DIAS reaches for the stars in multiple space missions

24 Nov 2023

Image: © Tryfonov/Stock.adobe.com

From the James Webb Space Telescope to the ESA’s upcoming Ariel mission, DIAS is working on some major expeditions that aim to further our understanding of the universe.

The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) can’t be contained on this island, as it assists various space missions taking place around the world.

The institute is a relatively small team, with 30 staff currently in its astronomy and astrophysics section. Despite this, DIAS recently shared updates on six major space missions its teams are involved in.

Since being founded more than 80 years ago, DIAS says it has been involved in more than 20 missions worldwide. But perhaps its biggest achievement has been its work on the James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful telescope ever built.

Prof Tom Ray of DIAS helped build the infrared instrument on the James Webb – the mid-infrared instrument (MIRI) – which has been a vital piece of equipment for the telescope as it works to gaze further into the cosmos than humanity ever has before.

Let’s take a look at the work DIAS has been involved with since that key achievement.

A star is born

Ray wasn’t done with the James Webb after working on MIRI, as he recently led a team to analyse an image of a stellar birth taken by the space telescope.

The team spotted a star – Herbig-Haro 211-mm – which is believed to be only a few thousand years old (stars can have a lifespan of billions of years). Ray said new stars are often “enshrouded in gas and dust”, which makes them difficult to spot. But the James Webb’s instruments are able to penetrate this gas, revealing new insights into the birth of the star.

Meanwhile, Ray and Dr Donna Rodgers-Lee are involved in a study using observations from James Webb to find water in the inner disk around a young star with giant planets.

Sending Juice to Jupiter

Closer to home, DIAS is working with a European Space Agency (ESA) mission that aims to make detailed observations of Jupiter and its three large moons – Callisto, Europa and Ganymede.

The goal of this mission – the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (Juice) – is to see if there are oceans below the surfaces of these moons. It appears it will be the first spacecraft to go into orbit around a moon other than Earth’s moon.

To support this endeavour, a DIAS team led by Prof Caitriona Jackman is developing methods to correct for measurement errors, to ensure the mission sends back “highly accurate measurements” according to Jackman.

“We know the spacecraft will be bombarded by electrically charged particles in the environment of Jupiter’s moons, and this will create measurement errors,” Jackman said. “So, our team has developed methods to correct and minimise these errors.”

Juice launched in April this year and is scheduled to arrive in the Jupiter system in July 2031. The spacecraft will remain in orbit around Jupiter until December 2034.

Jackman’s team also worked on the radio and plasma wave instrument on Juice, which will measure the saltiness of the oceans under the moons and look for evidence of atmospheres on the moons. Exploring these conditions will tell scientists if Jupiter can support life.

Ireland is one of 23 countries to have contributed to the mission, while DIAS is one of an elite group of 18 research centres to be involved.

Supporting a solar voyage

DIAS has also played a vital role on the development of the Solar Orbiter – which has the ambitious goal of unlocking the secrets of our sun. This joint ESA and NASA mission aims to boost our understanding of the physics behind the heliosphere – a constant flow of charged particles from the sun that influences the entire solar system.

DIAS’ Prof Peter Gallagher and Dr Shane Maloney are involved in writing software and scientific support for the satellite’s Solar-Telescope Imaging X-rays (STIX) instrument.

The satellite launched in 2020 and has already boosted our understanding of the sun by delivering highly detailed images of the star. The ESA said the Solar Orbiter will gradually raise its orientation in the future to view the sun’s previously unobserved polar regions.

“The observations from this mission will help scientists better understand what drives the sun’s activity and how it affects the Earth,” Gallagher said.

“Already, the Solar Orbiter has captured the highest resolution image ever of the Sun’s full disc and outer atmosphere and it has also solved the magnetic switchback mystery, relating to sudden reversals in the magnetic field of the solar wind. It will run until at least 2026, and I look forward to many more discoveries to come.”

Another trip to Jupiter

DIAS has also supported NASA’s Juno mission, which aims to probe beneath the dense clouds of Jupiter to learn more about the origin and evolution of the massive gas giant.

Jackman led a DIAS team to support this mission, which launched in 2011 and is expected to continue until 2025. It reached Jupiter’s orbit in 2016 and has already sent back various celestial images of the planet.

“The discoveries being made by Juno are challenging existing theories about Jupiter’s formation,” Jackman said. “The mission has also uncovered greater detail about Jupiter’s storms.”

Future missions

While DIAS has contributed to important ongoing space missions, its teams are also working to support upcoming voyages that are set to launch in the coming years.

One of those is Ariel, an ESA mission that will observe the chemical make-up of distant exoplanets. When launched, Ariel will observe roughly 1,000 planets outside of our solar system, to help us learn more about their formation and how they change over time.

Ray is one of the lead researchers for Ariel, while Rodgers-Lee is involved in a supporting role. The Ariel mission is expected to launch in 2029 and has a planned runtime of four years.

DIAS researchers are also involved in Surround, which is a proposed mission to track solar storms and solar radio bursts as they travel through our solar system. It is hoped that this mission will lead to early warnings and more accurate forecasts of the impacts of solar storms on Earth.

Gallagher and Maloney are working with PhD candidate Luis Alberto Canizares on this. They have been funded by the ESA to assess the feasibility of the proposed mission and identify the key requirements to enable its success.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic