Leicester scientist helps fine-tune space telescope 1.5million km from home

One of the Leicester space scientists who will make observations with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has travelled to the USA to help open the observatory’s ‘eyes’ to the universe.

Dr Tuomo Tikkanen, of the University of Leicester’s School of Physics and Astronomy and Space Park Leicester, is co-investigator (co-I) with Leicester colleague Dr John Pye on the ‘PRIMER’ (Public Release IMaging for Extragalactic Research) programme, one of the largest projects to be undertaken in JWST’s first year of operation.

But before scientists and astronomers can use the telescope – the most complex space observatory ever constructed – to observe targets in the night sky, its delicate instruments must be carefully aligned and commissioned.

The University of Leicester provided the Mechanical Engineering Lead for the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on board the telescope. Now, after being part of the project for more than a decade, Dr Tikkanen has travelled to the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, USA, to help bring MIRI online and ready to start the most sensitive infrared observations ever of our universe.

Dr Tikkanen said: “It is exciting to be a part of this process and a relief that everything has gone so well to this point.

“My role was involved with the testing of MIRI on the ground and, now that it is working in space, means everything we have done has been proven to have done its job, which is a good feeling.”

Each of JWST’s four main instruments has a dedicated ground team at STScI, which closely monitors data coming from the telescope, which is in orbit at a distance of about 1.5 million km (930,000 miles) from Earth, at ‘Lagrange point 2’ (L2). 

For the past two weeks, Dr Tikkanen has been part of the team monitoring telemetry from MIRI to ensure the instrument – the coolest on the telescope, at a temperature of just 7 Kelvin (-266 °C) – stays within safe limits and performs the commanded activities.

A snapshot of distant stars and dust clouds from MIRI, in one of JWST’s first publicly-released images. Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

first image from MIRI was released by NASA in April, giving space scientists a glimpse of the instrument’s capabilities. The first science observations using JWST are expected to commence in July.

Dr Tikkanen added: “If commissioning is completed on schedule, science will start later next month when the target SN 1987A is observable. As Co-I in the Guaranteed Time Observations science working group studying this supernova, it is exciting that we are going to be one of the first to get MIRI data.”

Find out more about Leicester’s role in developing the most ambitious space telescope ever created here.

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