With some initial computational work out of the way and a somewhat interesting eye test, this week I started work in the laser spectroscopy lab as part of my masters project. The plan is to identify the spectra of novel molecules that might be found in the interstellar medium. Not surprisingly, achieving this requires a multi-disciplinary approach, where chemists model the species and use that data to assist in finding it in the lab, which astronomers then use to search for the spectral signature in astronomical data. Now that we’ve selected some potential candidates and modelled the kind of data we should be getting, it’s time to see if I can actually find it!
To make new species a known precursor is mixed with an inert gas, such as argon, and then carried passed electrodes, which give a pulsed, high-voltage discharge, generating argon plasma. This plasma breaks apart the precursor, which when carried through to a vacuum chamber is fired on by a laser to make it fluoresce. The difficult part of this is that the firing of the laser, the pulsing of the gas, the pulsing of the electrodes, and the opening of various gates all have to be timed perfectly for everything to work! So far we’ve taken everything apart and have slowly been working through the timings of different aspects of the rig.
As my project last year was entirely computational, being in a lab for long periods of time is quite a different experience, especially having never worked in a laser lab before. I’d forgotten the exhaustion from working in loud environment all day, where you’re constantly slightly on edge for fear of breaking something or something going wrong. At the same time, reducing a laser rig to its components, learning how it all works, and firing lasers into argon plasma is pretty exciting, and certainly makes a change to scanning through the output files of simulations! Being in the same lab as PhD students and post-docs also gives an opportunity to what day-to-day postgraduate work is like. Speaking of which, I’m currently in the middle of applying for various PhDs, which I plan to write about as soon as I get the rest of these applications done!