This summer I had the opportunity to work at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center with the Next Generation X-Ray Optics team. This team specializes in the fabrication and physics behind x-ray optics that will one day be implemented in a space telescope used to observe x-ray radiation from distance celestial bodies. Studying x-ray radiation can shed light on the mysteries surrounding black holes and neutron stars, furthering our understanding of astrophysics. The most sophisticated x-ray telescope currently in orbit is the Chandra telescope, which boasts extremely high sensitivity but unfortunately also boasts a $1.6 billion price tag. Chandra has very high resolution, but its one drawback is a low collecting area. The NGXO team aims to create x-ray optics (and subsequently an x-ray telescope) that are cheaper to produce and more lightweight, while preserving Chandra’s level of resolution and drastically increasing collecting area.
An example of the silicon x-ray mirror process, with the mirror on the bottom right being the finished product. Over 10,000 of these mirrors may be used in one single telescope.
This summer I was tasked with the design and development of the machines that shape and finish these optics. Amazingly enough, these machines shape the optics to a level of precision that is on the order of nanometers. That’s 1 billionth of a meter and comparable to the size of some atoms! These x-ray optics are made of single crystal silicon, a substance commonly used in electronics and solar panels, that facilitates the fabrication of these mirrors due to the low internal stress of single crystal silicon. My latest project involved programming motion control for a new series of mirror polishing machines, wiring motor controllers, and creating a water-resistant electronics enclosure for the machine. As a mechanical engineering student, I was grateful to be getting experience that bordered electrical engineering, as it is usually necessary to have these skills when designing and building machines that involve motion. As my internship comes to a close, I hope to make the most of my time at NASA and leave a lasting impact on the future of x-ray astronomy. Thank you Skidmore CDC!