Astronomy Now Online

Hubble's successor — U.K. takes a leading role on the James Webb Space Telescope
Posted: March 25, 2004


This is an artist's impression of the selected design for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Northrop Grumman and Ball Aerospace are the prime contractors for JWST.

Image credit: ESA

The Hubble Space Telescope has brought the wonder and spectacle of the universe into every home. Its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) due to be launched in 2011, will have a 6.5 metre diameter mirror — 2.5 times larger than Hubble's — enabling it to produce even sharper and more spectacular images from the farthest depths of the cosmos.

In order to look even deeper into the universe than Hubble, the JWST will carry a suite of three cameras that are sensitive to infrared wavelengths. The most sophisticated of these, a super-sensitive instrument called the Mid InfraRed Instrument (MIRI), is being developed by an international team led by Dr Gillian Wright of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council's Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) in Edinburgh and Professor George Rieke of the University of Arizona in the USA.

Dr Wright, who is European Consortium Principal Investigator for MIRI, explains: "MIRI presents great challenges but fantastic technological and scientific opportunities. The sensitive spectroscopy provided by MIRI is especially important as it contains many unique spectral and diagnostic features that will enable us to study the properties and materials around forming stars in extreme detail. With MIRI onboard the JWST will continue the legacy of Hubble and become the world's benchmark for imaging the wonders of deep space."

Professor Ian Halliday, CEO, Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council said, "MIRI's inclusion in JWST is a real coup for U.K. science. It endorses the technological expertise we have in this country to design, build and lead an international team of scientists and engineers to produce a fantastic camera that will push back the visible frontier created by Hubble."

In addition to MIRI the JWST will also carry two other instruments: a visible/near infrared camera (NIRCam) and a near-infrared multi-object dispersive spectrograph (NIRSpec). The space based observatory will look at the birth of galaxies, the physics of star formation and the origins of planets and even life — helping to answer some of the fundamental questions about the origin of our universe. Its location in space means that images from JWST (like Hubble) will be extremely sharp, because there is no atmosphere between the astronomical objects and the telescope.

Dr Adrian Russell, Director of the UK ATC said: "It is an honour for the UK ATC to be involved in what will be the world leading infrared observatory for the next decade. The U.K. has had a lead role in putting forward the science case for MIRI as well as demonstrating that it is technically possible to achieve. The UK ATC's role will be fundamental in developing the system design of the instrument, its scientific requirements and the building of the spectrometer pre-optics."


The most sophisticated camera on the JWST will be the Mid InfraRed Instrument (MIRI). It is being developed by an international team led by Dr Gillian Wright of the PPARC's Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) in Edinburgh and Professor George Rieke of the University of Arizona.

Image credit: UK ATC

MIRI is the most technically challenging instrument on the telescope involving a collaboration of more than 20 institutes that span the US and Europe. As European Consortium Principal Investigator and science lead for Europe, Dr Wright from the UK ATC heads up a team of scientists and engineers from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Ireland and Switzerland as well as the U.K., working with ESA to provide the European hardware. The European Consortium is partnered with Jet Propulsion Laboratory who lead the MIRI provision in the US with Professor George Rieke as the science lead for the USA.

Other U.K. institutions involved in MIRI are the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire (space instrument systems expertise and thermal and contamination control), University of Leicester (structure design and operations and calibration software) and University College London (science investigations). EADS Astrium has the role of Consortium Project Manager with project and system engineering management for MIRI.

Animations showing the telescope design and deployment of the telescope, sunshield and mirror can be found at:

NASA's JWST web pages: