Space Investigation today

Panoramic image showing telescopes and the horizon at night time. The long exposure image shows 1000s of stars and the white band of the Milky Way.

Image credit: ESO

Telescopes keep getting bigger and better. We even have telescopes in space! Space investigators have come a long way from the humble beginnings of Newall and his 9 metre long telescope. Today, universities from the North East are helping to design parts of the biggest and most advanced telescopes ever made.

Over the last 150 years, the North East of England has been at the heart of making and using large telescopes. Newall’s 9m telescope in Gateshead may have been the largest telescope in the world at the time, but during the Grubb Parsons era in the late 1900s there was an explosion of massive telescopes that were shipped all across the world.

Today, astronomers in the North East use major ground-based telescopes, such as the Very Large Telescope (VLT). The VLT is made up of a group of four 28.5m tall telescopes. The Centre for Advanced Instrumentation (CfAI) at Durham University has made cameras for telescopes all over the world and in space. This includes the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). They are even working on the new Extremely Large Telescope. It will be the largest telescope in the world!

Did you know... 

The four telescopes of the Very Large Telescope take their names from words from the Mapuche language. The telescopes are named Antu (the Sun), Kueyen (the Moon), Melipal (the Southern Cross constellation) and Yepun (Venus).

Relevance today

In 2023 scientists celebrated 25 years of discoveries with the Very Large Telescope (VLT). To date over 10,000 scientific papers have been published using data collected from the telescope!

Related artefacts

Prototype Integral Field Unit (IFU) for GEMINI North

Gemini North is an optical and infrared telescope on the spiritual mountain of Maunakea Hawaii. The IFU takes spectra (light split up into a rainbow) at different points on a galaxy. This IFU is a prototype of the real instrument, built by the Centre for Advanced Instrumentation in Durham University.

Space satellite (Trace Gas Orbiter) with large solar panels shown above Mars.

Credit: NASA

Spare part for the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) 

The TGO aims to search for methane on the surface of Mars. Methane could be evidence for life on the planet. This component was built by the Centre for Advanced Instrumentation in Durham University. The instrument was assembled in Belgium at OIP Sensor Systems.

Mirror used for the Lunar Thermal mapper (LTM)

The LTM is an instrument of the Lunar Trailblazer which will detect and map water on the surface of the moon. The optics for the LTM were built by the Centre for Advanced Instrumentation at Durham University. 

Prototype of the ALIGN telescope 

Northumbria University has been awarded £5 million to build a satellite communications system called ALIGN (Autonomous Laser Based Intersatellite Gigabit Network) with partners, Durham University, E2e and SMS ltd. ALIGN will be the UK’s first university-led multi-satellite space mission. It is expected to launch in 2026.  

James Webb Space Telescope space satellite shown with galaxies and nebulae in the background.

Credit: NASA

Spare part for the NIRspec instrument on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)

The JWST launched on Christmas day, 2021. NIRspec, a Near-InfraRed spectrograph, is one of the instruments on the JWST. NIRspec splits infrared light. Astronomers use it to measure the properties of planetary atmospheres and galaxies. This optics is a spare part for the NIRspec integral Field Unit.