James Webb Space Telescope launch celebrated by UK

Artist's impression of the James Webb Space Telescope pillars

The once-in-a-generation spacecraft has been launched today with scientists and engineers across the UK playing a vital role in realising the mission.

Earlier today the telescope, known as just ‘Webb’, blasted off from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana, in the culmination of decades of scientific collaboration.

The mission is led by:

  • NASA
  • European Space Agency (ESA)
  • Canadian Space Agency.

The UK played a major role by leading the European Consortium that, partnered with US institutes, designed, built and tested one of the four main science instruments.

The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said:

The successful launch of the Webb Telescope marks another giant leap forward for space discovery and our understanding of the universe.

It is testament to the immense skill and ingenuity of the UK’s world-leading scientists and engineers, together with their partners in Europe and the United States, that we have witnessed this historic moment today.

Today’s launch also shows the enormous value of investing in our science and research base and cementing the UK’s position as a global science superpower – not only to give us a glimpse of galaxies beyond our own but also to support skilled jobs and boost investment here at home

Science Minister George Freeman said:

Today is a monumental milestone for international and UK space science: the Webb Space Telescope will allow us to go further and deeper to explore and discover our planetary universe.

The project draws heavily on the world-class expertise of top UK scientists and engineers who were able to deliver vital pieces of this complex and powerful telescope.

Being at the heart of this international project showcases the innovative talent of the UK’s world-leading scientists and engineers, and emphasises our position as a global science powerhouse.

Seeing the universe

The telescope is set to redefine our understanding of the cosmos and unveil some of the secrets of the distant universe.

Webb will allow scientists to determine how the first galaxies were formed and will see our own solar system in new ways and never-before-seen detail.

Scientists and engineers in the UK were crucial to the development and launch of the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). MIRI will be able to:

  • see the faint light from the most distant stars
  • peer through dust and gas to spot stars being born.

The MIRI development has been funded by:

  • UK Space Agency
  • Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), part of UK Research and Innovation
  • ESA.

Caroline Harper, Head of Space Science at the UK Space Agency, said:

Webb is set to re-write the textbooks on astronomy, showing us things about the universe we have never been able to see before.

I am excited to see the fascinating discoveries the spacecraft makes as it reveals the evolution of the universe.

The UK has played a crucial role in this once-in-a-generation mission, developing the MIRI, which will examine the physical and chemical properties of objects in the early universe in greater detail than ever.

This has been a fantastic example of academic-industry partnership, showcasing the skills and expertise of our scientists and engineers.

Webb in the UK

MIRI will deliver a host of capabilities, boasting:

  • a spectrograph to break up light into its constituent wavelengths
  • a coronagraph to block starlight and look at fainter objects next to stars
  • a camera to take pictures.

MIRI was designed, built, and tested by a European Consortium of 10 member countries led by the UK, in partnership with the US.

The European contribution is led by Professor Gillian Wright MBE of STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC), and includes:

  • STFC RAL Space
  • University of Leicester
  • Airbus UK.

The UK’s lead role in the instrument involves taking responsibility for:

  • the overall design
  • the science performance
  • the mechanical, thermal and optical design
  • the assembly, integration, testing and calibration software.

A seminal moment

Professor Gillian Wright, European Principal Investigator for MIRI and Director of UKATC, said:

To see Webb launch, with MIRI on board, after more than two decades is a seminal moment.

MIRI is a special instrument, for the breadth of its science, the team that built it, and being the coolest instrument on Webb. The MIRI team rose to the challenges and brought some exquisite engineering solutions to make it a reality.

The Webb mission as a whole is an amazing technological breakthrough in scale and complexity, and this extends to the instruments, including MIRI. With the launch, all of us are excitedly anticipating the first MIRI data and the new view of the universe we will have.

What’s next for Webb

Although Webb has successfully launched, its journey is only just beginning.

The giant mirror for the telescope had to be launched as 18 segments folded inside the launch vehicle and it must be unfolded, and all the segments perfectly aligned, in space.

A huge sunshield the size of a tennis court is needed to keep the instruments cold enough to work and this must also be unfurled in space.

Webb will then go on a month-long journey to its destination, a million miles from Earth. In the six months after launch, the observatory commissioning will take place, with first results expected in the summer of 2022.

Professor Mark Thomson, STFC Executive Chair, said:

There are few times in a lifetime when one can celebrate the start of a transformational international science mission such as this. The UK, as part of the international team, has played a key role in getting us to this point, and our world-class scientists and engineers will continue to be pivotal in the mission’s success.

Now Webb’s journey has begun, we wait eagerly to see the universe through Webb’s eyes and can look forward to scientific discoveries built upon the hard work of our scientists and engineers.

Further information

More about MIRI

The roles shared between the UK institutions in the MIRI partnership as follows:

UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC)

  • Overall science lead for the European consortium
  • leadership of the overall design
  • end-endoptical design modelling
  • interfaces and analysis
  • providing the spectrometer pre-optics subsystem and calibration modules
  • leading the post-delivery testing and commissioning.

STFC RAL Space

Responsible for:

  • overall instrument thermal design and analysis
  • production of all thermal hardware
  • assembly, integration, testing and verification of instrument including provision of necessary bespoke test facilities
  • initial calibration
  • consortium contamination control leadership role.

University of Leicester

Responsible for:

  • instrument overall mechanical design and analysis
  • provision of instrument primary structure (in partnership with DTU Space)
  • provision of mechanical ground support equipment.

EADS Astrium (now known as Airbus)

  • Overall project management and engineering leadership role
  • systems engineering
  • overall instrument product assurance leadership.

The International MIRI team

MIRI was developed as a 50-50 partnership between Europe and the USA:

  • JPL leads the US efforts for MIRI with George Rieke, University of Arizona as the science lead.
  • the MIRI cryocooler development was led and managed by JPL and the focal plane systems (detectors and signal chain electronics) were also provided by JPL.
  • Stockholm University led the Swedish contribution of dichroics and filters and DIAS led the Irish provision of filters and dichroics.
  • CEA led the French contribution of the MIRI imager sub-system and coronagraphs development.
  • DTUSpace led the Danish provision of the primary structure carbon fibre hexapods.
  • NOVA led the Dutch contribution of the spectrometer main optics subsystem and gratings development.
  • ETH (PSI) led the contamination control cover and its mechanism and provided the cryoharness in Switzerland.
  • KU Leuven led the Belgian contribution of the input optics and calibration subsystem and instrument control electronics.
  • MPIA led the German contribution of the wheel mechanisms for both the imager and spectrometer and also provided leadership of the electrical design.
  • CSIC led the Spanish provision of the telescope simulator used to test the instrument science performance.

All of the MIRI partners have key roles in preparing the commissioning and calibration of the instrument and support post-launch verification.

More about Webb in the UK

The MIRI team is not the only contribution made by the UK to Webb.  Two senior academics were appointed by ESA to the NIRSpec Science Team and will have major roles in the early science with this ESA provided instrument.

Several UK universities and companies were awarded subcontracts for development of critical components through:

  • ESA
  • NASA
  • the lead MIRI institutes.

Top image:  Artist’s impression of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab.

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