Belfast researchers developing new telescope tech for UK space missions

25 Feb 2022

The Hubble telescope in orbit after its second servicing mission in February 1997. Image: NASA

The researchers aim to use small-scale mirrors, thinner than the width of a human hair, to help space telescopes create clearer images.

Researchers at Queen’s University Belfast could play a key role in the UK’s future space missions by developing new tech to enhance the images from space telescopes.

Prof David Jess has been awarded a grant of £50,000 from the UK Space Agency (UKSA) for a project that is part of the National Space Technology Programme.

Future Human

Jess explained that scientists can currently get “unrivalled views of cosmic objects” by placing high-powered telescopes in space.

“However, there can be what we call ‘unwanted jitter’ in the telescope pointing – basically unintended movement – which causes the images to become blurred,” Jess said.

The research project will investigate if digitally controlled small-scale mirrors – thinner than the width of a human hair – can help remove this telescope movement.

Queen’s University researcher Dr Jiajia Liu said: “They could potentially allow us to re-point the incoming light at very high rates – exceeding thousands of times each second – which would help make the images much clearer.”

Jess hopes this research will have a role in the development of “new-age space technology” and the UK’s multimillion-pound space missions.

“The UK’s space and satellite technology sector is already worth over £16bn and growing fast,” UK science minister George Freeman said. “As well as our groundbreaking leadership on projects like the James Webb Telescope and Solar Orbiter missions, our UK Space Agency is supporting hundreds of SMEs developing cutting-edge technology.”

The project at Queen’s University is part of the Technology for Space Science call, a joint initiative between the UKSA’s National Space Technology Programme and the Science and Technology Facilities Council. To date, a total of £455,000 has gone to 10 projects across the UK.

“From miniature atomic clocks and tiny digitally controlled mirrors that help channel light into moving spacecraft, to new space weather detectors to help warn of devastating solar storms, these new projects will ensure the UK continues to grow as a global science superpower,” Freeman said.

In addition to its own projects, the UK invests around £94m annually towards the European Space Agency’s science programme, which allows the country’s researchers to collaborate with European and international partners on pioneering space science missions.

The UKSA helped to fund the mid-infrared instrument (MIRI) on the James Webb Space Telescope, which launched on 25 December 2021. A successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, it is the largest and most powerful space observatory ever built and is set to give scientists a new eye on the cosmos.

MIRI was also developed with the help of Irish scientists from the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic