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Kaman Helps Put Giant Telescope Back in Action

Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope

A representative of Kaman Industrial Technologies in Hawaii opened a window on the universe for a number of unsuspecting astronomers around the world last fall.

The Kaman branch office played a key role in getting a malfunctioning telescope back in operation much more quickly than had been expected.

The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope broke down September 1998 due to a bearing failure. With the telescope unable to rotate on its polar axis, a number of astronomers faced an uncertain future.

The telescope, a joint venture of the nations of Canada and France and the University of Hawaii, stands near the summit of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano. At nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, the location is one of the best spots in the world for celestial observation. Astronomers travel from Canada and France as well as the state university to use the telescope.

A Catastrophe for Astronomers

The breakdown was a catastrophe for the astronomers who had been planning to use the observatory. They schedule their telescope sessions a year in advance. All year long they work to prepare the programs they intend to run during brief windows of opportunity of two to three nights at the observatory. When the telescope became unavailable, it meant that an unknown number of astronomers would have to wait another year before resuming their work in Hawaii. Some would not have been able to reschedule. The longer the telescope was down, the more astronomers would be affected.

"Our staff had to move quickly," said Dan Sabin, mechanical designer and instrument maker for the telescope. "Telescope technicians had to remove, rebuild and install the malfunctioning gearbox with the least amount of downtime possible."

Due to the size and location of the telescope, this was easier said than done. The telescope sits atop a five-story building. To remove the 6,000-pound gearbox with a forklift, special fixtures had to be custom-manufactured. After the gearbox was removed, it had to be transported by truck from the summit to the base of the mountain. Due to the thin air at the summit, individuals would not have been able to work efficiently for extended periods.

Finding parts for a 25-year-old, French-built telescope

In addition, since the telescope had been built in France more than 25 years ago, replacement parts were difficult to identify, locate and purchase. That's where Kaman Industrial Technologies came in.

"I turned to Kaman, because of the service they had provided in the past," said Sabin. "Without fail, the Kaman branch response and research has always been courteous, competent and timely. The folks at Kaman have always been able to get items delivered to us on time, and this time they came through for us again."

Kaman's challenge was to track down hard-to-find parts, or have them fabricated, and arrange for quick delivery. Kaman's success played a key part in enabling the staff to do what needed to be done to get the telescope back in operation only 28 days after the bearing failure occurred.

During this period, 13 telescope configurations involving at least 20 astronomers had to be postponed. For every additional week of delay, several more astronomers would have to reschedule their observations for a year or more - or would have lost their opportunity forever.

Telescope time extremely valuable

"Every hour of telescope time is extremely valuable," said Sabin. "The astronomers are looking at galaxies and stars. Once they lose a window of opportunity, they may not get it back."

Most of the bearings that were needed were not off-the-shelf items. They were ultra-high precision bearings, some as large as eight inches in diameter. Finding replacements was critical to keeping the program going.

The task was difficult because some of the bearings and other parts were made so long ago that their design and catalog numbers had been changed over the years. In some cases, replacement parts had to be manufactured.

"Some producers were saying the lead time for some of the bearings would be 36 weeks," said Sabin. "That would have been devastating to our program, but Kaman was able to supply us with all the bearings and components we needed within a very short period of time. As we rebuilt the gear box, we didn't have a single day of downtime waiting for bearings."

Although Kaman has supported the mountaintop observations over the years, most of the branch customers are in the agricultural field. Kaman provides equipment to the coffee, macadamia nut and pineapple growers in Hawaii.

But the telescope was an unusual application for the branch's services. The urgency surrounding the requirements made this project especially demanding. Said Sabin, "Not only did Kaman expedite the deliveries, but they constantly kept us informed of the status of the deliveries. That was very important. Things were moving so fast that we were scheduling our assembly around the deliveries. By keeping us informed it helped us to develop a schedule that we could maintain."

Ron Henderson, Kaman Regional Sales Manager in California, said this project was a good example of the importance of responsive service in the company's strategies.

"Our business is increasingly competitive," he said. "We have to do more than just supply parts. We have to add value through personal involvement and technical expertise. The branch's approach to the business shows how dedicated service and superior know-how can make a difference."

More information about the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope is available here.