Sydney Astrophotonic Instrumentation Laboratory (SAIL) open for business

9 November 2015

The newly refurbished SAIL laboratories at the University of Sydney are now open for business. The labs are funded by Prof. Joss Bland-Hawthorn, ARC Laureate Fellow and Director of SIfA, and overseen and run by Dr. Sergio Leon-Saval, SAIL Director.

Postdoc Chris Betters and student Alex Murray in the SAIL Hive
Postdoc Chris Betters and student Alex Murray in the SAIL Hive

The SAIL labs are based on new laboratory areas and extensive floor plan refurbishments to the former Astrophotonic labs at the School of Physics. The design and building works were supervised by Dr. Leon-Saval over a period of four months in close collaboration with the School of Physics Project Manager Nathan Apps and Campus Infrastructures Services.

The new laboratories consist of a Stabilised Environment Room (SER), four optical laboratories, two multi-purpose laboratories and a breakout and brainstorming meeting area (the SAIL Hive). There are several major improvements from the previous astrophotonics laboratories, including three-level high efficiency particulate air filtering for the optical laboratories and the SER, temperature control to ±0.5 C (±0.1 C in SER), and humidity control to ±10% (±1 % in SER).

"The whole SAIL development has been an exhausting process, but a very rewarding one. This whole project is a credit to the School of Physics and the University of Sydney as a whole in its ability for restoration and adaptive re-use of heritage buildings. We have managed to transform the basement of a heritage building into a world class laboratory facility." - Dr. Sergio Leon-Saval

The founding of the SAIL laboratories is backed up by high-calibre research projects and collaborations, as well as world-leading researchers in the area of astrophotonics and astronomical instrumentation. Some of the main ongoing research projects are outlined below:

  • Highly multiplexed fibre Bragg gratings in multicore fibres. This project focuses on the realisation of complex fibre Bragg grating filters in multicore fibres for the suppression of OH sky emission and is a partnership with the AAO and the University of Maryland.
  • Photonic spectrographs for the next wave in astronomical instrumentation. A revolutionary new project which will unite the resources of the University of Maryland, the Goddard Space Flight Centre and SAIL at the University of Sydney.
  • Next generation hexabundles for the Hector spectrograph. Hector is an instrument concept for a multi integral-field-unit spectrograph aimed at obtaining a tenfold increase in capability over the current generation of such instruments, such as the very successful SAMI. SAIL will collaborate with the Australian Astronomical Observatory and lead in the realisation of these state-of-the-art specialty fibre hexabundles by using new in-house world-class glass processing facilities.
  • Photonic spectrographs in Field Robotics. SAIL is developing food safety sensors in collaboration with the Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) headed by Prof. Salah Sukkarieh. One of the current projects, led by Chris Betters, is the development of a Raman spectrograph for the farming industry and funded by Horticulture Australia Ltd.
  • Diffraction limited spectrographs for astronomy. This area of research focuses in exploiting astrophotonic concepts for the realisation of compact, extremely stable and high-resolution diffraction limited spectrographs for the next generation of astronomical instrumentation.
  • Astronomical photonic imaging and interferometry. SAIL also hosts the main laboratory for the SIfA Astronomical Imaging and Interferometry group led by Prof. Peter Tuthill. This group has active projects at premier world observatories such as Subaru, Keck, the Very Large Telescope and the Large Binocular Telescope, to further advance the sophistication of photonic interferometric technologies. This work will help move from the current era of exoplanetary detection to one of exploration and characterisation, through instruments such as VAMPIRES and Dragonfly
  • Orbital angular momentum in celestial sources. In collaboration with Macquarie University, SAIL is investigating the detection of orbital angular momentum (OAM) in celestial sources by using state-of-the-art photonics concepts such as OAM mode sorters in combination with Adaptive Optics systems.
  • Nanophotonics in astronomical instrumentation. Nanoscale science will open new venues for research and technology in the area of astronomical instrumentation and astrophotonics. New areas of research at SAIL in nanoscale astrophotonics include sub-wavelength optical elements and nano-engineering of photonic interfaces for light control and manipulation.

Glass Processing Facility
Glass Processing Facility

These projects are made possible by heavy investment and commitment. The SAIL budget of $2.3 million for laboratory refurbishments and equipment includes state-of-the-art equipment for optical fibre glass processing, photonic characterisation and testing, 3D printing rapid prototyping and laser interferometry for photonic functionalisation of optical fibres.

This is an exciting time for astrophotonics at SIfA, with the new laboratories establishing SIfA's position as a world-leader in the field.