From Santa Cruz Sentinel via UC Santa Cruz: “Soquel teen develops new technology for astronomical telescopes”

UC Santa Cruz

UC Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz Sentinel

Ryan Masters

Pacific Collegiate School student Spencer Cheleden has developed a new way to coat the enormous astronomical telescope mirrors during his summer research at UC Santa Cruz with research astronomer mentor Andrew Phillips. (Dan Coyro — Santa Cruz Sentinel)

While most teenagers play Pokémon Go this summer, Spencer Cheleden is discovering ways to improve the world’s most powerful astronomical telescopes.

Under the mentorship of Andrew Phillips, who heads up the Advanced Coatings Lab at the University of California Observatories, Cheleden, began experimenting with silver-based reflective coatings on telescope mirrors in the fall of 2015 as part of UC Santa Cruz’s Science Internship Program.

Optical coatings are thin films applied to mirror and lens surfaces to enhance reflection for mirrors. They can consist of one or multiple layers of various materials, and are roughly 200 to 400 nanometers in thickness — or 1/300 the diameter of a human hair.

“Dr. Phillips outlined his research for me last summer and gave me a choice of projects. Silver-based reflective coatings had been sort of a dormant area of research and I became interested in improving the efficiency of the telescopes to create more light and more data,” said Cheleden, 17, who will be a senior at Pacific Collegiate School in the fall.

Telescope mirrors traditionally have aluminum-based coatings, Cheleden said. Silver has been largely overlooked as a coating material because it tarnishes when exposed to oxygen. To protect the thin film of silver from oxidation, Phillips and Cheleden began experimenting with a variety of metal oxide, fluoride and nitride applications.

“If you spray it clear over the silver, it maintains its reflecting properties and also protects from water and abrasion,” Cheleden said.

This summer, Phillips and Cheleden have been creating composites using promising materials such as titanium oxide, hafnium oxide, silicon nitride and yttrium fluoride. To see which composite protects the silver reflecting surface longest and best, these coatings are being tested in a lab on the UCSC campus as well as in real-world situations such as a Lick Observatory telescope.

Phillips and Cheleden already have co-published results in the Journal of Astronomical Telescopes, Instruments and Systems, a paper that Phillips also presented at a conference in Scotland. Cheleden says they hope to have a second paper published this year.

In addition, Cheleden won first place in physics and astronomy at the 2016 California State Science Fair and received the Optics and Photonics Award from SPIE, the International Society for Optics and Photonics.

His project was so outstanding that the University of Toronto’s engineering department selected him to attend a weeklong elite engineering summer camp in Toronto this year where he studied cleaner combustion engines for aerospace.

Despite the accolades and success, Cheleden said he probably won’t pursue physics or astronomy in the future. While he dreams of attending Stanford University after high school, he doesn’t foresee a career in academia.

“I see myself using applied mathematics in finance or consulting,” Cheleden said. “Maybe running a company offering computer-based solutions.”

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UCO Lick Shane Telescope
UCO Lick Shane Telescope interior
Shane Telescope at UCO Lick Observatory, UCSC/em>

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The University of California, Santa Cruz, opened in 1965 and grew, one college at a time, to its current (2008-09) enrollment of more than 16,000 students. Undergraduates pursue more than 60 majors supervised by divisional deans of humanities, physical & biological sciences, social sciences, and arts. Graduate students work toward graduate certificates, master’s degrees, or doctoral degrees in more than 30 academic fields under the supervision of the divisional and graduate deans. The dean of the Jack Baskin School of Engineering oversees the campus’s undergraduate and graduate engineering programs.