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To the moon and back – DIAS punching above its weight with involvement in international space missions

As the pioneer of space research in Ireland, the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) has today (11.10.23) released updates on six major space missions, in which the Institute is currently involved in, marking the end of Space Week 2023.

Since DIAS was founded over 80 years ago, it has been involved in more than 20 missions. Despite a small team of only 30 people working across DIAS’ Astronomy and Astrophysics section, its researchers contribute to significant space missions worldwide. Updates on the currently active missions include:

  • Professor Tom Ray, Director of Cosmic Physics at DIAS recently led a team of scientists to capture one of the most advanced images of a stellar birth known to scientists, ‘Herbig-Haro 211-mm’. The work was carried out through DIAS’ involvement in the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST or Webb) mission. Professor Ray, played a lead role in developing the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), one of the four science instruments on Webb, while Dr. Donna Rodgers-Lee from DIAS is also involved, as is Dr. Patrick Kavanagh, an Adjunct Fellow at DIAS. Commenting on successes to date, Professor Ray said: “Breakthroughs such as the discovery of the stellar birth have deepened our knowledge of how our sun and solar system formed. JWST has also detected water in the planet-forming region known as PDS 70, which is a young system with two known planets. As the mission continues, it will provide answers about galaxy, star and planet formation; probe the atmospheres of planets around distant starts to uncover the building blocks of life; and revolutionise all areas of astronomy.”

The JWST is a joint NASA, ESA and Canadian Space Agency mission, specifically designed to conduct infrared astronomy and to study the origins and evolution of the universe. It is the largest space telescope ever launched.

  • JUICE (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer), a European Space Agency (ESA) mission, aimed at making detailed observations of Jupiter, as well as its three large moons, Callisto, Europa and Ganymede – some of which are believed to have oceans below their surfaces. JUICE launched in April 2023, and is scheduled to arrive in the Jupiter system in July 2031 and to remain in orbit around Jupiter until December 2034. It is the first ever mission with a focus on studying the potential for alien life in the outer solar system. A DIAS team – led by space physicist Professor Caitriona Jackman – is contributing to JUICE by developing methods to correct for measurement errors. “The instruments on board JUICE obviously need to provide highly accurate measurements,” explained Professor Jackman. “However, we know the spacecraft will be bombarded by electrically charged particles in the environment of Jupiter’s moons, and this will create measurement errors. So, our team has developed methods to correct and minimise these errors. The launch of JUICE was a great success, and we are now in the ‘Near-Earth Commissioning Phase’, gearing up for an Earth flyby in late 2023, which will give us an opportunity to test instruments and the results of our simulations of how the spacecraft can become electrically charged in space.”
  • The Solar Orbiter, an ESA / NASA mission to examine how the Sun creates and controls the heliosphere, the vast bubble of charged particles blown by the solar wind into the interstellar medium. Professor Peter Gallagher, Head of Astrophysics at DIAS, and Dr. Shane Maloney from DIAS are involved in writing software and scientific support for the Solar-Telescope Imaging X-rays (STIX) instrument, which is on board the Solar Orbiter. The Solar Orbiter launched in February 2020 from Cape Canaveral, with DIAS researchers in attendance. “The observations from this mission will help scientists better understand what drives the Sun’s activity and how it affects the Earth,” said Professor Peter Gallagher. “Already, the Solar Orbiter has captured the highest resolution image ever of the Sun’s full disc and outer atmosphere; and it has also solved the magnetic switchback mystery, relating to sudden reversals in the magnetic field of the solar wind. It will run until at least 2026, and I look forward to many more discoveries to come.”
  • JUNO, another Jupiter-focused mission involving Professor Caitriona Jackman and her colleagues at DIAS. JUNO is a NASA space probe orbiting Jupiter and probing beneath the planet’s dense clouds to answer questions about the origin and evolution of Jupiter, our solar system and giant planets across the cosmos. The mission launched in 2011 and will continue through to September 2025. JUNO’s accomplishments so far have included providing the first views of Jupiter’s north pole, as well as insights about the planet’s aurorae, magnetic field, and atmosphere. “The discoveries being made by JUNO are challenging existing theories about Jupiter’s formation,” said Professor Jackman. “The mission has also uncovered greater detail about Jupiter’s storms.”

Two further missions for which DIAS is currently developing technology and will be participating when they launch in the coming years are:

  • ARIEL, an ESA next-generation mission to observe the chemical make-up of distant extrasolar planets. Professor Tom Ray is one of the lead researchers for Ariel, while Dr. Donna Rodgers-Lee is involved in a supporting role. ARIEL is expected to launch in 2029 and, during its four-year mission, will observe 1,000 planets orbiting distant stars to study how they formed and evolved.
  • SURROUND, a proposed mission to identify and track solar storms and solar radio bursts as they travel through the inner solar system. It will give early warnings and more accurate forecasts of the impacts of solar storms on Earth. Again, this project involves Professor Peter Gallagher and Dr. Shane Maloney, working alongside their DIAS colleague, Alberto Canizares. To date, the team has been funded by the ESA to assess the feasibility of the proposed SURROUND mission and identify key requirements to enable its success.

Space Research Pioneers

DIAS has been the leading institute for space research in Ireland since 1947, when the Institute’s School of Cosmic Physics was established. Its work in this area increased significantly post the involvement of Professor Denis O’Sullivan in the analysis of samples brought back from the moon by Apollo 11.

Commenting today (11.10.23), Dr. Eucharia Meehan, CEO and Registrar of DIAS, said: “The space researchers at DIAS today are building on a rich legacy. In 1972, for example, DIAS flew the first ever Irish experiment in space and onto the lunar surface on the NASA Apollo 16 mission. We also had experiments on Apollo 17 and the Long Duration Exposure Facility, launched into orbit by Challenger in 1984.

“There were many more space research ‘firsts’ for DIAS in space research in the following years, including in 2001, when we had the first Irish experiment on the International Space Station – and one of the first 10 worldwide – after an extremely competitive international selection process.

“Today, scientists at DIAS continue to conduct groundbreaking space research, collaborating with some of the most esteemed research organisations in the world, including the European Space Agency and NASA. The work being done here in Dublin is contributing to profound changes in our understanding of how the Earth was formed and is changing, and the evolution of the universe.”