More than 50 years of Leicester in space

This week (4 – 10 October) is World Space Week and an apt time to reflect on the University of Leicester’s long history of making out of this world discoveries.

Leicester has had a Physics Department since 1924, long before we gained University status. It was in 1957 – appropriately enough, the year that Sputnik 1 was launched – that University College, Leicester was granted the charter that transformed it into the University of Leicester. That same year, plans for a new Physics Building were approved.

Three years on, with the appointment of Ken Pounds as Assistant Lecturer in January 1960, the Space Research Group was founded. Thus began a history of space science at Leicester which has lasted over half a century and, with current work on forthcoming missions such as ExoMars, extends into the future too. (Ken, now an Emeritus Professor, is still on the departmental staff.)

The first Leicester-built instrument in space was launched aboard a Skylark rocket from Woomera in 1961. One of fewer than ten surviving Skylarks now stands proudly inside our Physics and Astronomy Building. The following year solar X-ray detectors developed at the University were carried into space in Ariel 1, the first ever British satellite.

A succession of subsequent missions with University of Leicester involvement means that there has been at least one piece of Leicester-built equipment operating in space every year since 1968. We have collaborated with NASA, ESA and national space agencies in other countries including India, China and Japan.

Missions with Leicester involvement include: Copernicus (1972), EXOSAT (1983), GINGA (1987), ROSAT (1990), XMM-Newton (1999) and SWIFT (2004). Not every mission is completely successful, of course. University of Leicester scientists were closely involved with the British Mars lander Beagle 2 which launched in 2003 and was co-ordinated from a mission control room in the National Space Centre here in Leicester.

Solidifying Leicester’s reputation as ‘space city UK’, the National Space Centre was developed with input and expertise from the University and has proven an enormously successful visitor attraction and educational resources since it opened in 1998.

The University of Leicester also is working with Leicester City Council, Leicester and Leicestershire Enterprise Partnership (LLEP) and the National Space Centre on plans for Space Park Leicester. From developing satellite technologies to enabling the detailed analysis of space-enabled data, Space Park Leicester will help transform sectors such as international communications, resource management, environmental monitoring and disaster relief. When completed, the estimated benefits to regional economy are £715 million and 2,500 jobs in the wider supply chain.

Notable space names associated with the University of Leicester include: astronomers and authors Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest, who met as undergraduates in the early 1970s; astronaut Jeff Hoffman, who completed his PhD at Leicester and subsequently flew five Space Shuttle missions; and Sir Patrick Moore who was an Honorary Distinguished Fellow of the University, maintaining close links with the institution until his death in 2012. Regular Sky at Night contributor Paul Abel teaches in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, as does Suzie Imber, winner of the BBC series Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes?

With the imminent launch of the BepiColombo, which will carry the Leicester-built MIXS instrument to Mercury, the University of Leicester continues to open up new frontiers in space.