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Current Projects

MSSL has a broad technology programme, which includes over 40 projects over the whole range of research interests of the science groups.

Brief descriptions of a few examples of current projects are given below:

Cross-section of EAS sensor

The SWA investigation is a major international hardware collaboration, led by the UCL/MSSL (Principal Investigator: Prof. Christopher J. Owen).  In addition to the overall leadership of the suite, UCL/MSSL will provide the bulk of the hardware for the Electron Analyser System (EAS), one of the 3 sensor systems within the suite.  The Proton-Alpha Sensor and the Heavy Ion Sensor are led by partners in France and the USA respectively.  The central data processing unit, to be built in Italy, serves all three sensors and completes the suite.

EAS will make a high temporal resolution determination of the 3D electron velocity distributions in the solar wind, in order to be able to separate out the key core, halo and strahl populations of electrons, and derive their moments (density, temperature, bulk velocity, heat flux).It consists of two top-hat electrostatic analyser heads with an aperture deflection system (ADS) and a novel variable geometric factor system (VGFS). Orthogonal mounting of the 2 sensors and the ± 45° aperture deflection provides an almost 4π steradian field-of-view required to fully measure the electron velocity distribution functions and thereby provide moments (density, temperature, velocity, pressure tensor, heat flux) and/or full electron pitch angle distributions at all times.

Key challenges include dealing with the radiation environment (150 krad over mission lifetime), the thermal environment (nominal temperature in the spacecraft shadow at the end of the boom is -180 °C, whereas a pointing failure of the spacecraft may result in full Sun exposure at distances as close as 0.28 AU!), large dynamic range of electron fluxes over orbital range, and the mechanical integrity of the sensor on the boom.

Further information about EAS and the Solar Wind Analyzer (SWA) consortium can be found on the Space Plasma Physics pages.

Solar Orbiter EUI design

The Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) is a fundamental component in the Solar Orbiter mission profile and will contribute to the following outstanding Solar Orbiter science themes:

• What are the origins of the solar wind streams and the heliospheric magnetic field?

• What are the sources, acceleration mechanisms, and transport processes of solar energetic particles?

• How do coronal mass ejections evolve in the inner heliosphere?

• Explore, at all latitudes, the energetics, dynamics and fine-scale structure of the Sun’s magnetised atmosphere.

The EUI instrument suite is composed of two high resolution imagers (HRI; one at Lyman-α, one at 174Å) and one dual band full-sun imager (FSI) working alternatively at the 174 and 304 Å EUV passbands. It is the product of a multi-national collaboration, including members from UK, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland and Greece. MSSL is responsible for the design, manufacture and delivery of the SO-EUI Common Electronics Box and on-board flight software. It is also responsible for the development of supporting EGSE/software.

Cutaway of the Exomars Pancam instrument

MSSL is leading the team providing the Panoramic Stereo Cameras for ESA's Exomars Rover.

The Martian environment presents the main technological challenges facing PanCam. Because the instrument is mounted on the rover mast, it is exposed to the fine dust which settles from the atmosphere and is exposed to a difficult thermal environment. Temperatures may fall as low as -120C, depending on latitude and season, and there is, like on Earth, constant diurnal cycling, with warmer temperatures during the day and colder temperatures at night. Even at the equator the range is quite extreme: perhaps as "warm" as 0C during the day, but falling to -90C at night. The PanCam team need to ensure that electronics and mechanical parts maintain reliable operation throughout a lengthy mission.

Like the rest of the rover, PanCam has planetary protection challenges, for example ensuring that we do not contaminate the Martian surface, not only because we want to be good planetary neighbours, but also so we do not affect the results of the biological and chemical analyses to be performed on-board. Moreover, because we are part of a sample return mission, it's important to not compromise the pristine nature of the samples to be eventually returned to Earth.

The Supernemo wiring robot

As well as our programme of space projects, MSSL is also collaborating on a high energy physics experiment called SuperNEMO. This experiment will search for an extremely rare process called neutrinoless double beta decay (DBD) and explore fundamental questions concerning the nature of neutrino mass.

SuperNEMO is the next generation of DBD detector and will ultimately be sensitive enough to detect neutrino masses of about 0.5 eV.

MSSL is currently designing and constructing both the tracker frame for the first Demonstrator Module and the automated wiring robot that will be needed to wire the 2000 Geiger cells that will be placed inside it. Once assembled and commissioned at MSSL, the tracker will be moved to an underground laboratory in France and integrated with the rest of the module.

Artist's impression of the Euclid spacecraft (courtesy of ESA)

Euclid is a candidate mission in the ESA Cosmic Vision programme. It has been under study for three years; selection of the successful mission concepts will occur in late 2011, with launch dates in 2018 or 2019. Euclid will map Dark Energy at high redshifts – current theories predict that Dark Energy makes up the majority of the mass of the Universe.

MSSL is leading the development of the VIS instrument for Euclid as head of an international consortium. VIS consists of a large area array of 36 Charge Coupled Devices (CCDs) plus supporting electronics and structure. At this phase of the project MSSL is responsible for definition of the requirements on the instrument, its interfaces to the spacecraft and early prototype work on key technology elements. If selected for flight, the next phase will be to design and build the first version of VIS, building up the manufacture and test of the final (so called flight model) in 2016.

Artist's impression of Gaia

Gaia is ESA’s mission to understand the formation, evolution and current state of our Milky Way Galaxy. It does that in two ways. The first is by measuring the star motions and positions. From these the gravitational forces in the Galaxy can be calculated, and hence how both dark matter and ordinary matter are distributed in it. This provides information on how the Galaxy has been built up since the earliest times of the Universe from the accretion of gas and smaller galaxies. The second way is by measuring the characteristics of each star: its luminosity, temperature, density and chemical composition. From this it is possible to trace how the generations of stars have enriched the Galactic environment, and also enables a major step in our understanding of the physical processes in the stars themselves.

Since 2001, MSSL-UCL has had a significant role in the Gaia mission, centred on the Radial Velocity Spectrometer (RVS) instrument and on the satellite’s main detector chain. The RVS will produce on average 40 spectra per star for ~60 million stars to measure their motions in the line-of-sight direction, and their characteristics. MSSL was contracted by ESA and the UK research councils to develop the RVS concept, and to advise the industrial contractor Astrium (now AirbusDS) on scientific matters. The Gaia focal plane is the largest ever flown in space, and each CCD detector has dedicated electronics to convert the low signal levels in the detectors to digital images. MSSL, again through ESA and Astrium contracts, developed prototype electronics and calibrated every CCD and detector electronics unit on Gaia. MSSL has also developed much of the software to process the RVS data as part of the Gaia Data Processing and Analysis Consortium (DPAC), established in scientific institutes across Europe, to produce the public Gaia catalogues.

Gaia was successfully launched into space from French Guiana on 19th December 2013 (see MSSL Astro Blog) and the spacecraft was commissioned from then until July 2014. MSSL was a major part of the team commissioning RVS (see ESA Gaia Blog).  The nominal mission started on 25th July 2014 and it is planned that Gaia will continually scan the sky and return data from the Sun-Earth Lagrange point (L2) for at least six years. Gaia data will be released in a series of catalogues, with the first results planned for mid-2016.

Page last modified on 15 sep 11 10:33