Discovering one’s future through the lens of a telescope

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Mike Every is an amateur telescope maker with a light idea: plastic telescope mirrors.

Astronomers, like Every, who build their own instruments are eager for cheaper, lighter mirrors that reduce the cost and weight of the optics. While Every is not the first to flirt with plastic telescope mirrors, he is, perhaps, one of the youngest. The second-year physics major from Saugerties, N.Y., has toyed with solutions to the problem since high school, when he tried to grind a 14-inch glass mirror for his own telescope. The tedium wore him down and gave him the idea he carried to RIT’s Center for Student Innovation.

Every connected with Carl Lundgren, professor of manufacturing and mechanical engineering technology, who is an expert in plastics and epoxies. Lundgren gave Every access to his lab and, with Michael Richmond, professor of physics, mentored Every during the summer fellowship he won from the center.

Every uses an apparatus resembling a turntable to spin combinations of liquid plastics into the shape of concave mirrors. The concoction spins in a vacuum chamber to eliminate turbulence in the surface of the curing plastic. The resulting blank mirror is later coated with aluminum for reflectance.

“As a liquid spins, it takes on a parabolic, or dish, shape, the necessary shape for a Newtonian telescope mirror,” Every says. “If I could get a liquid to spin and take on that shape, then harden it, I could make a mirror from that.”

Every is working out the complications plastics present—the ripples and dents marring the surface of the curing material. “The issue is getting the right kind of plastic to set properly.”

“Mike is working on techniques that will significantly reduce the cost of telescopes,” Lundgren says. “If you have a large number of small telescopes collecting images in a coordinated manner, you have a system that provides more resolution, theoretically, than the largest terrestrial telescopes. To have that large network of telescopes, they have to be reasonable to build. Mike’s ideas and dreams are shared by others in the astronomy community, here and elsewhere.”

Every’s method for spinning liquid plastics into optically smooth disks has drawn the attention of likeminded astronomers. An abstract from his winning paper, “Spin Cast Plastic Telescope Mirrors,” at RIT’s Undergraduate Research and Innovation Symposium was posted on the Internet last summer and caught the eye of Russell Genet from California Polytechnic State University. Genet invited Every to present his research at the Meter-Class Astronomy Conference in Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

The chance to make contacts with established scientists in his field has led to other opportunities for Every. He is busy this spring writing a chapter for Genet’s upcoming book about telescope mirrors and updating his undergraduate research paper for publication in Amateur Astronomy Magazine.

“I think, in part, the fact that he has dared to do this as such a young student is part of the attraction to the academics at other universities,” Lundgren says. “Mike is typical of a growing number of RIT undergrads who are not going to wait until they are done with college to start their creative careers. In my opinion, Mike is the new brand of RIT student. In the Center for Student Innovation, we have a saying that ‘undergraduates are talented enough to have great ideas and naïve enough not to know what is impossible.’ ”