David Willetts visits UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory

16 August 2013

David Willetts MP taken by one of the Euclid test CCDs. This image marked the start of the CCD test and characterisation programme.

David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, visited UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory on Tuesday 13th August. The minister inspected a number of instruments which are being built at the laboratory for future scientific spacecraft, including Euclid, ExoMars and Solar Orbiter, as well as hearing about MSSL’s role at the heart of the UK and European space programme.

Mr Willetts’ visit marked the formal beginning of the testing and characterisation phase for the camera detectors that will fly on Euclid. The tests were initiated when the minister took a self portrait (see image to the right). Euclid is a future ESA space telescope which will study the dark cosmos – the 95% of the content of the Universe which is invisible.

Euclid’s detectors will form the heart of a huge and technologically advanced camera for space. The detectors are being built by UK company e2v, which has a long-standing and close relationship with MSSL, where the camera electronics are being built. After launch in 2020, Euclid will have the largest detector array in orbit, second only to the Gaia mission – also a project at MSSL and which is due to launch in November this year – and will produce the largest images ever taken from space. “We’re very pleased to have Mr Willetts formally instigate this test programme”, Professor Mark Cropper, lead of the Euclid camera said, “especially as it involves close collaborations between industry, agencies and academia across Europe. This is exactly the transfer of expertise and knowledge that is being sought by the Government”.

The minister also visited the laboratories where the scientific camera for the ExoMars rover is being built. The ExoMars rover, a joint mission of ESA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos, will be Europe’s first Mars rover, and is expected to touch down on the red planet in 2019 and analyse samples from up to 2m below the Martian surface for the first time.

MSSL leads the international team building the panoramic camera system (PanCam) which will produce high quality 3D and zoomed-in photographs of the rover’s surroundings. High quality scientific imaging does not just provide pretty pictures: it produces geological and atmospheric context for the whole life-seeking mission.

Professor Andrew Coates, Principal Investigator of PanCam, said “The minister was pleased to see our team's developments for the only UK-led instrument on the rover. MSSL's unique blend of scientific expertise and engineering excellence has enabled us to push the science to the limit of what can be achieved with a surface camera, and provide the PanCam system role”.

After visiting the ExoMars lab, the minister donned protective clothing to enter one of MSSL’s cleanrooms, where the electron sensor for the Solar Wind Analyser (SWA) instrument is currently being developed, built and tested. This device, one of 3 sensors being provided by the international SWA consortium led by MSSL, will be part of the scientific payload for ESA’s Solar Orbiter mission, planned for launch in 2017. In addition to the lead role in SWA, MSSL is also heavily involved in the development of the Solar Orbiter Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging telescope, making the laboratory one of the main providers of in-situ and remote sensing scientific instrumentation for the mission.

Solar Orbiter will have an orbit which will take it close to the Sun (inside the orbit of Mercury) and allow it to travel fast enough to be able to track, over extended periods of time, features on the Sun’s surface as it rotates.  The mission has a unique scientific payload which will both allow detailed study of these features, together with the direct sampling of plasma and charged particles which they eject into the Solar system via the Solar wind.  Professor Chris Owen, Principal Investigator of SWA said, “SWA is a vital element in the Solar Orbiter suite of sensors. It will sense the environment around the spacecraft and provide the means by which plasma processes observed remotely on the Sun can be linked to their output exhausts in the solar wind. This is a key objective of the Solar Orbiter mission.” The spacecraft’s orbit will also take it out of the plane of the Earth’s orbit, providing a viewpoint looking ‘down’ on the poles of the Sun – regions which have never been clearly seen by any probe before.  

MSSL scientist Lucie Green, who organised the minister’s visit, said: “It was wonderful to have the Minister visit MSSL.  It shows the Government recognises the world-leading space engineering and science we carry out at UCL.”

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