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UK Astronomy Technology Centre

The UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) is the national centre for astronomical technology. It is also part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

UK ATC designs and builds instruments for many of the world's major telescopes. They also project-manage UK and international collaborations and their scientists carry out observational and theoretical research into questions such as the origins of planets and of galaxies.

Based at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, and operated by STFC, its technology can be found in telescopes both on the ground and in space.

The UK ATC works with leading organisations, such as the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and NASA, to answer fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of planets and galaxies.

It does this by:

  • designing and building state-of-the-art instruments for many of the world’s major telescopes
  • managing UK and international collaborations with universities, research centres, national institutes and industry
  • conducting observational and theoretical astronomical research

The UK ATC manages the Royal Observatory Edinburgh Visitor Centre, whose inspirational programmes include the UK Dark Sky Discovery initiative to engage schools and communities across the UK.

The Observatory site is shared with the Institute for Astronomy of the University of Edinburgh, creating a vibrant mix of astronomers, students and engineers.

UK ATC research and technology delivers a range of practical benefits.

Expertise in optics and imaging systems is being used for:

  • ophthalmology
  • biomedical imaging to detect diseases
  • developing the next generation backlighting for flat screen televisions
  • instruments for monitoring the Earth's environment from ground and space

UK ATC science-driven projects include Scuba-2, MIRI and ELT.

SCUBA-2 is an unprecedented imaging and survey instrument for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) – the largest telescope in the world specifically designed to operate at submillimetre wavelengths.

It is the next generation Submillimetre Common-User Bolometer Array, and it was delivered to the telescope, near the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, in 2008.

It was built by an international consortium led by the UK ATC, and including the University of Edinburgh, Cardiff University, the Joint Astronomy Centre in Hawaii, the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, and a consortium of Canadian universities.

The UK ATC is developing the mid infrared instrument (MIRI) hardware for the James Webb Space Telescope, a flagship NASA/European Space Agency mission.

The Webb telescope will complement and extend the discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope. It will study every phase of the history of the Universe and will be the largest and most sensitive infrared space telescope ever flown.

The MIRI camera and spectrometer will be thousands of times more sensitive than the best instruments currently available on Earth-based observatories. The European principal investigator for MIRI is UK ATC staff astronomer Dr Gillian Wright OBE.

The UK ATC is participating in design studies for the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) which, at 42m in diameter, will be the world's biggest eye on the sky.

The ELT will tackle some of the most important and exciting scientific challenges of our time:

  • tracking Earth-like planets where life could exist
  • understanding the earliest galaxies in the Universe
  • probing the nature of dark matter and dark energy

The UK ATC is co-ordinating UK activities towards the ELT, including encouraging and facilitating participation by industry. Helped by strategic support from the UK ATC, the Innovation Centre OpTIC Technium in North Wales is building prototype ELT primary mirror segments. This precision technology has applications ranging from artificial knee-joints to laser fusion.

How to find us

Key facts

The UK ATC is providing novel design solutions through work in major projects which currently include:

  • MOONS is a unique, visible and near-IR multi-object spectrograph that will be operated on the VLT in the early 2020s.
  • ERIS, the Enhanced Resolution Imager and Spectrograph, an infrared instrument that will be installed at VLT in a few years time.
  • HiPERCAM, a new, UK-built camera which can take over 1,000 images per second and will revolutionise our understanding of stars and black holes.
  • MIRI, the Mid InfraRed Instrument for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) which is due to launch in 2021.

The UK ATC is also involved in shaping the future of Europe’s next large telescope and is participating in design studies for the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT).

The UK ATC science group carries out research on a broad array of topics in support of our instrumentation programme. These range from studying vast discs of gas and dust forming protostars and possible planetary systems, through the evolution cycle of massive stars and clusters in the Milky Way, to spectroscopy of some of the highest redshift galaxies in the early Universe.

These research areas are perfect for exploiting the state-of-the-art instruments being built at, or already delivered by, the UK ATC to telescopes around the world.

In order to maintain excellent track record, UK ATC need strong links and connections with outside organisations - locally and globally; in academia and industry; within the astronomy community and outside it.

Customers include:

  • European Southern Observatory (ESO)
  • European Space Agency (ESA)
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
  • Many others - including those outside of the conventional astronomy areas

Delivering the current range of complex systems needed by these customers requires large international collaborations. The list of current collaborators is extensive:

  • Universities
  • National institutes
  • Research centres
  • Industry

With dedicated project management and systems engineering professionals, the UK ATC has considerable experience in successfully leading and participating in many such large projects.

The Higgs Centre for Innovation at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh is co-located with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre. It is a business incubation facility designed for start ups and SMEs working in the fields of astronomy, data intensive science and particle physics.


Key contacts

  • Telephone: either via the Reception at +44 (0)131 668 8100 or by direct dial using the numbers found in the ROE staff list (link opens in a new window)
  • Fax: there are several fax machines on site as listed in the ROE staff list (link opens in a new window). If you are unsure use the Director's Office - +44 (0)131 668 8264
  • E-Mail: use ''
  • Post: our postal address is:

    UK Astronomy Technology Centre
    Royal Observatory, Edinburgh
    Blackford Hill
    EH9 3HJ
  • Julian Dines - Strategic Planning, new initiatives, technology development, Higgs Centre for Innovation
  • Gary Rae and Group Heads - Engineering
  • Julian Dines - Industrial links and innovation
  • Reception (primary contact) / Lynn Ritchie (Director's secretary) - General enquiries
  • Trudi Symes - Recruitment
  • Dan Hillier - Visitor Centre
  • Richard Corrigan - Site / premises
  • Jason Cowan - Media Services
  • Reception - Deliveries

Innovation and experience

The UK ATC has a world-leading track record in the delivery of facility class instrumentation systems. Advances in observational astronomy are very demanding and any proposed new facility is almost certainly a one-off project which must be hundreds, if not thousands, of times better than any predecessor if it is to be funded. Having innovative, creative staff who are up to date on developments in their field is therefore essential. Equally, experience is necessary to turn new ideas into reliable, cost effective solutions.

New projects are inspired by the scientific need to detect fainter and more distant objects, and to improve understanding of brighter objects through imaging, spectroscopy and polarimetry. The expertise of staff includes optics and optical design, mechanical design and machining, electronic design and fabrication, real-time computer control and data capture and analysis.

Within our local area the UK ATC is part of the Edinburgh Research Partnership in Engineering & Mathematics (ERP) and the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance (SUPA).

UK ATC support an active science and society programme through the work of the Royal Observatory Visitor Centre.

Science and Technology Facilities Council
Switchboard: +44 (0)1793 442000