Jim Jennings

Jim Jennings

Nuts & bolts

Observatory machine shop crafts the high-tech components for cutting-edge astronomy

When looking out at the stars, sometimes we lose sight of what is under our noses.

Such is the case with the observatory at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Saanich, where many of Canada’s brightest ply their trade in the name of seeing further, sooner – as world leaders in optical and radio astronomy.

“Canada is ranked as one of the top performers in astronomy in the world,” said instrument shop supervisor Jim Jennings. “That has always been something here we are drawn to and work passionately about because we love the challenge.”

A 30-year veteran of the 4,000-square-foot machine shop, Jennings’ days are spent turning engineer design into reality.

Working on multi-axis machines crafting metallic machine parts for testing and prototyping, Jennings and his team create telescope components that could be mistaken for miniature metallic art – and measured down to the micron with details too fine for the eye to see.

“That is why our instruments can do what they do to push the envelope of science,” Jennings said.

“If you don’t look at (pushing the envelope) at every phase, we are not going to get the world-class instruments we produce. This is why we have to be the best.”

Getting there is always a new challenge.

Concepts move from astronomers to engineers to machinists, and occasionally designers shoot for the stars in terms of what is technically possible. The request might leave the machinist scratching his head, but Jennings has a habit of saying yes, even when his first inclination might be no.

“We can be making the boxes, or the high-tech pieces that go in the box. We want to make the high-tech piece that goes in the box,” Jennings said.

“The more specialties we have the better for Canadian citizens. The more technology-based things we do, the more we bring in for Canada and advance ourselves.”

The National Research Council-funded site – from the Centre of the Universe interpretive centre at the observatory, to behind-the-scenes astrophysics and astronomy research – has proven to be one of the world leaders where industry-changing discoveries are almost commonplace.

Recent discoveries, including one led by Alan McConnachie which suggests previous scientific understanding of galaxy formation may be inaccurate, were realized in part with the tools designed and built by the machine shop.