MIRI on the right tracks at NASA Johnson

UK scientists and engineers – including colleagues from our University - are celebrating following the confirmation that their instrument has performed very well during the cryogenic testing for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) at NASA Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston, Texas. This is where the Mid Infrared Instrument (MIRI) has been put through its paces under the watchful eye of the consortium team drawn from the European and US institutes who have been taking care of MIRI 24 hours a day over the last four months.

The tests have taken place in the world renowned Chamber A, famously used in the Apollo moon missions. For these tests the environment of the chamber simulates the extreme space environment in which the telescope will eventually operate.

One of the first tests that MIRI underwent was the cold function tests. The instrument was cooled down to its operational temperature of 6 Kelvin (-267 C).  These tests were aimed at verifying that MIRI was still in good working order and that everything was operating as it should following the trip from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (near Washington) to Johnson earlier in the year. Results confirmed that there have been no changes since the last cold function tests the previous year, which is good news for the team.

A major and significant part of the campaign for MIRI has been the ‘end –to end’ tests so called because it includes both the flight instruments and the telescope optics.  The primary aim of these tests was to trial the technique that will be used to align the chain of mirrors which make up the telescope once in orbit and checking the focus and alignment of MIRI.

Dr Tuomo Tikkanen, researcher in the University's Space Research Centre and Department of Physics and Astronomy, has been working in the MIRI team since 2008, and was part of the team at Johnson Space Center. He said: "It was a great experience to be in Houston and helping to test JWST and MIRI, alongside colleagues from the rest of Europe, NASA and ESA. The conditions were difficult at times, due to Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath."

Dr John Pye, Manager of the University's Space Research Centre, and lead staff member for the JWST-MIRI project at the University, said: "Everyone involved in the testing in Houston showed great commitment and stamina in ensuring the the tests were successfully completed. We are now looking forward to the final phases of the spacecraft build and test programme over the coming year, and the planned launch in Spring of 2019."

The UK contribution to MIRI is funded by The UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency (ESA).