Leicester space scientists celebrate milestone moment for James Webb Space Telescope

MIRI was extensively tested on Earth before its launch into space onboard JWST on Christmas Day 2021. Here, engineers check on MIRI at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

The cooling down of the UK’s main contribution to the James Webb Space Telescope has been hailed as a milestone moment by its creators at the University of Leicester.

Leicester engineers provided the mechanical engineering lead for the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), which has reached an operational temperature after being carefully cooled down to 7 Kelvin (-266°C).

As the last instrument on the James Webb Space Telescope to come online, this marks a milestone moment in its progress towards full science mode.

Before launch MIRI underwent 100 days in a thermal vacuum chamber at RAL Space in Oxfordshire where it spent 85 days below room temperature to make sure all the components would work correctly at the low temperature needed.

Martin Barstow, Professor of Astrophysics and Space Science at the University of Leicester, Chair of the Space Telescope Institute Council and Director of Strategic Partnerships at Space Park Leicester, said: “This is a milestone moment for the MIRI instrument. To perform with the sensitivity required, it has to be cooled down to this very low working temperature, which is a serious engineering challenge, even in space. 

“We are now tremendously excited about seeing the first data to come from MIRI when we start to use it at the focus of the Webb Telescope.”

The James Webb Space Telescope is the largest most powerful telescope ever launched into space and MIRI is one of four scientific instruments on board.

It offers a sensitivity and resolution many times greater than any other mid-infrared instrument in existence today or for the foreseeable future. It will have a key role in the study of light that has travelled from the early moments of the universe by JWST. 

Amongst other things, it will be able to see the first galaxies that formed after the Big Bang, along with studying planet formation around distant stars. Due to its sensitivity, MIRI will be able to penetrate the dust obscuring distant objects, allowing for smaller and fainter objects than have never been detected to be mapped in unprecedented detail.

Dr Henrik Melin with a scale model of MIRI. Credit: STFC

Dr Henrik Melin is the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) James Webb Fellow at the University of Leicester. He said: “Now that MIRI has cooled down to -266°C, only 7° above absolute zero, the awesome promise of the James Webb Space Telescope is slowly becoming a reality. 

“With the science phase of the mission approaching our doorstep, we cannot wait to see what we will learn from data that the telescope will beam back to Earth, from the giant planets in our solar system to the earliest galaxies in the universe. Our hope and expectation is that these observations to be unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, literally providing a brand new view of our universe.”

MIRI was the last to become operational because in order to work it had to be actively cooled by a cryogenic refrigerator, otherwise known as a cryocooler. The next few months will be spent testing Webb’s systems and making final alignment adjustments before the first spectacular images of the cosmos from Webb are expected this summer.

JWST’s mission to explore the universe is led by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency. The UK played a major role by leading the European Consortium which partnered with US institutes, designed, built and tested MIRI. This work is led by Professor Gillian Wright MBE of the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC), and includes STFC RAL Space, the University of Leicester and Airbus UK.

The MIRI development has been funded by the UK Space Agency and STFC, part of UK research and innovation and ESA.

Scientific targets identified by Leicester astronomers and planetary scientists have been selected from more than 1,000 submitted by researchers from 44 countries, for a portion of the 6,000 observing hours available in JWST’s first year of operation, known as Cycle 1.

Find out more about Leicester’s role in developing the most ambitious space telescope ever created here.