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DIAS Cosmic Physics marks 75 years of ground-breaking discoveries about our planet and universe

From the first ever Irish experiment in space, to landmark insights on volcanoes, the School of Cosmic Physics at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) will continue to play a leading role in strengthening our understanding of the world and cosmos around us for many years to come. That’s according to DIAS, which is today (24.03.22) marking the 75th anniversary of its School of Cosmic Physics.

Founded in 1947, the DIAS School of Cosmic Physics uses the ideas and methods of physics to understand the world around us, from the interior of the Earth to the edges of the universe. The School is organised in two broad sections: Geophysics – focused on the interior and surface of the Earth; and Astronomy and Astrophysics – focused outwards to our solar system and beyond.

Commenting today, Dr. Eucharia Meehan, CEO and Registrar of DIAS, said: “Today we reflect on the School of Cosmic Physics at DIAS and its 75-year track record as space and Earth research pioneers. The School has developed a reputation as an international leader and has contributed to many important global discoveries. From its inception, top cosmic physicists from around the world and Ireland have worked at the School, with many being at the forefront of ground-breaking research on Earth’s land surface and in its deep oceans, not to mention trail-blazing research in space within and beyond our solar system. Looking at the exciting portfolio of projects we are involved in today, I look forward to seeing the contribution that the School will continue to make, in Ireland, on a global stage and beyond, in its next chapter.”

Examples of key achievements for the School of Cosmic Physics over the past 75 years include the following:

  • Apollo 16 mission: In 1972, and in partnership with University of Berkeley, DIAS professors, Denis O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson worked on the first ever Irish experiment in space on the lunar surface as part of the NASA Apollo 16 mission, launching space physics research in Ireland. DIAS are currently involved in five satellite missions: James Webb Space Telescope, Ariel, Solar Orbiter, JUICE and Juno.
  • Expansion of Irish maritime territory: In 1987, DIAS researcher Brian Jacobs, in cooperation with the University of Hamburg and UCD, conducted a project on the formation of the North Atlantic. It led to Ireland’s maritime territory doubling in size in the mid-90s.
  • International Space Station: In 2001 DIAS was one of the first 10 (and first Irish) experiments on the International Space Station after an extremely competitive international selection process. DIAS-made detectors were used to measure the effects of cosmic radiation on the human body. Work on space technology continues to this day, with DIAS being the only Irish research institution involved in the Webb Space Telescope – the largest and most powerful space telescope ever built. 
  • Volcanoes: During 2016 and 2017, ground-breaking new insights into the working of volcanoes were published by DIAS geophysicists. Their work demonstrated that the upper two kilometres of the Earth’s crust is substantially weaker than previously thought, which has fundamental knock-on effects on eruption initiation.

Looking to the future

As part of the 75th anniversary of the School of Cosmic Physics, DIAS is highlighting the role the School is currently playing in helping society respond to key environmental challenges for the planet such as earth system change, climate change, and our relationship with our nearest star, the Sun.

Commenting on the work currently underway at the School, Professor Tom Ray, Director of the DIAS School of Cosmic Physics, said: “From reducing our dependency on fossil fuels to finding how stars and planets form, researchers from the School of Cosmic Physics are helping us address some of the fundamental challenges of our time. Now more than ever, the role of geophysics is essential in helping us understand how the Earth is changing, so as to enable sustainable global development including prevention of and slowing the effects of climate change on our populations and planet.  Our previous work has put us in a great position to make a valuable contribution to the current Earth crisis. Meanwhile, astronomy and astrophysics researchers are allowing to us answer some of the deepest unanswered questions about our solar system and beyond, and this human desire for fundamental knowledge about our existence is a key driver of innovative technology development at DIAS.

“There is a rich legacy of ground-breaking research discoveries at the DIAS School of Cosmic Physics, and we will continue to push the boundaries of human knowledge and technology into previously unknown territories and play a leading role in contributing to these vital areas for humankind.”

Some of the projects the School of Cosmic Physics are currently involved in include:

  • GEO-URBAN: The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is an important issue facing society at present. This project aims to explore the potential for low enthalpy geothermal energy in urban environments. It could lead to creating more energy efficient and environmentally sustainable communities.
  • Volcano monitoring: The next Hekla Volcano eruption is considered overdue and could be hazardous to air travel. A real-time monitoring system for the Hekla Volcano in Iceland was recently installed by DIAS Geophysics. This project will result in a substantial improvement in early warning capability.
  • Exploration of Jupiter: The Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) is the first European mission to explore Jupiter. Launching in 2023, one of the main objectives of the mission is to study the planet’s ability to support life. DIAS researchers are involved in the mission by developing the spacecraft’s instruments to ensure they deliver accurate measurements.
  • Early warnings for solar storms: The DIAS Solar Physics Research Group has made it to the second round of the ESA Nanosatellites for Space Weather campaign. They are proposing to build SURROUND, which is a constellation of small satellites that will identify and track solar storms and solar radio bursts as they travel through the inner solar system. If selected, this mission would provide us with early warnings and more accurate forecasts of the impacts of solar storms on Earth.
  • The Ariel Mission: The Ariel Mission will be launched by the European Space Agency in 2028 to explore the atmospheres of distant exoplanets, i.e. planets around other stars. How similar these planets are to ours, and whether they have the potential to harbour life, are amongst the questions Ariel will help answer. DIAS is part of the consortium building Ariel’s main instrument and testing whether its components survive in the extreme environment of space.