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Space conference celebrates UK advancements in space science and Earth observation

Leading figures from the UK space industry gathered in Oxfordshire this month to discuss the latest advances in space science and Earth observation, learn about some of the industry’s key technology challenges and to hear of the latest major announcements from the UK Space Agency and the Satellite Applications Catapult.

Specialists from across research, academia, industry and international partners met at the UK’s main hub for space science, the Harwell Campus near Didcot, for the STFC RAL Space ‘Appleton Space Conference’.

Conference Chair Dr Chris Mutlow, Director of STFC RAL Space, said:

“I am delighted to welcome friends and colleagues from the space sector to Oxfordshire. A wealth of ideas and enthusiasm is being shared today and I, personally, am looking forward to the challenges of the next year. These are exciting times for space and the many new investments announced today in this sector in the UK will enable more small companies to grow. The next year will also be exciting for RAL Space as we’ll be breaking ground on the National Satellite Test Facility, which will help UK companies to be more competitive in a global market.”

The keynote speaker was Dame Julia Slingo, who has recently retired as the Met Office Chief Scientist, and gave her 10 year forecast for climate science and the role of Earth observation.

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Lightest black hole merger detected

Scientists searching for gravitational waves have confirmed yet another detection from their fruitful observation run earlier this year. The latest discovery, dubbed GW170608, was produced by the merger of two very light black holes. One of the black holes had a mass of just 7 times the mass of our sun, where the other had a mass of 12 times that of our sun.

The collision (or merger) happened at a distance of about a thousand million light-years from Earth.

The merger left behind a final black hole 18 times the mass of the sun, meaning that energy equivalent to about 1 solar mass was emitted as gravitational waves during the collision.

Dr John Veitch, who is co-chair of LIGO’s Compact Binary Coalescence Search Group and Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow’s School of Physics and Astronomy said:

“GW170608 is the lightest pair of black holes that we have detected so far, which provides us with new opportunities to explore the crossover between gravitational wave astronomy and more conventional forms of astronomy.”

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UK astronomers contribute to the discovery of a new potential planetary system

Dust detected around one of the closest stars to our solar system, Proxima Centauri, may indicate the presence of an elaborate planetary system.

An international team, that included astronomers from UK institutes, used the ALMA Observatory in Chile to make these new observations. Their findings revealed a glow coming from cold dust in a region that is between one to four times as far from Proxima Centauri as the Earth is from the Sun. The data hints at the presence of an even cooler outer dust belt, which could indicate the presence of an elaborate planetary system.

Proxima Centauri is the closest star to our Sun. It is a faint red dwarf lying just four light-years away in the southern constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur). It is orbited by the Earth-sized temperate world Proxima b, discovered in 2016 and the closest planet to our Solar System. But there is more to this system than just a single planet. The new ALMA observations reveal emission from clouds of cold cosmic dust surrounding the star.

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First ever Dark Matter Day in Halloween takeover

Move over Halloween, the 31st October officially has a new name – Dark Matter Day.

On Tuesday 31st October thousands of people from all over the world joined in a global celebration of dark matter, one of the biggest mysteries of our Universe.

24 countries marked the day with events, and in the UK more than 20 events were held, including one in parliament and many run by the UK’s dark matter researchers.

Dark matter is a huge part of the Universe that scientists’ calculations tell us exists, but that has never been observed. Yet, together with dark energy, scientists believe it makes up 95 percent of the total universe. What we can see, and the matter that scientists can account for is just five percent of the Universe, the rest is a mystery.

The UK is a world leader of dark matter research.

You can find out more here
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The James Webb Space Telescope – why do we need it?

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and is due to be launched on an Ariane 5 rocket in Spring 2019. The JWST will be the premier space observatory of the next decade, supporting thousands of astronomers worldwide.

The telescope will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System.

JWST is a large infrared telescope with a huge primary mirror that has a diameter of 6.5 meters (see image below). The sunshade, which is the largest structure of JWST – the size of a tennis court, will act as a shield to the deployed primary mirror.


The Successor to Hubble
JWST is designed not as a replacement, but as a successor that will expand on the scientific success of the Hubble Space Telescope. JWST is designed to operate at very low temperatures (around -230° C) and will primarily look at the Universe in the infrared, looking deeper into space to see the earliest stars and galaxies that formed in the Universe and to look deep into nearby dust clouds to study the formation of stars and planets. It is planned that the mission will last around 10 years, where the mission lifetime will depend on the amount of fuel that is used for maintaining the orbit of the spacecraft and instruments.

Following Launch
Thirty minutes after launch JWST will deploy from the Ariane 5 Rocket and will immediately deploy the solar array. In the following days and weeks after launch there will be several trajectory correction manoeuvres followed by the commencement of the major deployment, firstly the sunshield pallets and then the telescope.

During the first couple of months of the mission the four instruments will be turned on with the final instrument MIRI becoming operational. At the end of the third month the first science-quality images will be taken and JWST will complete its initial orbit around L2 (see image below), its home for the next decade.

(The five Lagrangian points for the Sun-Earth system are shown here. An object placed at any one of these 5 points will stay in place relative to the other two. The L2 point, where the JWST will be is 1.5 million km from Earth. Credit: NASA)

JWST has four mission science goals:

1) To search for the first galaxies and stars that formed after the Big Bang, and to learn how they evolved throughout the history of the universe.

2) Determine how galaxies evolved from their formation until the present day looking inside stellar nurseries and at planets forming in dusty disks around young stars.

3) Observe the formation of stars from the first stages to the formation of planetary systems.

4) Measure the physical and chemical properties of planetary systems and investigate the potential for life in those systems.

UK Involvement
The Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) was developed in a collaborative effort between scientists and engineers from ten European countries, led by the UK and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), with the support of ESA and NASA. The UK team is made up of a partnership between the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), University of Leicester and Airbus Defence and Space with funding from the UK Space Agency.

In addition to MIRI, University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory is contributing NIRSpec’s on board calibration system and ground support equipment.

Want to know more about the James Webb Space Telescope? Click here

Crashing neutron stars unlock secrets of the Universe – thanks to UK tech

On 17 August 2017 gravitational waves were detected by both LIGO and Virgo collaborations.

The ‘chirp’-like signal, called GW170817, is a great example of multimessenger astronomy, where just 1.7 seconds after the gravitational waves network saw the signal, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and ESA’s INTErnational Gamma Ray Astrophysics Laboratory (INTEGRAL) both detected a short gamma-ray burst from the same area of the sky.

Signals like chirps and gamma-ray bursts are referred to as ‘triggers’ that start this multimessenger astronomy since they alert the astronomical community to the event, who can then focus their instruments to observe the same patch of sky.

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(The advanced LIGO Livingston detector. LIGO is made up of two twin detectors, two pairs of 4km-long perpendicular pipes, one in Hanford, Washington state, the other in Livingston, Louisiana. Photo Credit: LIGO)

Over 70 different observatories, including the Hubble Telescope, were able to detect remnants of the signal in the form of fading light, the counterpart to the gravitational waves signal.

Since operation began at LIGO and its European counterpart Virgo, based in Italy, this is the fifth time gravitational waves have been detected, where the first event was back in September 2015. This first detection of gravitational waves from a black hole merger was an achievement that was recognized with this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics.

This is the first time that researchers have detected both light and gravitational waves from the same event and provides the strongest evidence yet that short-duration gamma-ray bursts are caused by mergers of neutron-stars.

The neutron-star merger has also started to shed light on one of the big questions in physics: how heavy elements such as gold and platinum are formed.

Find out more here, where details of the UK contribution to the discovery can be found here.

Winning the Nobel Prize for Physics

With recent news surrounding LIGO’s detection of gravitational waves from a neutron star collision it’s wonderful that the Nobel Prize for Physics has been awarded to Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves”.

On 14 September 2015 scientists first detected gravitational waves coming from a black hole merger (where two black holes spiral around each other until they eventually merge together). This resulted in an announcement on 11 February 2016 that the first detection of gravitational waves had been observed.

The result was a milestone in physics and astronomy and confirmed Einstein’s predictions, made over a century ago, marking the beginning of the new and exciting field of gravitational-wave astronomy.


(An artist’s impression of gravitational waves generated by binary neutron stars.
Credits: NASA, R. Hurt, Caltech-JPL)

There are currently 11 institutes across the UK involved in developing the latest technologies and research in gravitational waves.

To find out more about gravitational waves in general take a look at STFC’s website, where you can find a number of info-graphics and everything you need to know about gravitational waves.

Free Electron Lasers (FELs) are opening up new avenues of scientific research

They have a huge potential to tackle global challenges – from drug development to the production of hydrogen fuels. Through FELs we can look at things at the atomic scale with unprecedented speed.


(The Compact Linear Accelerator for Research and Applications (CLARA) facility at STFC’s Daresbury Laboratory. Credit: STFC)

What is a Free Electron Laser (FEL)?
Like other lasers, FELs produce light. To do this, they use electrons driven by a particle accelerator to incredibly high speeds. The electrons are then passed through a series of magnets, which makes them bunch together in such a way that induces them to emit ultra-short, ultrabright bursts of light. This light can then be aimed at a target within a sample station (or in the case of large research facilities, several sample stations). The interaction between the light and the sample is captured using a detector.

What can you do with FELs?
There are lots of things that FELs can be used to investigate. They can look at things that are really small and at processes that happen really quickly. One example of a problem that FELs could help us solve is using sunlight to produce fuel. Plants use sunlight to produce sugar from carbon dioxide and water in a process called photosynthesis. During one of the steps in this process, hydrogen is created. A better understanding of how plants do this would open up the possibility of using sunlight to produce hydrogen for fuel – and this understanding is something that FELs could provide.

Find out what else you can do with FELs by reading the full article in the Autumn issue of Fascination, pages 18-19.

Study reveals benefit to UK economy and bright futures for STFC’s PhD students

Bright prospects in both the public and private sectors, in the UK and internationally, have been highlighted by a survey on the first destinations for STFC-funded PhD students over the last four years.

Between 2012 and 2015, 941 PhD students were funded by STFC, in astronomy, nuclear physics and particle physics.  Of those, 28% of the graduates took up positions in the private sector, with over 70% of those working in software development, data analysis, engineering and finance.

The study also showed that nearly half of the PhD graduates moved into postdocs, of which around half were in the UK and half were overseas, split between both EU and non-EU countries.

Find out more here

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