UCL News


UCL joins mission to trace Universe back to the Big Bang

6 October 2023

A landmark mission involving UCL researchers aims to trace patterns in the light from space, looking back almost to the Big Bang, bringing us closer to understanding the nature of our Universe and how it began.

artist's concept of mission

The Japanese-led LiteBIRD mission (“Light satellite for the study of B-mode polarization and Inflation from cosmic background Radiation Detection”) will analyse variations in light left over from the Big Bang, to test whether the current theory of how our Universe expanded immediately after it was formed (cosmological inflation theory) is correct. 

The UK Space Agency has committed an initial £2.7 million and intends to invest a total £17 million throughout the life of the mission, slated for launch before 2030. 

UCL researchers will contribute to the modelling and design of the optical elements of two of the mission’s telescopes, will model how the structure of the telescopes will be affected by the extreme cold of space, and will support the calibration and testing of systems and components. The project involves Professor Giorgio Savini, Dr Alexey Shitvov (UCL Physics & Astronomy) and Mr Berend Winter (Mullard Space Science Laboratory at UCL).

Professor Giorgio Savini (UCL Physics & Astronomy) said: "We are looking forward to using all the accumulated experience from our involvement in Planck, Europe’s first mission to study the Cosmic Microwave Background, as well as from a decade of design and modelling of polarimeters for far-infrared astronomy and Cosmic Microwave Background experiments to help build and calibrate an experiment which we hope will ultimately provide smoking gun evidence of inflation."

The theory of cosmological inflation predicts that “primordial gravitational waves” will be observable in the light left over from the very beginning of our Universe - the ‘cosmic microwave background’ (CMB). LiteBIRD plans to examine the pattern of B-mode polarisation in the CMB, to test this theory. 

Coordinated by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), LiteBIRD will launch with a combination of high, mid, and low frequency telescopes to detect B-mode signals in CMB with unprecedented sensitivity, potentially proving or disproving cosmological inflation. 

The UK is part of a European Consortium led by the French space agency CNES, who will deliver the high and mid frequency telescopes. UK universities involved in addition to UCL include Cardiff, Oxford, Manchester and Sussex.  

George Freeman MP, Minister for Space at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, said: “This initial £2.7 million investment through our UK Space Agency in the first phase of the LiteBIRD mission, led by Japan, to explore the origins of our Universe, is a great moment for both UK space science and technology and our deepening science, technology and innovation collaboration with Japan.  

“The LiteBIRD mission will use specialised telescope technology developed by Cardiff University and a consortium of UK universities pioneering world-class deep space science and cutting-edge technology.   

“Together with the new Viasat and Mitsubishi project, this is a fantastic example of the rapid progress being made in UK-Japan collaboration since I visited last December, and in May, to negotiate and sign our new strategic R&D partnership.”

Dr Paul Bate, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, said: “We expect LiteBIRD to be a game-changer for our understanding of cosmology, putting our best theories to the test as to what happened at the start of the Universe.  

“It’s incredibly exciting for the UK to be at the forefront of this mission, working together with international partners to push the boundaries of space science and answer some of humanity’s biggest questions.”



  • Artist's concept of the LiteBIRD mission in space. Credit LiteBIRD consortium

Media contact

Mark Greaves

E: m.greaves [at] ucl.ac.uk