Research Stories

One giant leap for space research

Our researchers are reaching for the stars when it comes to space research, and while it may seem like lightyears away from our world, our work in this area is also helping inform the way we live and adapt to our planet. From improving crop harvests and reducing air pollution, to understanding the impact of global warming and deforestation, this research is helping us shape the world for future generations.

Out of this world research

Our space research spans many disciplines, ranging from world-leading missions to planets in our solar system to Earth Observation, environmental and climate change, engineering, astronomy and physics.

There are a number of major interdisciplinary research activities, typified by centres in Space Research, Landscape and Climate Research, and Artificial Intelligence, Data Analytics and Modelling; our researchers have reputations internationally, collaborating with researchers and the industry across the globe.

Here’s some highlights of our world-renowned space research:

BepiColombo and MIXS

Launched in 2018, and reaching Mercury orbit seven years later, BepiColombo is the European (ESA)-Japanese (JAXA) mission that will change our understanding of the innermost planet. The Mercury Imaging X-ray Spectrometer (MIXS) - used to detect and measure photons in order to help scientists understand the chemical and elemental properties of Mercury - is one its key instruments, and was designed and built at the University of Leicester.

BepiColombo carries two X-ray spectrometers; MIXS, and SIXS (Solar Intensity X-ray Spectrometer) which will work together to measure the surface composition of Mercury. No-one has sent an imaging X-ray telescope to any planetary body before, so MIXS offers ground-breaking potential for scientific discoveries and firmly establishes the UK’s scientific contribution to the BepiColombo mission.

Space fans (or those with really great vision) will have seen BepiColombo fly past Earth on its journey to Mercury, around Easter time this year.

Find out more about the University’s role in Bepi Colombo and developing the MIXS instrument.

Earth observation - global warming

University academics have developed a new tool to quickly map burned areas across the globe using European Space Agency Sentinel-3 satellite data products. The tool will provide new insights into future trends in fire activity and characterise fires across the globe. Following the extensive devastation of the Australian and California bush-fires last year, this research is vital to ensure countries are better prepared for these large scale outbreaks.

Space data - renewable energy

As sustainability becomes one of the world’s most pressing issues, University academics are working with a wide range of stakeholders to support the mapping of micro-hydro as a source of renewable energy. Micro-hydro can provide power to small communities and could play a major role in assisting developing nations with their energy requirements. Stakeholders in this project include the Asian Development Bank, the State Electricity Company (PLN) of Indonesia, the Nigerian Rural Electrification Agency and organisations interesting in looking at electric vehicle charging points in mid-Wales. Researchers, using satellite data and derived products are assessing key properties of all potential stretches of river, such as height change, catchment area and land cover type, matching this information against the potential power demand of local communities.

Space data - crops

University academics are also working with national and international companies to use satellite data to map crop types and crop harvest dates to evaluate and quantify crop waste residues. Crop waste residue can be used for pyrolysis to generate alternative energy sources and secondary products for developing communities, with the University currently focusing on West African countries, namely, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Liberia. The research, funded by InnovateUK, is showcased on the government website.

James webb space telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope will be the largest and most complex astronomical instrument ever launched into space. It is a joint project between NASA and the European Space Agency, with the UK contributing one of the three core instruments, the Mid-Infrared Spectrograph (MIRI). MIRI will enable the exploration of the ‘obscured universe’, and with a mirror over twice the size in diameter of the famous Hubble telescope, MIRI will be over 400 times more sensitive than any current ground-base or space infrared telescopes. Engineering design and testing took place at the University, and while a shutdown of NASA facilities has delayed the launch, NASA have announced a new launch date of October 2021.

Our space heritage

The University of Leicester has a long, illustrious, and storied history in space research that spans sixty years.

In 1960, Professor Ken Pounds, Emeritus Professor of Space Physics, paved the way for space exploration in the UK by establishing the Space Research Group at the University of Leicester. A year later, the first Leicester-built instrument in space was launched aboard a Skylark Rocket, sparking an iconic moment for space exploration in the UK. The Skylark Rocket used in that successful launch - one of only 11 surviving Skylark Rockets worldwide - can still be seen on display in the foyer of the Physics and Astronomy building at the University of Leicester.

From 1967 on, there has been at least one piece of Leicester-built equipment operating in space every year, and the University is proud to be involved in 90 space missions since the inception of the Space Research Group.

The future is bright

The University already leads the UK for it space and earth observation research, having discovered the first known black hole in our galaxy and building over 90 instruments launched into space since 1960. However, the University is also looking to the future; working with local partners and an £100 million investment, we are developing an innovation and incubation park that will establish Leicester as world-leading centre for space research. Aside from being a world-leading cluster for innovative research and innovation in space and earth observation, Space Park Leicester will play a major role in supporting the UK’s post-COVID economic recovery. Space Park Leicester is set to produce up to 2,500 jobs and contribute £715m GVA to the UK economy. By 2030, it is predicted it will have helped the Government secure £40 billion of revenue from the global market, increasing space sector jobs in the UK by 185 per cent.

Our space and earth observation academics

professor john remedios

Professor John Remedios

John Remedios Head, and Professor, of Earth Observation Science (EOS), Department of Physics and Astronomy is also Director of the National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO).

John works on a wide range of research projects, utilising Earth Observation for climate and environmental science, including direct observations of change and model evaluation and improvement. Projects linking surface change with atmospheric composition are currently a major interest.

He is currently involved in several major projects including GlobTemperature, a new ESA initiative focussed on developing new satellite data sets and improving the uptake of global-scale satellite land surface temperature. John is Principal Investigator of ATSR and part of the Validation Team. Other projects he undertakes are E-Stress, the EarthTemp network and humidity and carbon monoxide retrievals from IASI.

professor heiko balzter profile

Professor Heiko Balzter

Heiko Balzter, Professor of Physical Geography, Director of the Centre for Landscape and Climate Research, has specific areas of interest in:

  • Earth Observation
  • Remote Sensing
  • Satellites
  • Airborne mapping
  • Ecosystems
  • Agricultural science
  • Environmental change
  • Land use change
  • Biogeochemical cycles
  • Climate change impacts
  • Forest mapping and monitoring
  • Land/atmosphere interactions

Heiko leads on a number of projects, including the Official Development Assistance (ODA) programme in the National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO) and the UKRI Landscape Decisions Programme (£10.5M), as chair of the Programme Coordination Team. He is also a member of the BEIS Scientific Steering Committee for Greenhouse Gas Accounting for Land Use/Land Use Change and Forestry, and a member of the GEO initiative Earth Observation for Ecosystem Accounting (EO4EA). Heiko was Principal Investigator of the European Centre of Excellence in Earth Observation Research Training GIONET (€3.5m), and is involved in a broad research programme as principal or co-investigator, including the ESA projects BIOMASS CCI+ and Forest Mind, and the UK Space Agency International Partnership Project Forests2020.

Heiko is a member of the editorial board of the MDPI journal “Remote Sensing", whose impact factor of 4.509 () places it in the top 5 journals in the field of remote sensing in 2019. He has served as national representative for the UK on the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Programme Board, a member of the NERC Expert Group on Food Security, and an expert group by the Valuing Nature Network on ‘Key principles of economic valuation’.

Heiko collaborates with industry and business within the space sector – including Satellite Applications Catapult, 2Excel Geo, Sylvera, CGI, Telespazio, Bluesky International, Airbus, and Geospatial Insight.

He is also a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, the Higher Education Academy, a member of the American Geophysical Union, British Ecological Society, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and member of the Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry Society, as well as the Chartered Management Institute.

professor emma bunce profile

Professor Emma Bunce (Space engineering and research)

Emma Bunce, Head of School - Physics and Astronomy, and Professor of Planetary Plasma Physics is also President of the Royal Astronomical Society. She is the principal investigator on the European Space Agency BepiColombo mission (to Mercury) which will help shed light on the mysterious planet. Emma developed the MIXS Instrument – which will essentially take never-before-seen images of Mercury.

To date, Emma has had 120 papers published in scientific literature and her work has received national and international recognition - winning the Royal Astronomical Society’s prize for best PhD thesis (2002), the Prix Baron Nicolet award for Space Physics (2003), the European Geophysical Union’s Young Talents in Geoscience award (2005). Emma gave the RAS Sir Harold Jeffrey’s Lecture in 2009, and was awarded a Philip Leverhulme prize for “Astronomy and Astrophysics” in 2011. In 2018 Emma was awarded the Royal Astronomical Society's Chapman Medal. She regularly give public talks on "solar system" topics such as "The Cassini Mission to Saturn", "Oceans, Ices, and Fire: The Mysterious Moons of Jupiter", and "Auroral Processes at the Outer Planets".

professor richard ambrosi profileProfessor Richard Ambrosi (Future Space)

Richard is part of the Space Park Leicester team at the University currently researching the future of space exploration using nuclear power.

Since 2010, Richard has been leading the development of radioisotope thermoelectric generators, heater units and novel radioisotope containment systems for space nuclear power applications. Richard is currently the Deputy Director of the Space Research Centre at the University of Leicester, the Director of the MSc in Space Exploration Systems and Chairs the Space Exploration Advisory Committee.

Richard’s areas of research interest include:

  • The development of instrumentation and detector systems for gamma ray, X-ray, neutron detection and spectroscopy for planetary science and terrestrial applications.
  • Exploiting the interaction of high-energy cosmic ray and solar radiation with planetary surfaces for planetary science is of particular interest as is the impact of the space environment on the performance of detector systems.

Richard has been leading the development of space nuclear power systems and in particular radioisotope thermoelectric generators, heater units and novel radioisotope containment systems.

professor kevin tansey profile

Professor Kevin Tansey (Professor of Remote Sensing)

Kevin’s research interests are in the analysis and investigation of Earth Observation data. He is particularly interested in the characterising vegetation on the Earth's surface and identifying the spatial, temporal and magnitude of disturbance (specifically fire, deforestation, degradation and drainage) of vegetation. He undertakes these tasks at a range of spatial scales using existing and new SAR, LiDAR and optical remotely sensed data from the ground, aircraft or satellites in space.

He has published more than 60 journal papers in a career spanning almost 25 years since. Kevin has also worked with industry on a number of collaborative and consultancy project (see below). He was extensively involved in a Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014 impact case study where my research into global vegetation fire mapping and fire disturbances in Indonesian Peatlands has wider societal and economic benefits.

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