Britainís longest serving space science department celebrates its 40th birthday.


Over 200 scientists and engineers gathered on Sunday 16th September 2007 to mark the 40th anniversary of UCLís Mullard Space Science Laboratory. Sir Patrick Moore was among the alumni attending the celebration.

UCLís Department of Physics became the pioneer of British space science when Sir Harrie Massie initiated the start of scientific space research in 1953, using rockets left redundant at the end of the Second World War. Prof Harrie Massey received a phone call on the morning of 13 May 1953, just as he was preparing to leave his office at UCL for the Physics Department annual cricket match. It was the Ministry of Supply asking whether he would like to use their rockets for scientific research. He immediately said yes, and went and repeated the question to Dr Robert Boyd, then a lecturer in the department, "How would you like some rockets for your research?" Boyd replied in the affirmative, and thus began UK space science.

The first UCL experiment to travel into space was carried by a British-built Skylark rocket, launched from Woomera in the Australian desert on 13 November 1957, 50 years ago this November. It involved exploding grenades, and was used to investigate conditions in the Earthís upper atmosphere. UCL launched many subsequent experiments on Skylarks, many of them designed to measure the properties of plasma in the Earth's outer atmosphere, and high-energy radiation from the Sun.

During the 1950s and 1960s the UCL Rocket Group expanded until it outgrew the available space on the UCL main campus. The search was begun for larger premises, and Holmbury House was purchased in 1965 with a donation from the Mullard electronics company (Mullard was eventually taken over by Philips). Holmbury House is a Victorian mansion in the Surrey countryside, built around 1870 for the Hon. Frederick Leveson-Gower by the architect George Edmund Street. The site had previously been occupied by a farmhouse once inhabited by the author Anne Marsh-Caldwell. The farmhouse, known as Deacons, was first recorded in 1367.

The Mullard Space Science Laboratory was formally opened on 3rd May 1967, by Dr F. E. Jones FRS, Managing Director of Mullard Ltd, in the presence of Prof R. L. F. Boyd, Head of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, and of Sir Harrie Massey FRS, Quain Professor of Physics at UCL. That year, the Lab had a staff of 66 and an annual budget of 150,000 pounds. Today, it employs about 140 people, and had an income in 2006/2007 in excess of 8 million pounds.

The early years of the UCL Rocket group and the Mullard Space Science Laboratory provided the training ground for many who would go on to make major contributions to international space science, and found world-leading research groups at other universities.

Today, MSSL has contributed to over 250 rocket and satellite projects in collaboration with all the major space agencies around the world. Highlights include Giotto, the European probe that encountered Comet Halley in 1986; SoHO, the ESA/NASA mission which revolutionised studies of the Sun; NASA's Swift satellite, which is currently producing many new discoveries about Gamma-Ray Bursts; the notorious Beagle 2 mission to Mars; a long series of X-ray astronomy missions, including ESA's present XMM-Newton observatory; and the NASA/ESA Cassini probe which is now returning spectacular data from Saturn and its moons.






This page last modified 18 September, 2007 by Martin de la Nougerede


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