Exploring space: a new model of partnership

1 November 2011

NASA

UCL scientists at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory are partnering with industry in new ways to explore the very beginnings of the universe.

Dr Richard Cole, Industry Programme Manager, and a team of space scientists are developing instrumentation for a NASA project, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The new telescope, successor of the famous Hubble, will launch in 2014 to explore the outer reaches of the universe.

JWST carries four instruments, one of which is called a near-infrared spectroscope – NIRSpec. It’s this that UCL is contributing to, under a novel approach to the funding of scientific endeavour

The technology

NIRSpec is a spectroscope that works in the infrared range. The light radiated from objects at the edge of the universe is red-shifted because the universe is expanding, so objects are moving away from us. NIRSpec will give information on the very first stars and galaxies, such as their temperature and what they’re made of.

Dr Cole said, “Unlike Hubble, NIRSpec allows us to look in the infrared range so we can investigate objects created at the beginning of the universe, billions of years ago.”

UCL space scientists are building what’s called the calibration assembly, a light source to be used onboard the spacecraft to calibrate NIRSpec.

Space science funding: out with the old

In the traditional model of space science funding, NASA or the European Space Agency pays industrial companies to build a spacecraft, and public bodies such as the UK Government give grants to universities to build the onboard instruments. In this case, the academic who wins the grant owns the instrument and any data resulting from it.

Winning business

In the newer model, which applies to some space missions, industrial companies are building the instruments as well as the spacecraft. Academics are then subcontracted by industrial companies rather than receiving government grants for their work. This helps to create direct links between applied science and industry.

This is how UCL came to be involved with NIRSpec. The prime contractor is Astrium Germany, one of the big European space companies. Astrium have subcontracted various companies and universities to provide different elements of the instrument. To win the procurement, UCL had to submit a lengthy proposal in competition with other hopefuls.

UCL Business lend a hand

Once the deal was won, a contract was drawn up between Astrium and UCL Consultants, part of UCL Business.

Dr Cole said, “As the enterprise body fronting up the operation, UCL Consultants provided a contract service and gave us advice. They have been extremely helpful in helping us forge links with industry.”