Irish innovation helps drive exciting space mission

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Irish eyes focused on the sky on Christmas Eve, not hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa or a stray reindeer, but rather at one of the biggest space launches in recent years – the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST, or simply Webb), the next major space science observatory after the famous Hubble Telescope. The Webb Telescope will now reside a million and a half kilometers from Earth, hovering in line with our planet orbiting the Sun.

For 25 years of development, the Webb Telescope has aimed to answer more questions about the development of the Universe than ever before, with the ability to look back 13.5 billion years to observe the birth of the first galaxies and the life cycle of stars and exoplanets. This major breakthrough is the result of an international project led by NASA with its partners the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) – with two Irish companies and an Irish research institute playing an important role. in the development of Webb’s scientific instruments and in its launch into space.

Webb follows the NASA / ESA Hubble Space Telescope in the tradition of large space observatories. Both have different scientific capacities and will work in parallel, complementing each other, for several years.

In fact, the Webb has the ability to do much more than the Hubble, as it has over six times the light gathering capacity and is a hundred times more sensitive, with the ability to peer through clouds of dust in capturing light in the infrared. part of the spectrum. By rethinking the early Universe using infrared detectors, Webb hopes to answer some vital questions about the formation of our Universe, the composition of so-called dark matter, and how the development of galaxies may tell us about the future of the Universe. Universe.

There was a significant Irish contribution in the development of infrared detector technology. Professor Tom Ray of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) was co-principal investigator for the Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI) on Webb, which will produce images and spectra with unprecedented clarity and sensitivity. Professor Ray and his team at DIAS have also provided MIRI’s infrared filters, which break down light into its various components, and imaging software that will analyze the instrument’s data sent back to Earth and produce scientific images.

When completed, Webb was carefully transported to ESA’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, where it was launched on Christmas Day on an Ariane 5 launcher. Here, an Irish company played a major role: Réaltra Space Systems Engineering designed and manufactured the video imaging system aboard the Ariane 5 launcher, which provided us with impressive high definition video images of the separation of the launcher shroud and the separation of the telescope itself. . The final images of Webb moving in space on Christmas Day came from Réaltra’s technology. Interestingly, Réaltra’s system was originally designed for the Ariane 6 launcher, which is due to make its maiden flight in the second half of 2022.

A second Irish company, Nammo Ireland, has provided structural supports for the Vulcain engine that powers Ariane 5 – and will be involved in the production of components for the Vulcain and Vinci engines on the new Ariane 6 launcher.

The essential roles played by these Irish entities in the development of this huge space project were made possible by Ireland’s membership of ESA, which is managed by the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Use. Enterprise Ireland supports and guides Irish companies and research institutes in developing technology through ESA programs and in bringing these technologies to the global space market, with over 100 companies supported to date.

The success of these companies in this revolutionary project underlines the growing opportunities in the commercial space market for innovative Irish companies with exciting technologies that can also be used in many different industries, such as automotive and medical. These opportunities will only multiply as our understanding of the space grows and develops – and we are confident that more Irish companies will be involved in such exciting projects in the future.

Bryan Rogers is Enterprise Ireland’s delegate to the European Space Agency.

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