The well recognized British space scientist Gillian Wright has been appointed honorary doctor at DTU in the spring 2021. (Photo: DTU)

British space scientist appointed honorary doctor at DTU

Space research Astrophysics Space technology and instruments
Astrophysicist and professor Gillian Wright has helped secure DTU Space a key role in the James Webb Space Telescope, which will soon be sent into space to explore the earliest galaxies.

Had it not been for the collaboration with Gillian Wright, DTU and DTU Space would hardly have been given such a significant role as is the case in the James Webb Space Telescope project, which is scheduled to be sent into space this autumn and is one of astronomy's big missions in these years.

That is also why the Scottish astrophysicist and professor has also recently been appointed honorary doctor at DTU.

Gillian Wright is considered one of the world's foremost astrophysicists in the development and use of telescopes to look into the distant universe and study its past, whether the telescopes are placed on Earth or in space.

It is through the collaboration with her that DTU Space is part of the James Webb Space Telescope project, which in the coming years is expected to make new discoveries about the very early universe.

"It is fantastic and well-deserved that Gillian Wright is now appreciated for her great knowledge and the efforts she has contributed in the collaboration with us at DTU Space," says senior scientist emeritus at DTU Space, Hans Ulrik Nørgaard-Nielsen, who for years has worked with the Scottish astronomer on the James Webb Telescope.

Wright is director of the British Astronomy Technology Center in Edinburgh. She also sits on a number of Advisory Boards in her field of expertise. She received her PhD in physics from the prestigious Imperial College London in 1986 and has more than 30 years of experience in Earth and space based instruments for exploring the early universe.

“Gillian Wright is one of the world's leading capabilities in this field. Her work has helped bring astronomy and astrophysics so far that we can now begin to look at the very early galaxies that formed during the first few hundred million years after the universe came into being by the Big Bang,” says Hans Ulrik Nørgaard-Nielsen.

"She has been involved in developing and building the detector systems for the Miri instrument for the James Webb Telescope, which can measure light in the infrared region emitted from the early universe, which makes it possible for us today to investigate what happened so far back in time."

The James Webb Space Telescope is to replace the Hubble Telescope, which has been in space since 1990. It is a huge international project carried out under the leadership of ESA and Nasa.

Advanced technology with Danish contributions

The James Webb telescope is a piece of advanced technology that, via a special mirror 6.5 meters in diameter and a series of detectors, that among other things, detect infrared light emitted relatively soon after the universe was formed during the Big Bang about 13.8 billion years ago.

"Gillian Wright is one of the world's leading capabilities in this field. Her work has helped bring astronomy and astrophysics so far that we can now begin to look at the very early galaxies"
Hans Ulrik Nørgaard-Nielsen, senior scientist emeritus at DTU Space

And in an astronomical sense, 'the first few hundred million years after the Big Bang' is interpreted as being a relatively short time after the universe was formed.

Thus, scientists can gain, and subsequently pass on, new knowledge about how and when the first stars and galaxies in our universe were formed and how they have since evolved.

DTU Space has contributed to the instrument Miri, which is part of the James Webb telescope. DTU Space has built a carbon suspension system that is designed so that it expands and contracts as little as possible when exposed to both high heat and extreme cold in space, thus ensuring that Miri works optimally.

In addition, DTU Space has provided a special protective wrapping required for the instrument to function under the extreme temperature conditions in space.

Enthusiastic and strong support for DTU

The recommendation for the honorary doctorate to Wright states, among other things, that ‘the excellent scientific and technological setup at DTU would most likely not have been realized without Gillian Wright's strong support and enthusiasm’.

Work on the James Webb telescope began in 1996, and Gillian Wright has been working on the Miri instrument for a number of years as principal investigator.

In 2003, the collaboration with DTU Space began.

In addition to contributing with technology, DTU Space is also deeply involved in the scientific work that begins as soon as the James Webb telescope is sent into space and begins to observe the universe from its orbit 1.5 million km from Earth. DTU Space and various partners have been allocated a large proportion of the observation time available.

"Gillian Wright has been responsible for the development of Miri, which we also contribute to, and it also means that we are at the forefront of scientific work when we start making observations with the new telescope," says Hans Ulrik Nørgaard -Nielsen.

It has been a long process to get the James Webb telescope finished. But now it is almost ready to be launched after several delays due to technical challenges. Not least with the help of Wright's tenacious efforts.