What makes Leicester the place for space?
A highlight reel of Leicester’s role in the continuing exploration of the universe.
Well, you might not know it, but Leicester is one of the most active cities for space research in the world and has been contributing to the exploration of space for over 60 years.
Leicester’s Early Launches
Starting in the early 1960s, physicists at the University of Leicester first began dabbling in space research.
These pioneers were focused on developing important X-ray technology that would be used on board both European and American satellites – including Ariel 1, the UK’s first ever satellite to be launched into space.
While the Americans and Russians were busy building rockets designed to take humans to the Moon and back, Leicester’s scientists were interested in rockets of a different kind.
In 1961, the University of Leicester became involved in the UK’s revolutionary Skylark sounding rocket project and helped to launch scientific instruments into space, allowing researchers to measure solar X-rays without interference from the Earth’s atmosphere.
In the end, the Skylark rockets were launched over 440 times until the project was shut down in 2005 because orbiting satellites had become a much more efficient method of collecting information in space.
Leaping forwards to the 1990s and the University of Leicester’s space researchers have been busy developing exciting new technologies that allow us to see further out into the universe than ever before.
Hubble Space Telescope
Not long after the famous Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990, scientists quickly realised that the lens of the telescope was faulty after the Hubble started sending back blurry photos.
Fortunately, NASA astronaut and University of Leicester alumnus, Jeff Hoffman, was sent up in 1993 as part of the STS-61 space shuttle mission to make vital repairs to Hubble and successfully fixed the problem with the wonky lens.
Jeff Hoffman flew 5 space missions with NASA in total, and on his first visit to space, he took along a few Leicester mementos – including a pennant from the Lord Mayor’s Rolls Royce and a beer mat from a pub in the Leicestershire town of Oadby!
Since his retirement as an astronaut, Jeff has been a visiting professor at the University of Leicester’s physics department since 2008 – teaching the next generation of space scientists and engineers.
James Webb Space Telescope
Hubble isn’t the only space telescope that has a place in Leicester’s history, and in fact, the University of Leicester has been very involved in Hubble’s successor – the enormous James Webb Space Telescope, which is currently planned to launch in 2021.
Built with giant mirrors providing 15 times the coverage as Hubble and a sunshield the size of a tennis court, the JWST will use the MIRI infra-red camera technology developed at the University of Leicester to search for galaxies hidden behind layers of space gases and space dust.
XMM-Newton X-ray Telescope
In the 1990s, Leicester’s speciality in X-ray astronomy was put to the test as they were tasked with designing an epic camera for the European Space Agency’s new X-ray telescope called XMM-Newton that was to be launched in 1999. And this camera literally was EPIC, standing for the European Photon Imaging Camera.
The telescope focused astronomical X-rays using a series of very long and heavy mirrors to a point where they could be detected by a charge-coupled device (CCD), analysed and converted into digital images. By searching the skies for sources of X-rays, Leicester’s tech on board the XMM-Newton has enabled us to investigate the auroras around Jupiter’s poles, distant stars being devoured by black holes and mysterious blinking pulsars in the night sky.
Wanting to get in on the action, it wasn’t long until NASA contracted Leicester to build cameras similar to EPIC for their Swift satellite that was launched in 2004, with the mission of studying elusive Gamma-ray Bursts, the most energetic explosions in the known universe!
As well as designing and building these special space-cameras, the University of Leicester has also been the site of the XMM-Newton and Swift data centres, where the important information captured by these telescopes is analysed and exciting discoveries about our universe are made!
Leicester on Other Worlds
Mercury – BepiColombo
One of the most exciting space exploration missions currently happening right now is ESA’s BepiColombo mission to the planet Mercury. Mercury is the least explored of the inner planets in our Solar System and BepiColombo will only be the third ever mission to venture out there, making this one quite a big deal.
After a whopping 7-year flight and eventual arrival at Mercury, the aim of the BepiColombo mission is to learn more about Mercury’s internal structure, magnetic fields and historic tectonic events such as volcanoes. But where does Leicester fit into all of this?
One of the key tools in BepiColombo’s arsenal is the lobster-inspired Mercury Imaging X-ray Spectrometer, or MIXS for short, which was built at the University of Leicester in partnership with researchers from Germany, Spain and Finland, who also worked on another instrument for BepiColombo called SIXS. Fun fact: in Finnish, this spelling of “mixs” actually means “Why?” and “sixs” actually means “That’s why.”
Mars – Beagle 2
Move over Mercury, the planet on everyone’s mind right now is Mars – and Leicester has also played many roles in the ongoing exploration of this exciting world and the quest for extra-terrestrial life.
One such mission was the infamous Beagle 2 lander, whose goal was to look for signs of life on the surface of Mars. Did you know that the National Space Centre was actually home to the Lander Operations Control Centre for this mission? Unfortunately, after a successful landing on the surface of Mars in 2003, all communication with Beagle 2 was lost – and it wasn’t until 2015 that NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was able to locate and snap some photos of the lander!
More recently, the University of Leicester’s Professor John Bridges has been an active member of NASA’s very successful Curiosity rover team, leading the way in the analysis of Martian soil and meteorites.
Mars - ExoMars
And NASA aren’t the only ones using robots to search for signs of life on Mars. The European Space Agency’s ExoMars Mission – short for Exobiology on Mars – will be sending a rover of their own in 2020. The rover is named after Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant English scientist whose research contributed to the discovery of the structure of DNA– the building blocks of life here on Earth! And just maybe, on Mars too.
Part of the rover’s mission is to drill down deep into the Martian soil and analyse its chemical contents for signs of biological activity using a Raman spectrometer – which has been developed collaboratively between the University of Leicester and other researchers in Spain, France and Germany.
The ExoMars rover is currently planned to launch summer 2020 and you can bet that we here at the National Space Centre are very, very excited about sending this part-Leicestarian robot out to explore the surface of another world!
About the author: Dr Alex Evans is a Community Presenter at the National Space Centre and STEM Coordinator at Leicester City in the Community.