Irish astrophysics is having a stellar moment and DIAS is at the core

1 Aug 2022

The South Telescope at Dunsink Observatory. Image: Vish Gain/

Now in its 75th year, the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies’ School of Cosmic Physics has a rich history when it comes to space research.

A few weeks ago, people across the world were stunned by images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope giving a distant view of our universe.

The largest and most powerful space observatory ever built, the James Webb takes over from its predecessor Hubble to push the limits of the observable universe and capture sights such as the first deep field image of a galaxy cluster as it appeared 4.6bn years ago.

Behind the pioneering technology that took two decades to complete are scientists from the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS), who joined US, Canadian and other European scientists in contributing to its successful development and launch on Christmas Day last year.

“The images are just unbelievable. For the deep field one, Webb did that in just 12 and a half hours,” Dr Patrick Kavanagh, one of the DIAS scientists who contributed to James Webb, told me at an event marking the release of its first images at the historic Dunsink Observatory in Dublin.

“I mean, if this is the result of 12 and a half hours, what will the deep field look like in a couple of years or at the end of the mission? It’s going to be unbelievable.”

Wide-angle shot of a large telescope with a flight of stairs leading up to the viewing lenses.

A 12-inch Grubb instrument inside the South Telescope dome at Dunsink Observatory. Image: Vish Gain/

Kavanagh is a software developer and member of the international mid-infrared instrument (MIRI) team for the space telescope. He participated in the commissioning of the instrument at the Webb Mission Operations Centre in Baltimore in the US.

His role involved analysis and simplification of large amounts of data gathered from the James Webb, which will help teams at DIAS and other scientists in their astrophysics research for years to come. His colleague Prof Tom Ray, meanwhile, helped build the infrared instrument on Webb.

“Despite the language, these are actually not the first images – the telescope has been observing for a few months now,” Kavanagh explained. “But a majority of those observations were to commission the instruments, you really want to make sure they work properly. These are the first, kind of, science-level images.”

From Apollo 16 to the International Space Station

While certainly one of the big achievements for DIAS astrophysicists in recent years, the James Webb involvement is one of many feathers in the cap of the 82-year-old institute that counts Erwin Schrödinger as the first director of its School of Theoretical Physics.

Founded in 1947 and celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, the DIAS School of Cosmic Physics has a rich history of groundbreaking discoveries.

The school is organised in two broad sections. The first is geophysics, which is focused on the interior and surface of the Earth. The second is astronomy and astrophysics, focused outwards to our solar system and beyond.

The latter section, of which Kavanagh is a part, was involved in the Apollo 16 mission in 1972. DIAS professors Denis O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson worked in partnership with scientists at the University of Berkeley on the first-ever Irish experiment in space on the lunar surface.

DIAS considers this to have been a seminal year for space physics in Ireland.

In 2001, DIAS went on to become one of the first 10 bodies in the world to conduct experiments on the International Space Station following an extremely competitive international selection process. Detectors made by the institute were used to measure the effects of cosmic radiation on the human body.

Astronomers and astrophysicists at the institute are now involved in five global satellite missions: James Webb, Ariel, Solar Orbiter, Juice and Juno.

Kavanagh said that DIAS also makes contributions to high-energy telescopes such as HESS, or the High Energy Stereoscopic System, and the Cherenkov Telescope Array. HESS was named after Austrian-American physicist Victor Hess, who was the first to observe cosmic rays.

“We’re also involved with the European Southern Observatory, which Ireland joined four years ago. It is a huge thing for us, that we can be involved in the development of things like the Extremely Large Telescope and the science and instruments behind it, and so on.”

The future of Irish astrophysics

Looking ahead, Kavanagh hopes that DIAS’s role in global space research can help inspire a generation of young Irish people to take up careers in astronomy and astrophysics.

“Most kids have an interest in astronomy when they’re growing up. It’s all about fostering that, bringing them on and showing them what’s going on. When I was in school, I never had any idea that any Irish people work on things like these, so that the main thing is getting that fact out there.”

A miniature model of the James Webb telescope in a glass case.

A miniature model of the James Webb Space Telescope gifted to Prof Tom Ray of DIAS. Image: Vish Gain/

He is now working with the European Space Education Research Office, an education project that is co-funded in Ireland by the European Space Agency and Science Foundation Ireland, to introduce a module into the junior cycle on the James Webb Space Telescope.

Kavanagh thinks that “every kid in Ireland” should at least have some small involvement in looking at Webb data and know that Ireland is involved in the world’s most powerful telescope. And hopefully, some will be interested enough to take astrophysics in university and as a career.

“If the kids don’t know that it’s a possibility, they’re never going to try it. They’re going to think you can’t do that here. They’ll think ‘I’ve never heard of an Irish astronomer or an Irish person working on this or that’, when in fact it’s always been the case – they just maybe never knew.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic