Leicester University lands share of £3m award for leading role in new space science mission

Cut-away shown of the Soft X-ray Imager

Leicester University is to lead an international solar-terrestrial and space weather mission, taking on the development of a major science instrument thanks to funding from the UK Space Agency.

An initial £3 million award will support academics working on SMILE (the Solar wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer), a European Space Agency (ESA) science mission, being delivered jointly with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and due to launch in 2021.

SMILE will address fundamental gaps in knowledge of the solar-terrestrial relationship by providing, for the first time ever, global imaging of the Earth’s magnetosphere and its dynamic response to solar wind – charged particles streaming from the Sun.

The UK Space Agency’s £3 million investment package supports three UK academic groups for the next two years, and it is planned that this will be extended to support the mission throughout its development.

The majority of the funds will directly support the design and build of the mission’s most innovative science instrument, the SXI (Soft X-ray Imager), led by Dr Steven Sembay, from the University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. The SXI is a multi-national collaboration involving Leicester University as the project lead, UCL and the Open University within the UK, along with several international partners from Europe, China and the USA.

“The SMILE mission represents a truly cross-disciplinary enterprise; SMILE’s science goals are within the sphere of solar-terrestrial physics whereas the SXI instrument was borne from a long heritage at the University of Leicester in astrophysics and X-ray astronomy extending back over 50 years. It is a great example of the integrated approach to research being adopted at Leicester,” says Dr Sembay.