University of Leicester team involved in cryogenic testing of space hardware

Posted by pt91 at Aug 23, 2011 03:45 PM |
Webb telescope instrument completes tests designed to mimic harsh conditions of space
University of Leicester team involved in cryogenic testing of space hardware

The Mid-Infrared Instrument, a component of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, underwent alignment testing at the Science and Technology Facilities Council's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory Space in Oxfordshire, England. Image credit: NASA/RAL

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 19 August 2011

FOR INTERVIEWS CONTACT: Dr John Pye, University of Leicester, on 0116 252 3552

A pioneering camera and spectrometer that will fly aboard NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has completed cryogenic testing designed to mimic the harsh conditions it will experience in space.

The Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) underwent testing inside the thermal space test chamber at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) Space in Oxfordshire, U.K. The sophisticated instrument is designed to examine the first light in the universe and the formation of planets around other stars.

A team of more than 50 scientists from 11 countries tested MIRI for 86 days, representing the longest and most exhaustive testing at cryogenic temperatures of an astronomy instrument in Europe prior to delivery for its integration into a spacecraft.

Personnel from the University of Leicester’s Space Research Centre and X-ray and Observational Astronomy Research Group, both part of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, have been heavily involved as members of the team conducting the intensive  cryogenic test programme – spending many days and nights at the RAL Space facility. In addition, they had been preparing software for the tests and will now be working hard to analyse the resulting data.

Other members of the University’s MIRI team in the Space Research Centre will now be focussing on finalising the transportation needs of MIRI for its journey to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in the USA, planned for next year. Part of the Leicester team’s role in leading the overall mechanical-engineering systems activities within the MIRI Consortium is responsibility for the container and protective systems which will enable the delicate MIRI instrument to be safely transported over ground and air from the UK to the USA. This work includes contracts with several specialist manufacturing and logistics companies in the East Midlands.

Dr John Pye, Manager of the University of Leicester  Space Research Centre, and the University’s lead staff member for the JWST-MIRI project, said “It’s a fantastic achievement, and a great relief, to complete the testing of MIRI, and we look forward to continue working with our colleagues in the MIRI Consortium and at NASA over the next several years as we progress towards launch of JWST.”

Along with the Webb telescope’s other instruments, MIRI will help scientists better understand how the universe formed following the Big Bang and ultimately developed star systems that may be capable of supporting life. In particular, scientists hope to explore young planets around distant stars that are shrouded by gas and dust when viewed in visible light. Because infrared light penetrates these obstructions, MIRI can acquire images of planetary nurseries sharper than ever before possible. With its spectrometer, MIRI could potentially reveal the existence of water on these planets as well, informing future investigations into their habitability for humans.

To capture some of the earliest, infrared light in the cosmos, MIRI has to be cooled to 7 Kelvin (minus 266 Celsius, or minus 447 Fahrenheit), which brings tough challenges for testing the instrument. Inside the RAL Space thermal space test chamber, specially constructed shrouds, cooled to 40 Kelvin (minus 233 Celsius, or minus 388 Fahrenheit), surround MIRI while scientists observe simulated background stars. The tests were designed to ensure that MIRI can operate successfully in the cold vacuum of space and allow scientists to gather vital calibration and baseline data.

The MIRI team is now analyzing data from the cryogenic test campaign, completing remaining “warm testing,” and will prepare the instrument for delivery to NASA Goddard. There it will be integrated with the other instruments, and the telescope.

“Thousands of astronomers will use the Webb telescope to extend the reach of human knowledge far beyond today’s limits. Just as the Hubble Space Telescope rewrote textbooks everywhere, Webb will find new surprises and help to answer some of the most pressing questions in astronomy,” said John Mather, Nobel laureate and Webb senior project scientist at NASA Goddard.


MIRI was built by scientists and engineers from European countries, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and several U.S. institutions. Its focal plane modules, related electronics and software were built at JPL. The instrument’s cooler is being built by Northrop Grumman Space Technologies in Redondo Beach, Calif., and maged by JPL.

The Webb telescope is a partnership between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

More information about MIRI:

More information about the Webb telescope:

The UK and MIRI

The UK's lead role for Europe in the instrument involves taking responsibility for the overall science performance, the mechanical, thermal and optical design, along with the assembly, integration, testing and calibration. These roles are shared between the UK institutions in the partnership as follows:

UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC), Edinburgh is the European science lead for the instrument; responsible for the overall instrument design, optical design and analyses, developing the overall calibration, and providing the spectrometer pre-optic subsystem.

Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL), Oxfordshire is responsible for overall Optical System thermal design and analysis, and production of all thermal hardware; assembly, integration, testing & verification of instrument including provision of bespoke test facilities.

University of Leicester is responsible for overall mechanical design and analysis; provision of instrument primary structure (in partnership with Danish National Space Centre); provision of mechanical ground support equipment.

EADS Astrium provide the overall project management and engineering leadership role; systems engineering; overall instrument product assurance leadership.

The James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope is a joint project of NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency. It will carry four scientific instruments: MIRI (mid-infrared camera and spectrograph), NIRSpec (near-infrared spectrograph), NIRCam (near-infrared camera), and TFI (tunable filter imager).


MIRI, the mid-infrared instrument, provides imaging, coronagraphy and integral field spectroscopy over the 5-28 micron wavelength range. It is being developed as a partnership between Europe and the USA - the partners being a consortium of nationally funded European institutes, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), ESA and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC).

MIRI development draws on the expertise of the following organisations:

Ames Research Center, USA; Astrium, Ltd, UK; ASTRON, Netherlands Foundation for Research in Astronomy; CEA Service d’Astrophysique, Saclay, France; Centre Spatial de Liége, Belgium; Consejo Superior de Investigacones Científicas, Spain; Cranfield University, UK; Danish Space Research Institute; Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Ireland; ETKA, Belgium; ESTEC, Netherlands; Institute d’Astrophysique Spatiale, France; Instituto Nacional de Técnica Aerospacial, Spain; ETH, Zurich, Switzerland; Jet Propulsion Laboratory, USA; Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille (LAM), France; Lockheed Advanced Technology Center, USA; Max-Planck-Insitut für Astronomie (MPIA), Heidelberg, Germany; Observatoire de Paris, France; Observatory of Geneva, Switzerland; Paul Scherrer Institut, Switzerland; Onsala Space Observatory, Sweden; Physikalishes Institut, Bern, Switzerland; Raytheon Vision Systems, USA; Space Telescope Science Institute, USA; STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL), UK; STFC UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC), UK; Toegepast-Natuurwetenschappelijk Ondeszoek (TNO-TPD), Netherlands; University of Amsterdam, Netherlands; University of Arizona, USA; University of Cardiff, UK; University of Cologne, Germany; University of Groningen, Netherlands; University of Leicester, UK; University of Leiden, Netherlands; University of Leuven, Belgium; University of Stockholm, Sweden; University of Reading, UK; Utah State University USA; Zeiss, Germany

The MIRI development is supported by the following national agencies:

Belgian Science Policy Office (BELSPO); Centre Nationale D’Etudes Spatiales (CNES); Danish National Space Centre; Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft-und Raumfahrt (DLR); Enterprise Ireland; ESA; Ministerio De Education y Ciencia; NASA; Nova; STFC; Swiss Space Office; Swedish National Space Board; UK Space Agency; UK Space Agency

The UK Space Agency (link opens in a new window) is at the heart of UK efforts to explore and benefit from space. It is responsible for all strategic decisions on the UK civil space programme and provides a clear, single voice for UK space ambitions.

The UK's thriving space sector contributes £7.5bn a year to the UK economy, directly employs 24,900 and supports a further 60,000 jobs across a variety of industries.

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