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Charlestown firm a world leader in space optics



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Optical Solutions Inc. CEO Brad Piccirillo demonstrates equipment that checks the quality of lenses created and manufactured at his facility on Bull Run in Charlestown. OSI's optics will be used in the James Webb Space Telescope being built to replace the Hubble Space Telescope. Chuck Bingaman photo.. (click for larger version)
October 01, 2009
CHARLESTOWN — Optical Solutions Inc. (OSI) of Charlestown, an eight-employee firm described by owner Brad Piccirillo as a "po-dunk" company, is, in fact, a world leader in development of optical components for the leading space and land based telescopes.

Despite its size and short, 13-year history, Piccirillo and company have designed and produced the optics for several of the world's most advanced telescope instruments, including the Japanese owned Subaru telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii — one of Japan's national treasures—and the airplane mounted Sofia telescope. See www.subarutelescope.org. and http://www.sofia.usra.edu/Sofia/sofia.html.

Most importantly, OSI was tapped through an extensive competitive program run by NASA and Lockheed Martin to create the lenses for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to be launched in space four to six years from now.

The Webb telescope has been in the talking and planning stages for years and will be the successor to the well-known Hubble Space Telescope that is nearing the end of its life span. When fully functioning in space, the JWST will view much farther into space than the Hubble and capture images through infrared waves that will reach back to the Big Bang theory — approximately 14 billion years ago.

Piccirillo sees his company — that he formed with little capital, no space, and no specific business plan — as primarily a research and development incubator in the field of cutting edge optics.

"We specialize in taking on those extremely difficult jobs that others shy away from.

"The JWST project is the most important, most significant thing in my life," Piccirillo said Monday in his Charlestown office that he shares with his dogs, Isabella and Gracie. "The specs for the lenses were ungodly difficult, and some said they couldn't even be made. Lockheed was tasked to find the best optical company in the world to make the lenses and to use notoriously difficult lithium fluoride (LiF), barium fluoride (BaF2) and zinc selenide (ZnSe) to do so.

"We did the sample optics and one day six years ago — sitting right here in this office and this chair — I got a call from the Lockheed Project Manager who said "you're technical ability is second to none. Your optics are 'far better' than any others in the world. You're going to get the contract for every single lens.

"We'd put in seven frigging years at that point," Piccirillo said. "And we got the job strictly on merit. It's the job of a lifetime.

On Monday, Piccirillo showed off the actual lenses that have now been created in the OSI factory and are ready to ship to Lockheed in California for testing and eventual incorporation into the telescope. Each of the orange-ish, zinc-selenium lenses, about the size of a hockey puck, took nearly a year to make using the latest in high-tech design hardware and software, extremely narrow tolerance diamond turning, and extensive testing. OSI is making two sets of lenses for the Webb telescope — it carries a back-up set in case the first set is damaged in any way — and a number of back-up copies.

"To date," Piccirillo said, "every one of our lenses has performed above the specs NASA requires."

Originally from Schenectady, N.Y.,, Piccirillo attended Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y., and the State University of New York in Fredonia where he got a degree in optics. When he was 32 he decided that his "thing" in life would be to make the best optics anywhere.

"I'm not interested in business management," Piccirillo, the intense, energetic, jeans-wearing CEO admits. "What I really enjoy in the business is the working with customers on technical solutions to their needs. I think astronomers must be the smartest people in the world, but few of them are instrument makers. We get to support that part of it."

OSI has never done any marketing. Rather, its sophisticated products and willingness to take on the most difficult R&D projects speak clearly for themselves in a relatively small community worldwide.

"We can," Piccirillo says, "make any kind of optics you might imagine and make them to tolerances or levels of quality second to none in the world."

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