Edinburgh astronomers build £7m space probe

Dr Michele Cirasuolo of the UK ATC with a scaled-down version of part of the Moons machine. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Dr Michele Cirasuolo of the UK ATC with a scaled-down version of part of the Moons machine. Picture: Ian Georgeson

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EXPERTS at the Royal Observatory have won a £7 million contract to help probe the secrets of the universe.

A team from the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) will lead an international project to build a unique, powerful instrument to tackle some of the most compelling astronomical puzzles – such as how stars and galaxies form and evolve, and examining the structure of the Milky Way.

Moons (Multi-Object Optical and Near-infrared Spectrograph) will allow astronomers to see obscured areas in the Milky Way from around 40,000 light years away, and enable them to create a 3D map of the galaxy, an exercise likened to mapping a forest of densely-packed trees from the inside.

News of the contract comes as plans were unveiled for the new £11m Higgs Centre for Innovation due to open at the observatory site in 2016.

The centre, named after ­city-based Nobel Prize-winning scientist Peter Higgs, below, aims to create new market opportunities while also inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers.

It will focus on business incubation and start-up business support and will house up to 12 small businesses, as well as academic and PhD posts, to help postgraduate students gain entrepreneurial experience as they start their careers.

The UK Government has provided capital funding of £10.7m for construction of the new centre and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) will invest £2m over five years to operate it.

The STFC said its planning application was sympathetic to the site’s setting and history.

The unveiling of the Higgs Centre plans coincided with the official renaming of a building on the observatory site in honour of Ralph Copeland, the Astronomer Royal of Scotland who created the Royal Observatory on Blackford Hill in 1896.

Professor Gillian Wright, director of the UK ATC, said the Moons project would help people to understand why the Milky Way looks the way it does. She said: “This instrument will act as an intergalactic GPS to help us to navigate through the billions of stars in our galaxy and create a comprehensive map of its structure.”

Building the device – the size of a transit van – will take around 200 staff-years of effort. It will be installed at the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in northern Chile.

Like any spectrograph, Moons will use the colour of light emitted by objects to reveal their chemical composition, mass, speed and other properties, but it will survey large samples of objects far faster than any existing instrument and conduct surveys that would be virtually impossible using today’s technologies.