UK ATC’s Gillian Wright awarded Caroline Herschel Medal

STFC UK ATC Director receives honour from Royal Astronomical Society and the German Astronomical Society.

Professor Gillian Wright CBE FRSE, Director at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC), will become the first UK recipient of the Caroline Herschel Medal.

The Caroline Herschel Medal is a joint award from the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and the German Astronomical Society (Astronomische Gesellschaft, AG).

Credit: Royal Astronomical Society and the German Astronomical Society (Astronomische Gesellschaft)

The medal was launched in 2021 by the UK government in honour of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It commemorates late 18th and early 19th century astronomer Caroline Herschel, recognising her legacy, and the scientific links between Germany and the UK.

It is awarded to outstanding women astronomers, alternating between the 2 countries each successive year.

This honour acknowledges her leading role as European principal investigator on the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), 1 of the 4 main instruments on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Unique capabilities

For over 2 decades Professor Wright has led the European contribution to JWST, leading a consortium of institutes across Europe that developed MIRI in partnership with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Webb is the most powerful telescope ever launched into space and the spectacular images and scientific data coming from MIRI are redefining our understanding of the cosmos.

MIRI features many unique capabilities, including:

  • 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 capable of taking stunning pictures on the Universe

Pillars of creation. Credit: NASA, European Space Agency, Canadian Space Agency and Space Telescope Science Institute

UK ATC Director

Alongside her work on JWST Professor Wright has been Director at UK ATC, since 2012. Leading the organisation on some of the world’s foremost astronomy projects including:

  • UK contributions to the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO)
  • the Very Large Telescope and Extremely Large Telescope in Chile
  • the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, the world’s first gravitational wave observatory

Gillian Wright, Director at UK ATC, said:

We still have long way to go on diversity in the physical sciences so the RAS and AG introducing a medal recognising the legacy of Caroline Herschel is important. I am deeply honoured to be awarded the Caroline Herschel medal and it is very, very special to be the first UK recipient of a medal named for a woman astronomer. From the very beginning MIRI has been an international collaboration with partners in Germany as well as other European countries and the US. I’d like to thank the whole team for their support and many contributions.

Innovative astronomy projects

Professor Mark Thomson, STFC Executive Chair, said:

Gillian is a very worthy winner of this prestigious award for her exemplary work and leadership role on JWST.

Since it started science operations last year the images and data from MIRI have already expanded our understanding of the Universe.

Alongside MIRI she is also leading some of the most exciting and innovative projects in astronomy as director at STFC’s UK Astronomy Centre in Edinburgh.

Global scientific leader

RAS President Professor Mike Edmunds said:

Gillian is a global scientific leader in astronomy.

She worked tirelessly to bring MIRI to fruition, and it is now delivering unparalleled advances in our scientific understanding of the universe.

On behalf of the Royal Astronomical Society, I would like to offer her my warmest congratulations as the first UK winner of the Caroline Herschel Medal.

AG President Professor Michael Kramer said:

Seeing the images produced by MIRI on JWST is truly impressive.

Recognising Gillian as a leader making these possible is not only timely but also entirely appropriate.

We are extremely happy that Gillian is the second winner of this joint award, and in name of the AG, I congratulate Gillian not only on the award but also on her great achievements.

Awe-inspiring images of space

Dr Paul Bate, CEO of the UK Space Agency, said:

Huge congratulations to Professor Gillian Wright, on behalf of myself and the entire UK Space Agency, for this well-deserved achievement.

Gillian has dedicated more than 20 years of her life to the development of MIRI, which has helped the James Webb Space Telescope bring us some of the clearest, deepest and most awe-inspiring images of space ever seen.

These images, and the people that made them possible, will be remembered for decades as scientists continue to analyse their data, shedding light on the most fundamental questions of the universe, and providing inspiration for the next generations of scientists, engineers and space professionals.

Recognising outstanding researchers

Minister of State at the new UK Department for Science Innovation and Technology George Freeman said:

The UK and Germany enjoy deep and time-honoured research ties, which we will continue to build on to address the global challenges of our time.

Supported by the UK Government, the Caroline Herschel Medal highlights the remarkable contributions of women to the field of astronomy and recognises outstanding researchers in our two countries. I wholeheartedly congratulate Professor Gillian Wright as the UK’s first recipient of this prestigious award.

Professor Wright will receive the medal at a special ceremony at the German Ambassador to the UK’s residence in London in April.

Further information


Based at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh and operated by the UK’s STFC and part of UK Research and Innovation, the UK ATC is the national centre for astronomical technology.

The UK ATC designs and builds instruments for many of the world’s major telescopes on land and in space. It also project manages UK and international collaborations and its scientists carry out observational and theoretical research into questions such as the origins of planets and galaxies.

Current projects include:

  • software for the SKAO, the world’s largest radio telescope
  • instrumentation for the Very Large Telescope and the Extremely Large Telescope in Chile and MIRI. It is 1 of 4 scientific instruments on the James Webb Space Telescope, which launched on Christmas Day 2021

Top image:  Professor Gillian Wright. Credit: Brian Ho

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