Hubble's successor - UK takes lead role

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 - 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 camera 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 UK 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 UK 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."

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 UK, 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 UK 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.

Notes to Editors



Image shows an artist's impression of the selected design for the JWST spacecraft. Northrop Grumman and Ball Aerospace are the prime contractors for JWST.
Credits: ESA


The MIRI camera and spectrograph for the James Webb Space Telescope.
Credit: UK ATC

Simulation of JWST image

A simulated image showing the abilities of the JWST. Compared to the Hubble Space Telescope will improve our "sight" considerably.
Credit: The James Web Space Telescope.

Gillian Wright

Dr Gillian Wright, European Consortium Principal Investigator for MIRI, from the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, Edinburgh


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

Web links

ESA's JWST pages

NASA's JWST webpages

JWST frequently asked questions page

MIRI web pages


Background information

Formerly known as the Next Generation Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope is a joint project between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. Its journey begins a few years after the Hubble Space Telescope's amazing two-decade exploration draws to a close.

The JWST, which will be launched in 2011, will be placed into an orbit well beyond the Earth's Moon at a place called the Second Lagrange Point (L2). Here the telescope will be protected from stray light and heat from the Sun and Earth. As it moves towards L2 a giant sunshield the size of a tennis court will unfold to help protect the telescope from direct and reflected heat and ensure that the instruments onboard maintain their optimum temperature - a very cold minus 266 degrees Celsius (only 7 degrees above absolute zero temperature). This low operating temperature set by the need for high sensitivity and low noise is a great challenge to the instrument design teams.

Who was James Webb?

James Webb (1902-1992) was NASA's second chief administrator. He was instrumental in the Apollo landing. It is the first time that a mission has been named after someone other than a scientist.

Mission Facts

Infrared Wavelengths

Infrared wavelengths are a bit longer than the optical wavelengths of the spectrum that are visible to humans. Although we cannot see infrared with the naked eye, we can sense it as heat. Infrared wavelengths are broken down into near, mid, and far infrared. Engineers, scientists, and the average person make use of infrared technology in everyday life: in security systems, television remote controls, and computers in homes and offices; and in probes for remote diagnostics in industry, science, and the arts.

The suite of instruments on JWST

Visible/Near Infrared Camera (NIRcam) - dedicated to the detection of light from the first stars, star clusters or galaxy cores; the study of very distant galaxies seen in the process of formation; detection of light distortion due to dark matter; the discovery of supernovae in remote galaxies; studies of the stellar population in nearby galaxies, young stars in the Milky Way and the Kuiper Belt objects in our Solar System.

Near-Infrared Multi-Object Dispersive Spectrograph (NIRSpec) - Sensitive over a wavelength range that matches the radiation from the most distant galaxies and capable of observing more than 100 objects simultaneously. The key scientific objectives of this instrument are: studies of star formation and chemical abundances of young distant galaxies; tracing the creation of the chemical elements back in time; and exploring the history of the intergalactic medium (the gaseous material that fills the vast volumes of space between the galaxies).

Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI) - Essential for the study of: the old and distant stellar population; regions of obscured star formation; molecular hydrogen emission from previously unthinkable distances; the physics of protostars; and the sizes of Kuiper Belt objects and faint comets.


Total costs of the James Webb Space Telescope with the American, Canadian and European contribution is in the region of 1 billion. Total costs of MIRI are 93 million. European Contribution to MIRI = 46 million (UK Contribution from PPARC is 13.4 million).

UK involvement and contacts

Gill Ormrod - PPARC Press Office
Tel: 01793 442012. Email:
Mobile: 0781 8013509

UK Astronomy Technology Centre

Role - Principal Investigator, Optical, mechanical engineering, imager slicer design, spectrometer pre-optics hardware. The UK ATC will be responsible for designing and building a spectrometer pre-optics module containing a set of four image slicers. Image slicers are a relatively new technology which enable the study of spatial and spectral information simultaneously.

Dr Gillian Wright - Principal Investigator - MIRI
Tel: 0131 668 8248. Email:

Dr Alistair Glasse - Instrument Scientist
Tel: 0131 668 8396. Email:

Eleanor Gilchrist - ROE Press Office
Tel: 0131 6688397. Email:

Rutherford Appleton Laboratory

Role - Project Scientist, MIRI System AIV, Space Instrument Systems Expertise, thermal lead, thermal and contamination control.

Sam Heys - Project Manager
Tel: 01235 445761. Email:

Bruce Swinyard - Project Scientist
Tel: 01235 446271. Email:

Natalie Bealing - CCLRC Press Office
Tel: 01235 445484. Email:

University of Leicester

Role - structure and mechanical systems lead, structure design, operations and calibration software, detector interface expertise, structure and MGSE hardware.

Professor Martin Ward - UK Science Co-Investigator
Tel: 0116 252 3540. Email:

John Pye - Project Manager
Tel: 0116 252 3552. Email:

Tim Stevenson - Structure and Mechanical Systems Lead Engineer
Tel: 0116 252 3504. Email:

Ather Mirza - University of Leicester Press Office
Tel: 0116 252 2415. Email:

University College London
Professor Mike Barlow - UK Science Co-Investigator
Tel: 020 7679 7160. Email:

Dominique Fourniol - UCL Press Office
Tel: 020 7679 9728. Email:

EADS Astrium

Role - main contractor with project management and engineering management on MIRI

John Thatcher - Consortium Project Manager
Tel: 01438 773599. Email:

Alistair Scott - Communications Manager
Tel: 01438 773698. Email:

The UK Astronomy Technology centre is located at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh (ROE). It is a scientific site belonging to the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC). The mission of the UK ATC is to support the mission and strategic aims of PPARC and to help keep the UK at the forefront of world astronomy by providing a UK focus for the design, production and promotion of state of the art astronomical technology.

The Royal Observatory, Edinburgh comprises the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), the Institute for Astronomy (IfA) of the University of Edinburgh and the ROE Visitor Centre.

The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) is the UK's strategic science investment agency. It funds research, education and public understanding in four broad areas of science - particle physics, astronomy, cosmology and space science.

PPARC is government funded and provides research grants and studentships to scientists in British universities, gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, CERN, the European Space Agency and the European Southern Observatory. It also contributes money for the UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Australia and in Chile, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility.