Brexit Britain set to become ‘science superpower’ with key role in £7.5bn NASA mission

Nasa prepares the James Webb Space Telescope for launch

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The biggest and most powerful space telescope ever built will blast off today on a mission to study the earliest days of the universe. Armed with an array of cutting-edge instruments, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been widely touted as the scientific successor to the iconic Hubble Space Telescope. But where Hubble cast its gaze on the cosmos in the visible spectrum, JWST has been designed to see the faint infrared glow of stars dated to within a few hundred million years of the Bing Bang.

JWST is pencilled in to launch just after noon from the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana, aboard an Ariane 5 rocket.

The rocket will propel the telescope on a trajectory targetting what is known as Lagrange point 2 (L2) some 1.5 million kilometres from the planet.

From this unique vantage point, where the gravitational tug of the Earth and Sun are balanced, JWST will allow scientists to probe the universe farther and deeper than any space telescope before it.

And according to Dr Caroline Harper, Head of Space Science at the UK Space Agency (UKSA), this will be made possible thanks to an international consortium of scientists led by the UK’s best and brightest.

She told “The science that is going to be done with this telescope is expected to be truly astonishing.

“I think the fact there have been so many delays, just tells you how ambitious and complex it is.

“As such it’s going to revolutionise, I think, the way we view the universe.”

The JWST has been in the works ever since the launch of Hubble in April 1990 and was originally intended to be built and ready to fly as early as 2007.

The project has suffered many delays over the years, including a recent decision to push the launch date to Christmas Eve.

Unsurprisingly, Dr Harper said scientists are both anxious and excited to see the telescope finally get off the ground, though she noted the excitement far exceeds any trepidation the scientific community might feel.

Mounted on the telescope is the Mid-Infrared Instrument or MIRI, a camera and spectrograph designed to see light in the mid-infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Light at these extended wavelengths is invisible to the naked eye but this will not be a problem for JWST.

The telescope was designed to observe the light stars dated to about 13.5 billion years ago.

The ongoing expansion of the universe means that the light from objects 13.5 billion light-years away is being stretched out towards the red end of the electromagnetic spectrum.

NASA’s James Webb telescope being tested for space

And according to NASA, the MIRI instrument will allow JWST to snap the sort of images that will “continue the breathtaking astrophotography” that has made Hubble a household name.

The sensitive instrument was designed and built by a European consortium of 10 nations led by the UK.

According to Dr Harper, the project brought together some of the UK’s leading scientific minds and institutions – from researchers at the University of Edinburgh to RAL Space at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory at Harwell.

She said: “The UK has led that European consortium, so that’s been a huge piece of work to sort of coordinate everything across all the participating countries.

“The principal investigator based in Edinburgh University, Gillian Wright, has led the team that led the whole optical design for the instrument.

“We’ve had thermal design work done at RAL Space at Harwell and mechanical design in Leicester.

“And then Airbus – used to be called Astrium – they project managed the whole consortium and the system engineering.

“So it’s a really good partnership between universities and national laboratories and UK industry, to lead this European consortium.”

All of this, the expert added, helped British scientists build upon the ambitions and goals outlined by the UK’s historic National Space Strategy.

Published earlier this year in September, the document set out the Government’s plans for seizing and securing the nation’s interests in space.

Among the listed goals, was the directive to help establish the UK as a leading hub for scientific breakthroughs by building upon the country’s rich heritage of scientific exploration and innovation.

Dr Harper said: “It’s certainly the ambition in the new National Space Strategy to use space to contribute to our ambition to be a science and technology superpower, and these things can only make a positive contribution to that.”

This rich heritage and knowledge base, according to the expert, is also one of the reasons why the UK was trusted to lead the MIRI project for JWST.

She said: “The work has come to the UK because we have skills and expertise in the areas required in science and engineering.

“Belonging to the groundbreaking international missions helps to keep UK scientists at the forefront of space science discovery, so we have a strong reputation and by participating in this mission we maintain that reputation.

“The UK is a good place to come and do research. That is the message and it’s a good message to get across.”

All of this means that the hard work is not going to end with James Webb’s launch.

Dr Harper said the UK is already working on a number of other, exciting space exploration missions in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) and many more in the pipeline.

One of these is the Ariel space telescope, which will be constructed at Airbus’s Stevenage facility.

Dr Harper said: “We talked about our ambitions to be a science and technology superpower and what we’ve done with James Webb and other projects and what we plan to do in the future is all about exactly that ambition.

“So we’ll very much want to be involved and keep our scientists at the forefront of new discoveries in space.”

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