Casting for the Great Melbourne Telescope

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by Matilda Vaughan
Publish date
21 December 2012
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Matilda swapped a life working as an engineer for a life curating the museum’s historical Engineering collection. She’s very curious about how stuff works, how it’s made and why. If a machine’s got a switch, she’ll definitely flick it.

Last week I visited a foundry in Melbourne that was casting a vital component for our restoration of the Great Melbourne Telescope. The original part of the telescope - the declination disc - had been modified and broken at some time in its history and was not repairable.

Great Melbourne Telescope in 1870 The Great Melbourne Telescope in its own house at the Melbourne Observatory, 1870. The red arrow points to the declination disc needing replacement.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

This is the first part of the project to be made by a sand moulding or casting process very similar to that which was used in Ireland in the late 1860s. Our modern part is made from a type of cast iron invented in the 1940s which has magnesium added to give it properties that make it easier to shape. The electric induction furnace, which is used to melt the metal, was developed in the early 20th century.

A couple of weeks ago, Peter made a pattern out of wood for the casting. Tom next used the pattern to form a hollow in a sand mould. This kind of mould is a mixture of washed sand and a binder, made in two halves, and cured to retain its shape once the pattern is removed. The two halves of the mould were then closed, after a pouring spout, flow paths and risers (to allow the metal to flow to and fill all sections of the hollow) were added. Heavy weights on top ensured it remained closed when the metal was poured.

Man working with metal The sparks fly as Bryn takes a sample from the furnace for temperature testing.
Image: Matilda Vaughan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The pounded earth floor and the filtered light through the open doorways and skylights in the roof of the foundry transported me back in time. It was 7 AM and Bryn had already been awake for hours and the sparking pot of molten metal (spheroidal graphite iron) was his morning's labour. He tested its temperature and composition, turned the knob of the electric induction furnace's control panel, and gave the signal. After the removal of the slag crust, the metal was ready for pouring.

Man pouring molten metal Bryn pours the molten metal into the next mould as Tom looks on. Our filled mould is on the floor behind them.
Image: Matilda Vaughan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Bryn added the final ingredients and carefully tipped the 1500°C molten metal into the pre-heated ladle. He then transported the ladle to the moulding area and poured it first into our waiting mould, and then onto the other smaller moulds. Being such a large casting, ours needed almost 24 hours to cool down before breaking open the mould.

Sand mould in workshop The lower half of the sand mould, with the casting removed. The sand from the top half is in pieces in the background. The sand will be cleaned and reused, as will the molten scraps of metal.
Image: Matilda Vaughan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

At 6 AM the following morning, Bryn was ready to break open the mould. The weights were removed and the upper part of the mould lifted away. Then the casting itself was lifted into the air and the sand and metal debris removed. It was then transported by the overhead mobile crane to the finishing room, where the hardened parts of the spout, risers and flow paths were ground and knocked off and the surfaces cleaned.

Men with newly cast metal pieces Bryn (left) with the pattern for our declination disc, and Tom (right) with the freshly removed casting. Note the four cylindrical 'risers' at the edge, the pouring pathways (almost like a running person) in the middle and the square shaped pouring spout (head of the running person). These pieces are reused for the next batch of metal.
Image: Matilda Vaughan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The next step for this part will be heat treatment to 'relax' the metal, followed by the final shaping and machining. It is a rare sight to see this process so close in our urban environment and one of the great aspects to working on restoration projects of this magnitude.

Links:

Great Melbourne Telescope website

Great Melbourne Telescope on Collections Online

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Peter John Jose 30 November, 2013 15:10
The HET is one of the world's largest optical telescopes, with an effective aperture of 9.2 meters and a 78 square meter, hexagonal mirror array made from 91 segments. Its design is revolutionary.With these telescope development people can understand well the structures of our universe.
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