Mullard Space Lab’s 50th anniversary

We paid a visit to the UK’s largest university research group, deep in the Surrey Hills.

Written by Chris Bramley.

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Visitors to Mullard Space Science Lab view the Sun through the scopes of Guildford Astronomical Society.
Credit: C. Bramley / BBC Sky at Night Magazine

 

The drawing room of Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) perhaps sums up the uniqueness of this most English of research facilities. 

“Here is where the instruments are created from scientists’ drawings,” says Dr Lucie Green, solar physicist at MSSL.

“And with the scientists upstairs and the engineers downstairs, any questions about the design very quickly get worked out.” 

I take in the first floor room in: there’s delicate, carved Victorian panelling above the mantelpiece on one side and on the other a large bay window looking out onto a vast green view across Sussex – woodland stretching 65 km to the South Downs on the horizon.

 

Reminders of the MSSL building’s past as a country house are all around, like this ornate panelling in the drawing room
Credit: C. Bramley / BBC Sky at Night Magazine

 

Between the two is a modern office where designs for sensors, circuit boards and wiring plans are drawn up. 

It’s rare to get a look in here: it’s normally off limits to the public, but this weekend MSSL celebrated its 50th anniversary with an open day. 

 

Visitors enjoy the expansive view over the woods of Sussex from MSSL’s front porch
Credit: C. Bramley / BBC Sky at Night Magazine

 

The large mansion set on the southern slope of the Surrey Hills houses not just design offices, but the facillites to engineer and maintain science hardware for space, and analyse the data returned by its instruments. 

Dr Green leads me down carpeted stairs and along twisting corridors. Round one corner we come to the doors (left) of a clean room where the EXOMars cameras will be constructed – sadly but understandably locked. 

Outdoors and along the side of the building are the former potting sheds that now contain the machining rooms where precision space instruments destined for Mars are made from raw materials. 

It’s a fascinating place with a very special feel; a charming and endearing combination of stately mansion, verdant grounds and cutting-edge research facilities.

The staff here have played a part in a huge range of missions since MSSL’s beginnings as UCL’s Rocket Group in 1953; today it is the largest university research group in the space sector. 

In a talk on the day, Prof Graziella Branduardi-Raymont, a scientist at MSSL for four decades, described its first satellite, Ariel 1 and subsequent milestones like the Spacelab missions, the Giotto probe to Comet Halley and the Cassini mission, which ends this week. 

Instruments have been built here for missions investigating planetary physics, solar physics, black holes and galactic structures, in partnerships with both NASA and ESA. 

“It’s a very interdisciplinary place,” says Prof Branduardi-Raymont.

“We go from theories to detector to analysis, and there are very close ties between our science and engineering departments. We’re not spread out over a wide area, and that encourages the development of new ideas, which then get transferred to teaching.”

 

Visitors pore over displays of the many missions built at MSSL
Credit: C. Bramley / BBC Sky at Night Magazine

 

With eight upcoming mission launches in the next 15 years to make instruments for, including the EXOMars rover, the JUICE mission to Jupiter, the James Webb Space Telescope and Solar Orbiter, the potting sheds and panelled drawing rooms are set be busy for many more years to come. 

Follow MSSL on twitter at @MSSLSpaceLab for more on its involvement in space science.

See for yourself what MSSL is like on the latest episode of The Sky at Night, which was filmed there and is available to watch on the BBC iPlayer until 10 October 2017.


 

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