Timeline: 50 Years of Leicester in Space

The University of Leicester has a long and distinguished record of involvement in space science. Professor Ken Pounds, former Head of Physics and Astronomy and Emeritus Professor of Space Physics, has played a pivotal role in this success story. Here he describes how Leicester came to be in the forefront of space research and charts the milestones in space exploration.

Ken Pounds
Professor Ken Pounds
"Nations around the world first became aware of the potential of 'space' with the launch of Sputnik in October 1957.

"This first man-made satellite, launched by the Soviet Union, was front page news for days. The impact in the USA was dramatic, and they responded within a year with their own satellite, Vanguard, and NASA was created.

"Although at a much lower level than in the USSR and USA, there were already plans to explore the 'peaceful use of space' in the UK. The Royal Society formed a high level group to look into the possibilities and development of the Skylark research rocket, which began in 1955 at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough.

"The upshot was a programme of scientific research, with an early player being the new 'Rocket research group' at University College London. I joined that group as its first research student in 1956 with the task of developing techniques to measure X-radiation from the Sun (a measure of solar activity).

"It turned out the vacuum equipment I needed to check out my instruments before flight already existed in the Physics Department at Leicester.

"By 1959 the research was going well, and it was decided to establish a new university group to specialise in X-ray observations from space. Leicester was by then the obvious place and I was offered an assistant lectureship, to come here and lead the project. The salary of £700 was too good an offer for a research student to refuse. So I came in January 1960, and in July we were awarded a grant of £13,006 from DSIR to study solar and stellar X-ray emissions."


Ariel 1; first cosmic X-ray source discovered; ESRO 2; OSO-4 and -5...


Copernicus; Skylab, ESA founded; Ariel 5 and 6...


Space Shuttle debuts; EXOSAT; Halley's Comet; BNSC established; ASTRO-C/GINGA...


Hubble; ROSAT; first SST degree; Helen Sharman; Hubble repaired; Space Research Centre opens...


National Space Centre opens; XMM-Newton; Beagle 2; SWIFT...

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