The future of astronomy: three BIG reasons to be excited

STFC and the world’s BIG telescopes

In celebration of Global Astronomy Month – #GAM2019, #OnePeopleOneSky – we’re taking you on a galactic journey of the world’s biggest, most advanced telescopes on land and in space, in which our Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) teams are playing a significant role. It’s the low down on STFC’s contribution to world class astronomy – the technical innovations, the research and how we share new knowledge to inspire and capture the imagination of people both young and not so young.

Astronomers learning about the Universe need big and powerful telescopes to see deep into space – to observe regions never seen before – to reveal the secrets of how the Universe has evolved, and tell us why it is the way it is today. They also need telescopes that capture different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, which comprises radio, microwave, infrared, visible, UV, x-ray and gamma ray. Using just one part of the spectrum would exclude large parts of the information available to us – rather like watching the 3D, high definition version of Avatar on an old black-and-white television. With the sound off.

Professor Gillian Wright, Director of STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, talking about the world class technical innovations of STFC scientists and engineers says:

“Our achievements, enabling world class science via state of the art hardware and software delivered to major international organisations, are a tribute to the hard work and expertise of staff across STFC and the UK astronomy community.”

And here are just some of the exciting state of the art innovations happening right now:


ELT – the Extremely Large Telescope will be the world’s largest optical telescope

Huge advances in technical innovations have seen astronomers able to collect more and more light from the skies, through bigger and more advanced telescopes, to see deeper into the Universe – than has ever been seen before. This has been possible through collaborations across nations and disciplines.

Simply called the Extremely Large Telescope – the ELT, which is currently in construction will be the largest and most powerful visible and infrared light telescope in the world. At a size of twice the length of a cricket pitch, if it were placed at Land’s End, it would be able to see a bumblebee at John O’Groats! By the late 2020s it will be delivering major breakthroughs in astronomy – observing the formation of distant galaxies and characterising planets around nearby stars with unique precision.

The ELT is being built by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) at the Paranal Observatory on the Armazones Mountain in Northern Chile. Its scale makes it a feat of engineering, and its ambition makes it a feat of imagination. But building and designing the ELT is no small task; involving many teams around the world.

The cutting edge tech

Teams of STFC scientists, engineers and technicians are playing an important role in designing and building the state of the art instruments that will allow the ELT to deliver its cutting edge science.

HARMONI and METIS are both spectrographs that will be used on the ELT – instruments that separate light emitted by astronomical objects, and record the data.

  • HARMONI is being designed and built by a European team led jointly by the University of Oxford and STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre and will provide the ELT with a sensitivity that is many hundreds of times better than any current telescope of its kind.
  • METIS is being built by a European consortium, led by Leiden University in the Netherlands. STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre is responsible for the spectrometer that will study nearby exo-planets – planets that orbit around stars outside our solar system.

SKA – The Square Kilometre Array will be the world’s largest radio telescope

Radio telescopes allow astronomers to study the celestial objects that give off radio waves. With radio astronomy, astronomers study astronomical phenomena that are often invisible or hidden in other portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, because there is no other way to ‘see’ these objects. It is a segment of the electromagnetic spectrum that lets astronomers look at the cold Universe, which is also very, very old. Astronomers studying the cold Universe really are seeing it in its earliest stages.

When complete in the late 2020s the SKA will be made up of hundreds of radio telescope dishes and thousands of antennas spread across two continents. Each of the thousands of elements will have to have identical performance characteristics and be built to last in a harsh environment – South Africa’s Karoo region and Western Australia’s Murchison Shire.

It will be able to survey the sky faster than existing radio telescopes, and it will produce enough data in one year to fill one million laptops.

The SKA is being constructed in a phased development, with phase 1 delivering 200 dishes in South Africa and 130,000 antennas in Australia.

The cutting edge tech

It is an international effort involving 1,000s of scientists and engineers from 20 countries. And at a treaty signing in Rome in the March 2019 the UK formally became the seat of the intergovernmental organisation (IGO) that will oversee the delivery of SKA. Its headquarters are at Jodrell Bank, and STFC teams from Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Hartree Centre at Daresbury and the UK Astronomy Technology Centre are playing key roles.


JWST – the James Webb Space Telescope will be the world’s largest space telescope

The advantage of space-based telescopes is that there is no distortion of the light by the Earth's atmosphere, and so the telescope gets a much clearer view. The ‘Webb’ will be the biggest space telescope ever built, its sunshield will be the size of a tennis court! And it is expected to enable astounding new science. JWST will orbit in deep space, 1.5 million km from Earth, on a mission of at least 5 years.

Designed and built by NASA in partnership with the Canadian and European Space Agencies, the Webb will be a ‘flagship’ space observatory. An infrared specialist, it will be able to explore the distant Universe and the evolution of planets, stars and galaxies as never before. Infrared light is invisible to our eyes but we are familiar with it as the sensation of heat on our skin. It sits just off the red end of the rainbow and is very useful for astronomers. It allows you to peer through obscuring clouds of dust, explore the coolest stars and take pictures of very distant galaxies. The main mirror for Webb is actually coated with gold because it reflects infrared light really well.

The James Webb Space Telescope is one step closer to launch with move to California

The cutting edge tech

The construction of Webb is a global enterprise, involving 14 countries. STFC’s main contribution has been leading the design and construction of the Mid-infrared Instrument (MIRI), in a partnership with NASA, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the European Space Agency, and institutes from 10 European countries. MIRI is both a camera and a spectrometer that will allow astronomers to study how galaxies and stars are made. The Webb is expected to be operational by the early 2020s.

Inspiring the next generation about Webb

With mission launch coming soon, STFC’s UK Webb Public Engagement team have set themselves the task of reaching into schools to highlight the important role that the UK is playing in the mission. More information on how schools and the general public can access resources and opportunities and get involved are available through the Webb web site.


Space has captured the imagination of the young and not so young since us Homo sapiens graced the Earth. Astronomy is all about understanding space, and we will only know about space by exploring it… asking questions, and developing the technologies to help answer those questions.

It includes a commitment to working with teams globally to contribute to building the capability to explore space with amazing cutting edge tech for the world’s biggest telescopes, and most ambitions space missions. At STFC we also strongly believe in the benefits of communicating our work – through our own programme of public engagement activities (for example the Webb work with schools, described earlier), as well as supporting teams and individuals in their quests to inspire the next generation. We do this through providing awards and grants – our Spark Awards, Nucleus Awards and Leadership Fellows Awards.

  • Webb in planetarium domes

Funded by an STFC Nucleus award, Explorer Dome, has created exceptional and unique graphical content that can be projected across the 180-degree surface of a planetarium dome, providing a fully immersive and captivating experience of the James Webb space telescope. Over 150,000 children and adults, including schools in underserved communities, will experience the fantastic stories, science, engineering and people behind Webb in planetariums across the UK.

Funded by an STFC Spark award, AstroBoost is a project created on behalf of the Royal Astronomical Society and three partner societies, Telescope UK Campaign, Guildford and Newbury Astronomical Societies, and Hampshire Astronomical Group. The project surveyed astronomical societies in Southern England about their work with the public; a survey never undertaken before. The aim is to create a suite of Webb telescope resources to be used by the three partner societies with the public, including instructions for building a mini Lego Webb telescope model, which was created by Dr William Taylor, Instrument Scientist at UK ATC.


ELT, SKA and Webb are just three examples of major land- and space-based telescopes where STFC scientists, engineers and technicians work in collaboration with partners and Institutions globally to truly push the frontiers of astronomy and space science.

STFC public engagement and outreach teams are working to capture the public’s imagination and inspire the next generation about the incredible science and innovations – through events and activities, and by supporting the work of STFC’s public engagement grant holders.

Last updated: 26 April 2019


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