Leicester to lead development of space instrument

A space mission called SMILE (Solar Wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer) which is a joint collaboration between scientists from the UK, Europe, Canada, the US and China, has received the go-ahead for an initial study phase this summer by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

SMILE is jointly led by the University College London (UCL) and the Chinese National Space Science Center. The University of Leicester has a major role in SMILE and will lead the development of its largest instrument, a soft X-ray imaging (SXI) telescope. SMILE aims to understand how the Sun affects the Earth’s magnetic environment and space weather. If the initial studies are successful, the mission could be given a final decision of implementation in November 2015, with the launch expected at the end of 2021.

If launched, SMILE will monitor the solar wind and its effects on Earth for three years and will help scientists understand the chain of events leading to the disruption of satellites, power grids and radio communications. The information collected during the mission could be used to predict and mitigate the impact of future solar storms.

SMILE differs from previous missions looking at space weather as it will study what happens globally in the Earth’s magnetosphere, as well as the ionosphere and aurora which are closer to Earth. This will provide more detailed information which will hopefully enable scientists to reach a complete understanding of how the Sun influences events on Earth by interacting with its magnetic environment.

The University of Leicester led SXI is a unique instrument in this scientific field, using a technique that has not previously been applied on earlier missions studying the Sun-Earth interaction. It employs a technology, micropore channel optics (MPOs), which has been developed at Leicester in collaboration with an industrial partner (Photonis, France) for many years by a team led by the late Professor George Fraser. X-ray optics using MPOs designed and built at Leicester University will be employed on ESA’s BepiColombo mission. If selected, SMILE would be another major space mission to benefit from this technology.

Dr Steven Sembay, team leader of the SXI said, “If SMILE ultimately gets selected it will be in part due to the efforts of younger researchers such as Dr Andrew Read and Dr Jennifer Carter who have contributed enormously to proving the importance of our science case. But without the efforts of George and his team we would never have had the tools required to deliver the science. I know he would have been very pleased at this result”.