson, a third-year UW graduate student from Mankato, Minn. "You're only seeing the tip of the iceberg without infrared."

"This is a project that's fallen through the cracks (in astronomy research)," says Pierce, who submitted a proposal to the NSF in 2004 to build the infrared camera system. With a proud smile, Pierce looks at Monson and adds, "I'm so proud of him."

Monson didn't just put together the 2-foot-long and 70-pound test camera, he also designed much of the software needed to control and monitor the temperature of the camera within the dewar, a type of vacuum flask cooled with liquid nitrogen to keep the inside at minus-200 degrees Celsius, or minus-328 Fahrenheit.

"It's been a great opportunity for me to learn everything about a camera. Most projects like this would usually entail, I can't even imagine how many people, graduate students, undergraduates, postdoctoral students, just a huge assortment of people with different backgrounds and technical skills," says Monson. "Being at a smaller university like this has given me the opportunity -- and responsibility -- to put this together largely by myself."

He adds, "I've had to overcome a lot of technical difficulties, but to put that all together has helped me learn a lot and learn to persevere. That's going to be a great advantage to me in the future, in the classroom and in the workplace."

Monson has also overcome more than a few awkward nights of sleep on a sofa that's seen better days.

"It is under five feet long, so I don't exactly fit on it. I usually sleep with my calves perched on the far armrest and with my legs inclined," says Monson. "I usually sleep good for about two or three hours before I curl up to one side or the other."

He adds, "I am glad I don't have to sleep there every night."

Recently, Monson presented a project description and status report while showing off the test camera at the American Astronomical Society's bi-annual meeting in Austin, Texas. The project was greeted with rave reviews by astronomers from across the country and Monson was a hot commodity among industry employers.

"Andy was approached by people who will be doing the systems integrations for the next space telescope and they were recommending that he apply for a job there," Pierce says. "I think this has been a really great opportunity for him, because he's sort of been forced to take on all these roles.

"But that makes him highly desirable," he adds. "Instead of just doing a small part of a big project, he's had to do a considerable amount of this on his own."

With the test camera now deemed a success, Monson plans to focus on gathering data for his thesis until it's time to construct the full-sized version of the camera.

That, says Pierce, is probably a year away. Among the parts on order are a quarter-million dollars worth of optics and the 1,000-pound camera shell that will make up the dewar vessel.

The camera, once completed, will become a popular piece of equipment, Pierce predicts.

The Astrophysical Research Consortium (ARC), which consists of researchers from seven universities -- including Johns Hopkins, Princeton and Washington -- has already expressed great interest, the professor says. The ARC plans to use the camera at its Apache Point Observatory in the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico.

The camera will also be available for UW undergraduate and graduate research at the Wyoming Infrared Observatory (WIRO), located about 25 miles southwest of Laramie on Jelm Mountain.

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