I Created A Mad Robot Scientist!

It’s true,  except for the ‘Mad’ part.  I threw that in just to make you look.  Still, I did in fact, create a Robot Scientist.  It’s name is NICI, Nikky to his friends.  NICI stands for the Near Infrared Coronagraphic Imager

It is a giant camera designed by Mauna Kea Infrared a Hawaii based firm specializing in optical equipment for scientific astronomy in the infrared spectrum.  This is serious kind of design, Image detector chips kept colder than liquid helium, in a vacuum harder that outer space,  in a box blacker than black: One loose photon in the wrong place could doom the whole project.  Yes,  It is rocket science.  Just without the rocket.  The science is the same.

Doug Toomey, MKIR’s alter-ego called me in 2001 or so about a big project he had bid on, and won.  NICI  was an instrument specifically designed to image a low-temperature object next to a hot one.  A cool planet near a hot star.  That was the challenge: to be able to see a planet.  Way, way out there.

It had every state of the art attribute imaginable.  Two imaging arrays.  That gave NICI the ability to record two colors, that is, two different wavelengths at exactly the same time.  It had beam splitters, filters of all kinds, an automatic star-eclipse mechanism called a coronagraph.  Activate the chronograph, and the bright object in the center of the image is gone.  Everything else remains.

It had Adaptive Optics.  One thousand times a second, NICI would examine the image automatically and adjust the focus with 85 different solenoids behind a adjustable, flexible mirror.  It knew what it was looking at, and could keep it in the exact same location on the image for as long as you wanted.  Even when the sky makes the stars seem to move and twinkle.  No need to put NICI in orbit.  Just turn on the Adaptive Optics machine and it sweetens up the image just like those Bose noise canceling headphones.  Only better.

NICI had the ability to self-focus, compensate for atmospheric turbulence, and guide the telescope to keep the image perfectly stable on the imaging arrays.

It was that last bit that was new to the people who actually use NICI: Gemini.  Actually everything is new to Gemini, because it specializes in state of the art astronomy.  The edge of science is the scalpel that teases out the patterns of nature.  And a delicate and expensive scalpel it is, run with lots of quality and dedication.  That’s Gemini.  They have a facility in Chile where NICI lives.

Why was it new?  Because NICI was the first instrument that had the ability to move the telescope.  Usually the telescope is simply driven by a clockwork motor to keep an object centered.  However, correcting for the atmosphere required the Camera to point the Telescope.  Giving up control of the huge telescope?  To a camera?  Harumph.  Never been done!

But that’s what NICI does best.  And I wrote the software that juggles the low level messages from the major subsystems and directs the operation of NICI and the Gemini Telescope.

The last time I saw NICI was when it was packed up in big crates for shipment from Hilo, Hawaii to Chile.  I didn’t go to Chile: I could telecommute.  In fact, I telecommuted nearly 95% of the time for the whole project.  Software development is perfect for remote work.  It sucks if you want a job where you travel a lot.

I created a Robot Scientist that Lives and Works in Chile!  My baby.  It never calls or writes.  Just like a real kid.

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