A Short History of the Group

The University of Leicester was founded as a University College in 1921, and the first lecturer in physics, A. C. Menzies, was appointed in 1925. The department continued to function during the war years under the leadership of Dr E. A. Stewardson. He was originally recruited to replace Dr (later Sir) Leonard Huxley, who had been called away for war work, but afterwards retained the post and made valuable contributions to the work of the department. In particular, he worked on X-ray emission in space, a field of expertise in which the XROA group is now internationally recognised.

Skylark 1Initially, the only known X-ray source was the sun, and in 1961 the group first flew an X-ray camera on a Skylark sounding rocket. They subsequently flew several cameras and spectrometers per year to image the solar corona, producing the first clear image of the corona. The group also collaborated with UCL on Ariel 1, the first international space satellite and Leicester’s first mission of that kind. They worked to produce the proportional-counter spectrometer that flew on board the mission.

After 1966, and the discovery of several X-ray sources outside the solar system, the group in Leicester began to use Skylark rockets to collect night sky data and join the search for more X-ray sources. It was only in the mid-1970s, when the use of satellites in astronomy was on the increase, that sounding rockets became a less economically viable method of data collection and the group stopped their regular usage. However, physicists at Leicester still use sounding rockets on occasion, the latest hardware flown in this way being the J-PEX spectrometer in 2001.

ChandraProfessor Ken Pounds took on the leadership of the group in 1969, and the field of X-ray astronomy expanded in the 1970s, with the Leicester group heavily involved in the research. Leicester hosted the first meeting of the European Astronomical Society in 1975, participating in the Ariel 5 satellite mission at the same time. During the 1980s, the group was involved in missions such as Exosat, the first ESA-led X-ray satellite, GINGA, a joint Japanese/UK mission, and ROSAT ( Röntgensatellit), a German-built satellite that went into orbit in 1990.

ROSAT carried the UK-built Wide Field Camera which performed the first ever all-sky survey in the Extreme Ultraviolet, marking the expansion of the group's activities across the electromagnetic spectrum, which now include gamma ray, ultraviolet, optical and infra-red astronomy. Members of the group have also become major users of ground-based telescopes as well as space-based facilities.

Professor Pounds was briefly succeeded in 1994 by Professor Bob Warwick, then by Professor Martin Ward in 1995. These were exciting years for the group as they were involved in the NASA-led Chandra X-Ray Observatory mission, and in ESA’s XMM-Newton mission, both launched in 1999. Professor Warwick became group leader again in 2004, the year in which our most recent mission, the SWIFT gamma ray burst satellite, was launched.

Images are of the Skylark sounding rocket, left, and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, right.

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