University of Leicester to lead development of space instrument

Posted by ap507 at Jun 04, 2015 10:50 AM |
Mission aims to understand how the Sun affects the Earth’s magnetic environment and space weather

Issued by the University of Leicester Press Office on 4 June 2015

  • Space mission called SMILE (Solar Wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer) is a joint collaboration between scientists from the UK, Europe, Canada, the US and China
  • Leicester will lead development of largest space instrument on project
  • Launch expected at the end of 2021

A space mission called SMILE (Solar Wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer) which is a joint collaboration between scientists from the UK, Europe, Canada, the US and China, has received the go-ahead for an initial study phase this summer by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).  SMILE is jointly led by the University College London (UCL) and the Chinese National Space Science Center. The University of Leicester has a major role in SMILE and will lead the development of its largest instrument, a soft X-ray imaging (SXI) telescope.

SMILE aims to understand how the Sun affects the Earth’s magnetic environment and space weather. If the initial studies are successful, the mission could be given a final decision of implementation in November 2015, with the launch expected at the end of 2021.

If launched, SMILE will monitor the solar wind and its effects on Earth for three years and will help scientists understand the chain of events leading to the disruption of satellites, power grids and radio communications. The information collected during the mission could be used to predict and mitigate the impact of future solar storms.

SMILE differs from previous missions looking at space weather as it will study what happens globally in the Earth’s magnetosphere, as well as the ionosphere and aurora which are closer to Earth. This will provide more detailed information which will hopefully enable scientists to reach a complete understanding of how the Sun influences events on Earth by interacting with its magnetic environment. Strong disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic environment caused by solar activity can lead to disruptions of technological infrastructures including orbiting GPS satellites used for communications and expose air crew and astronauts to high doses of radiation. This is generally called ‘space weather’.

The team will study the flow of the solar wind around the Earth using the soft X-ray imager. Simultaneously, a UV imager will observe and measure the properties of the Northern aurora, while a light ion analyser and a magnetometer will monitor the solar wind conditions.

Professor Branduardi-Raymont (UCL, the project co-lead), said: “SMILE will investigate the Sun’s interaction with the Earth’s magnetic environment in a unique manner, never attempted before: using the novel approach of imaging in X-ray, whilst measuring the UV aurora and the properties of the solar wind at the same time. SMILE will give us the opportunity to understand the processes from beginning to end and predict the effects of space weather events in a way unmatched so far.”

The University of Leicester led SXI is a unique instrument in this scientific field, using a technique that has not previously been applied on earlier missions studying the Sun-Earth interaction. It employs a technology, micropore channel optics (MPOs), which has been developed at Leicester in collaboration with an industrial partner (Photonis, France) for many years by a team led by the late Professor George Fraser. X-ray optics using MPOs designed and built at Leicester University will be employed on ESA’s BepiColombo mission. If selected, SMILE would be another major space mission to benefit from this technology.

Dr. Steven Sembay, team leader of the SXI said, “If SMILE ultimately gets selected it will be in part due to the efforts of younger researchers such as Dr. Andrew Read and Dr. Jennifer Carter who have contributed enormously to proving the importance of our science case. But without the efforts of George and his team we would never have had the tools required to deliver the science. I know he would have been very pleased at this result”.

  • Details of SMILE’s science and payload, simulations of the X-ray images and of the observing efficiencies for the high-apogee elliptical orbit under consideration, can be found at the SMILE website at


FOR INTERVIEWS PLEASE CONTACT Dr Steve Sembay, University of Leicester Department of Physics and Astronomy

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