Leicester's role in Russian satellite programme revealed as UK's largest telescope goes to Science Museum

By Culture24 Staff | 17 June 2009
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A picture of an artist's impression of a satellite in outer space

The JET-X (above) went from Leicester to Russia with love before being foiled by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Picture: IKI

A five-metre telescope built as a satellite for a Russian astrophysics mission and used as a model for NASA will be revealed to the public after scientists agreed to release it to the Science Museum in London.

Academics at the University of Leicester's Space Research Centre have allowed the Joint European X-Ray, which is the largest telescope ever built in the UK, to go on display as a symbol of the UK's scientific and technical prowess as part of the new Cosmos and Culture exhibition (opens July 23 2009.)

A picture of scientists in a lab working on a large telescope

(Above) Picture courtesy University of Leicester

Built by a collective from Italy, Russia and the UK, JET-X completed a series of successful tests in Moscow between 1990 and 1992 after being assembled by chief designers at the Department of Physics and Astronomy in Leicester. It was one of six instruments provided by the international community for the planned Russian Spectrum X-Gamma quest in 1993, but the collapse of the Soviet Union and resulting economic crisis meant it was never launched.

Deployment of the 450kg invention was ultimately thwarted after other international space missions overtook it, although the technology used in the x-ray detectors has been put to use in orbit since. The NASA SWIFT explorer, which has studied the "enigmatic behaviour" of mysterious gamma ray bursts in outer space since 2004, was based on the JET-X designs.

A picture of scientists in a lab working on a large telescope

(Above) JET-X under installation in the Cleanroom at the university. Picture courtesy University of Leicester

"The cancellation of the Spectrum X Gamma project was a huge disappointment to all of us who had worked so hard and under such difficult conditions for such a long time," said Professor Alan Wells, the former Programme Director of the project.

"The great compensation, though, has been to see the technology that we so painstakingly developed come to fruition in other projects. SWIFT is recognized as one of NASA's most productive space science missions and it is good to know that much of this success relates back to the hard work we put in."

A picture of scientists in a lab working on a large telescope

(Above) Picture courtesy University of Leicester

Professor Mark Sims, who worked on the development of the telescope, said the project had produced "many lessons" for subsequent projects. "Leicester led the assembly and test of the telescope, which extended our capabilities in terms of designing, testing and handling large instruments," he added.

"It was an interesting experience to work with the Russians, who had a very different way of working to what we were used to. Their space engineering capabilities were still considerable despite their funding problems at the time."

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