From Didcot with Love

Sunday morning, 7 am – you’re probably fast asleep, maybe being pounced on by small children, or hungover, or perhaps you’re still out partying. Some of us are hard at work. I just started my third stint in the lab at the Rutherford Appleton Lab in Oxfordshire, where we’re testing the mid-infrared instrument MIRI for the James Webb Space Telescope. In case you’re not up to speed with your space missions or have never read my blog, let’s have a quick glossary.

Magic begins here! EGSE (read: Eggsy) is the Engineering and Ground Support Equipment.

“James Webb Space Telescope” – biggest and best space telescope ever, supposed replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope but a little different in design. Currently beleaguered after a recent telling-off from the US Senate. Launch date: some time between 2014 and 20202345(?).

“MIRI” – will greatly reduce the suck and increase the awesome of infrared astronomy with a wide array of imaging and spectroscopic functions. It is being built as a partnership between a large European Consortium (EC) and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in California. The EC are responsible for the full optical system, while JPL provided the detector system and will deliver the cooler system in the next couple of years.

“Testing” – the full MIRI instrument is sitting some 10 metres away from me, in a giant vacuum chamber that’s cooled to less than 10 degrees above absolute zero. It’s kept company in there by its ground-support buddy, the MIRI Telescope Simulator (MTS), that can produce similar light sources to what MIRI will be seeing in space with the telescope. So we can take MIRI through all its moves, spin the wheels, illuminate all the nooks and crannies of the detectors and basically characterise everything it does. As it’s pretty expensive to keep the instrument this cold, tests continue round the clock, 7 days a week, for several months. The lab work is just the start: after that’s finished, we’ll have to spend some time analysing a few terabytes’ worth of data and report on all our findings.

The food corner

“We” – the MIRI test team, which is made up of a few dozen scientists and engineers from MIRI’s partner countries – UK, Belgium, Netherlands, Ireland, Germany, Spain, France, Switzerland, Sweden, US. Plus the excellent engineering and management support here at RAL. For the duration of the campaign our days have just three units: early (6:00-14:00), late (14:00-22:00) and night (22:00-6:00). It’s intense but fun.

OK, that should bring you up to speed. If you want more, check out some of my previous posts on MIRI.

Wonder what would happen if I touched this laptop?

So how’s it all going, I hear you wonder? In summary, MIRI is looking, in the words of our instrument scientist, “like it was lovingly put together by a team of experts”. Testing is going extremely smoothly. That’s not just me doing a bit of PR for the instrument – although if there were serious problems, I wouldn’t really be able to discuss them on my blog, so I guess you’ll just have to trust me on that. But it really is going very well.

Excitingly, the test I’ve caringly crafted and scripted was just carried out this weekend, so I’ve had the pleasure this morning of getting acquainted with my data. This particular test was designed to study the wavelength calibration of MIRI’s low resolution spectrograph, i.e. we want to know very precisely which wavelength each pixel corresponds to. That way, when observing real astronomical targets during science operations, we can identify for each line, bump or trough in the spectrum which atom or molecule is at work. For the next few weeks and months I’ll be working on the analysis of these data.

What's on today's menu?

My only <grumble> here has been in the accommodation. I’m staying at a guest house in nearby Abingdon, run by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) who manage the entire site. Abingdon is a lovely little city on the Thames near Oxford. The standard of accommodation is perfectly fine and the prices very reasonable.

But since I arrived for my 2nd and 3rd sets of shifts last week, there has been no working internet connection for reasons unknown, and hence this much-delayed update from the lab. And last night the guest house was host to a wedding party, with a full-band-barn-dance type of situation. This was happening directly underneath my room. Did I mention my alarm is set for 5 am? Loud music and stomping, even only until midnight, are not good.

Now, I understand that weddings and corporate events are a great way for STFC to earn a few bob to keep the place staffed and maintained, but frankly if you’re running a guest house for visiting scientists I think your scientists should be the top priority. That means: a good internet connection at all times, and a bit more consideration for our working schedules. Lots of scientists who visit RAL are working on weird schedules, and have to put in long hours to make the most of their time there. I think we should be informed of any weddings taking place at the guest house at the time of booking, so that we can choose to stay somewhere else if we need to get an early night. </grumble>

So anyway, all is extremely well and we’re all very pleased with the progress we’re making in the test campaign. I hope I’ll be posting much more good MIRI news in the months to come.

[This post was updated on 08/07/11 to correct the respresentation of the MIRI consortium.]





  1. Ron Cheesman says:


    Thank you for sharing such an Interesting and accessible insight into your fascinating work. Loving the vblogbrothers too – shouldn’t they be essential viewing in secondary schools? Sharing the videos with my friends who are enjoying them too.

    Just read your Guardian article, it would be a tragedy if the JWST project was scrapped. Keep up the great work.



  2. Thanks Ron :-) I agree entirely re. the vlogbrothers – they are the perfect motivators when I’m having an off day!

  3. Thanks for the post..I really appreciate this..


  1. [...] called for. Meanwhile within the project it’s business as usual. Remember we’re in the middle of our final all-important flight test campaign at the Rutherford Labs In Didcot before we deliver MIRI to NASA later this year – lovely data [...]

  2. [...] the MIRI test campaign I’m responsible for studying the wavelength calibration of the instrument’s low [...]