MIRI crosses the pond (Thoughts on PR)

Gift-wrapping MIRI for our NASA colleagues

NASA issued a press release yesterday to announce that the engineering test model of the mid-infrared instrument for its next-generation space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, has arrived at Goddard. A picture is featured in the BBC’s Science & Technology news section today. As a member of the team that is in charge of testing MIRI prior to its integration with the telescope and launch, I’m glad to see the little one has arrived safely on US soil.

This particular model will not actually be launched into space. MIRI is a pretty complicated instrument with a number of observing modes: “regular” imaging, polarimetric imaging, coronagraphic imaging, low-resolution spectroscopy and medium-resolution integral field spectroscopy, all over a continuous wide wavelength range from 5 to 28 microns. To enable us to test MIRI’s correct functioning and performance before launch, and to get valuable calibration data, a dedicated optical test bench was developed in parallel, that can insert a light beam into the instrument mimicking that from astronomical sources observed by the telescope. This in itself is a hugely complex piece of equipment.

So by building a “dummy” (but fully functional!) MIRI we could basically achieve two things: (i) ensure that there were no major design flaws in MIRI itself; and (ii) check that our test equipment was working to spec. The decision to build the replica totally paid off, as our test campaigns in 2008 did show some problems with the ground test equipment that we’ll be able to fix in time for the testing of the final flight model of MIRI next year.

Now that the test model of MIRI is in the US, NASA will use it to test their integration procedures for installing the instrument onto the telescope.

Since a year or so the MIRI team have been starting to think more concretely about the scientific observations we’d like to carry out with MIRI after launch. It’s still a way off, but seeing the flight hardware come together and talking about actual observations is starting to make JWST feel very real.

While I’m happy to see MIRI and James Webb in the news, I do feel like NASA are going a little overboard with their PR. The amount of news they’re currently putting out, 4 years before launch, is starting to give me Webb fatigue already.  I mean, this press release is basically telling us that some test equipment arrived: Yay. It’s not even that exciting for me, and I worked on it (sorry). Could they maybe not produce a nicely-written monthly newsletter or so, instead of these almost-daily press releases?

On the other hand, it is making me realise that we should really step up our own PR efforts here in Europe. MIRI is a largely European instrument with hundreds of engineers and scientists in involved, adding up to a large investment of resources. The Netherlands is a major partner in the project, and in the press archive of NOVA, the Dutch astronomy research school, I’ve found one press release dating back to 2007 on MIRI. In Britain, as far as I can tell  STFC has put out 3 stories, one of which is just mirroring a NASA release – despite the UK Astronomy Technology Centre being the European PI institute and the instrument being assembled and tested at the agency’s Rutherford Appleton Lab. ESA, who have a sizeable PR department and a leading role in 2 of the telescope’s instruments, have 13 releases spread over almost as many years.

We’ve had so many cool instrument milestones in the last few years, why issue a press release only now that we’ve sent it to NASA? I think I’ve written more words about MIRI on this blog than the British and Dutch agencies put together.

Image: STFC


  1. This kind of commentary is why my eyes light up whenever I see your blog in my RSS reader. It has interesting detailed technical information set in the larger political context.

    So many astronomy blogs simply parrot media headlines. Yours makes a real difference in looking at the context.

    Please keep it up!

  2. Thanks!

  3. Wait, MIRI has a polarimetry mode? I’ve never heard of this, and in fact have had several conversations about the utter lack of polarimetry on JWST. Do you have any background or cite for that claim??

  4. You’re absolutely right! It doesn’t, well spotted. The other instrument I work on, for the E-ELT, has very similar observing modes to MIRI but does include polarimetry – got my instruments crossed. If there’s anything more you’d like to know about the instrument, feel free to drop me an email….