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  • MIRI Emerges from Exhaustive Tests in UK Space Lab
Aug 2011
OXFORDSHIRE, England, Aug. 19, 2011 — A pioneering camera and spectrometer for the James Webb Space Telescope has completed cryogenic testing during which the instrument’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) was exposed to the harsh conditions it will experience when it is launched into space.

The sophisticated instrument — designed to examine the first light in the universe and the formation of planets around other stars — was put through its paces at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) RAL Space. MIRI contains a camera and a medium-resolution integral field spectrograph and coronagraphs, and it covers the wavelength range from 5 to 28 μm. This range requires that MIRI be cooled to 7 K (–266 °C), which also brings tough challenges for testing the instrument.

Alignment testing of the Webb Space Telescope’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). (Photos: STFC)

Inside the RAL Space thermal space test chamber, specially constructed shrouds cooled to 40 K surround the instrument to represent properly the environment and background that the instrument will see in operation on Webb. The instrument has undergone the longest and most exhaustive testing at cryogenic temperatures prior to delivery of any astronomy instrument in Europe. With a total of 86 days at 7 K, this is a significant achievement for the team operating the RAL Space test chamber.

“It is inspiring to see the MIRI working extremely well at its operating temperature after so many years in development. The test campaign has been a resounding success, and the whole MIRI team can be very proud of this magnificent achievement,” said Gillian Wright, the European principal investigator. MIRI now will be delivered to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

MIRI in the thermal test chamber at RAL Space.

“MIRI will help unveil the early universe with undreamed-of detail; for astronomers, the Webb telescope will be like a time machine allowing them to view the first stars and galaxies forming when the universe was very young,” said David Parker, director of science, technology and exploration at the UK Space Agency. “This project is a great example of how the specialist skills of our UK scientists and space companies are being utilized for the biggest and most ambitious international space projects.”

The MIRI team is racing to analyze all the data from the huge cryogenic test campaign in parallel with completing the remaining warm testing and preparing the instrument for delivery to Goddard. There it will be integrated with the other instruments, the telescope and eventually the spacecraft.

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The scientific observation of celestial radiation that has reached the vicinity of Earth, and the interpretation of these observations to determine the characteristics of the extraterrestrial bodies and phenomena that have emitted the radiation.
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