Dr James Gilbert

Innovation:
Australia's new planet hunter

Lead Engineer — Advanced Instrumentation & Technology Centre, Australian National University; ME (Electronics), University of Bath (UK)

ANU's Dr James Gilbert with the Veloce Rosso.

The Veloce Rosso project was always ambitious.

Proposed by Chief Investigator Professor Chris Tinney of the University of New South Wales, it was an engineering challenge that required the Australian National University (ANU), as the prime contractor, to build an optical spectrograph for the 3.9 metre Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales.

The spectrograph would be capable of detecting miniscule shifts in the colour content of light from stars caused by the presence of other worlds. This would require an extremely stable instrument, but it would have to cost far less than those being built in Europe and the US.

“I led the design and construction of ‘Veloce Rosso’, a $2 million precision radial velocity spectrograph for discovering extra-solar planets,” says Dr James Gilbert, Lead Engineer at ANU.

“This instrument used multiple design innovations to achieve performance rivalling international programs costing 10 times as much.”

This instrument used multiple design innovations to achieve performance rivalling international programs costing 10 times as much.

Gilbert’s challenge was to achieve extreme temperature and pressure stability for this car-sized optical system, so that very small changes in the light content of stars would not be overwhelmed by systematic measurement variations.

Rather than cryogenic vacuum solutions, Gilbert solution uses room-temperature and positive-pressure approach, combining off-the-shelf controllers and tight control algorithms to measure the Doppler velocity of distant stars with 1 m/s accuracy.

ANU's Dr James Gilbert with the Veloce Rosso.

Veloce Rosso is capable of detecting spectral Doppler shifts of one 15,000th of a pixel on its sensor, corresponding to a planet as small as Earth orbiting a star thousands of light years away.

Judges’ comments:

“Dr James Gilbert has overcome severe physical constraints in the project resources to develop a spectrograph for exploring extra-solar planets. His work demonstrates significant innovation, which will potentially provide new knowledge about the universe.

“It certainly represents breakthrough thinking and shows an innovative integration of solutions from other areas that haven’t been solved elsewhere.”

MORE IN Young Engineers

Dr Rona Chandrawati

Say Yes to NO

Dr Wenyue Zou

Low-cost wearable UV sensors