The Liège space adventure
By Théo Pirard
The University of Liège has always been renowned for its astronomy and astrophysics research, particularly since the construction of the Cointe observatory in 1883. The conquest of space symbolised by the launch of the first artificial satellite gave its activities a new dimension. On the one hand the research carried out by astronomers and astrophysicians benefited from data collected from beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, and on the other hand a large aerospace sector would now develop at the technological and industrial levels.
Three witnesses at the university have recounted this double characteristic of the Liège space odyssey: the astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Swings (the AGO (Astrophysics/Geophysics/Oceanography) department, the engineer-physicist André Monfils (founder and first director of the Space Work Group, which became IAL Space and then the Liège Space Centre), and the engineer-physicist and astrophysicist Claude Jamar (director of the Liège Space Centre, and a driving force behind WSL/Wallonia Space Logistics).
Fifty years ago universities and scientific institutions carried out research in astronomy, astrophysics and geophysics. As for the engineers in their design offices, they dreamed of astronautics and produced plans for space stations and lunar expeditions. Going into space was above all an idea that figured in the imaginations of novelists, cartoonists and science fiction scriptwriters. Nonetheless, this was achieved. Researchers the world over had decided to organise an International Geophysical Year, from 1st July 1957 to 31st December 1958. Both the United States and the Soviet Union (of which present day Russia and Ukraine were a part of) had announced their intention to launch satellites to make observations and collect data from beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Europe for its part remained attentive to what plots were being cooked up for the conquest of the dimension of space in the West and the East.
Beyond the atmosphere
At the University of Liège the Astrophysics Institute, which then had its rooms, workshops and telescopes at the Cointe Observatory, was very interested in experiments carried out through rocket probes and on board satellites. It was headed by the astrophysicist Polydore ‘Pol’ Swings (1906-1983), known internationally for his spectroscopic and optical research. His son Jean-Pierre, then aged 14 and who was to become a Doctor of Astrophysics, remembers this morning of 5th October when the radio announced that Sputnik had been placed in orbit. News of this ‘first’ sparked off enthusiasm. The launch of a satellite constituted a great event for the scientific community of the International Geophysical Year. For Pol Swings access to space opened a new window onto the celestial vault because it enabled spectroscopy in the ultraviolet and infrared ranges. It was imperative to go beyond the atmosphere to carry out, in excellent conditions, observations of spectral lines which do not penetrate the layers of the atmosphere.
At the end of the 1950s, at a time when the Soviet Union and the United States were launching their first satellites, the University astrophysicists made clear their interest and stamped their feet with impatience to carry out research in space. As the director of the Astrophysics Institute, Professor Swings took some audacious initiatives. He made himself heard attentively within the European scientific environment. Through the art of subtle lobbying he made co-operation between teams and researchers successful. His priority, in the 1950s, was to bring together national skills in astronomy and astrophysics within international organisms. He thus contributed to the creation of COSPAR (Committee on Space Research) in 1958, to organising ESO (European Southern Observatory) in 1962 and the setting up in 1964 of ESRO (European Space Research Organisation), which in 1975 gave birth to ESA (the European Space Agency). He made sure that the University of Liège, through its participation in a European space science programme, had a key role in Europe’s space odyssey.
A fighter’s tricky journey
In 1962, Professor Monfils, set up, at the heart of the Astrophysics Institute, a Space working group (Optics and space physics section) which took the name IAL Space. This team, where Claude Jamar was to be found as project chief, conceived, designed and built the instrument – the S2/S68 ultraviolet telescope – of the first European astronomy satellite in space (ESRO Programme) which used three axis stabilisation. The TD-1 observatory, placed around the Earth on 12th March 1972 by an American Thor-Delta rocket, worked for two years in establishing the first ultraviolet sky map which included the characteristic features of around 30,000 hot stars.
Heading for the Sart Tilman
The integration of 1AL Space within a European network with the means to carry out space tests saved Professor Monfils team and preserved the technological skills the university can be proud of. IAL Space has gained recognition as a centre of excellence in Europe for the qualification and calibration of opto-electronic instruments which must operate in the extreme conditions found in space. The quality of its performances for the ESA and the European space industry was confirmed for the series of tests for the Metoesat programme and the Grotto space mission. The ESA satellites nevertheless became more ambitious and took up more room, and the FOCAL 2 simulator became too cramped and its performances too limited. IAL Space, in order to test the optics of the Hippocras astometrics satellite, designed FOCAL 5 with a diameter of 5m and a length of 6.6m. To receive this new ESA financed simulation tool IAL Space had to grow and in 1984 it was obliged to relocate to the Sart Tilman Science Park.
A building with an area of some 4,000m² was built with the support of the Wallonia Region, around a clean room which shelters three simulation tanks. The Liège AMOS company (Advanced Mechanical and Optical Systems), a subsidiary of the Meuse Workshops (Ateliers de la Meuse), was given the responsibility of supplying FOCAL 5 and building the new infrastructure. The first equipment to be tested there – under the supervision of Claude Jamar and Antonio Cucchiaro – was without doubt the most prestigious in European space programmes: the camera for the Giotto probe which took the historical pictures of the core of Halley’s Comet in March 1986!
An international benchmark
There then came a whole series of tests in the FOCAL simulators of more and more complex and delicate opto-electronic equipment designed for space missions. The Sart Tilman site became a high technology laboratory for testing – in severe conditions and at extremely low temperatures – and calibrating infrared observations. Calibration tests on a multitude of telescopes which functioned extremely well in the environment of space have been carried out there. IAL Space has contributed to the successful European Hipparcos astrometrics satellite and the ISO infrared astronomy satellite. It developed the detection system on the European instrument of the famous NASA Hubble Space Telescope.
‘Spatiopôle’ makes the headlines
In 1991, the founder and director of IAL space took his retirement: Professor Monfils was replaced by Claude Jamar, one of his students and researchers, who was at his side for the launch of the Space Department of the Astrophysics Institute. From April 1992 onwards IAL Space took the name of the Liège Space Centre (CSL): it stated its intention to grow as a centre of excellence of new technologies in the European context and at the service of the region. Professor Jamar’s objective was to constitute, within the CSL orbit, a Walloon ‘space centre of excellence (‘Spatiopôle’) which would unite and integrate on the same site university skills in astrophysics and geophysics, in aerospace engineering, and in optics and computing, so that it could provide the university with an influential role within the perspective of the Bologna Reforms. It means furthermore making good use of scientific potential and technological expertise to stimulate and facilitate the hatching of spin-offs or high technology shoots in Wallonia. In 2001 Wallonia Space Logistics (WSL) took shape with the support of the Walloon government to become the first European incubator of products and services with high value added which have derived from research and development in space technologies and engineering sciences.
Observations of the Sun’s ‘weather’
Since the beginning of the space era in 1957, IAL Space/CSL has been involved in around twenty satellites – European, American and French – through opto-electronic equipment it has designed and/or calibrated. It is not at all surprising that half of the observatories that the ESA has in service or in preparation have included Liège participation. Today, thanks to the CSL the scientific community has an unparalleled daily view of the choppy surface of the Sun. Liège know-how is found on board the American-European SOHO satellite (Solar & Heliospheric Observatory) in the form of a telescope which works in extreme ultraviolet ranges (EIT, Extreme ultraviolet Imaging Telescope): launched in December 1995, it has been placed 1.5 million kilometres from us and is permanently pointed towards ours star. The EIT images reveal, practically in real time, the capricious activity of the Sun. The spectacular images can be found at http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/.
On the hunt for black holes and exoplanets…
In 1995 the Liège Space Centre doubled its infrastructure in order to equip itself with the giant FOCAL X simulator that the ESA needed to test the delicate mirrors of its XMM-Newton satellite. This astrophysical observatory, which has been circulating the Earth since December 1999, uses its mirrors to collect X-rays from the universe which betray the presence of very violent phenomena such as black holes, neutron stars and processes at work at the heart and at the origin of galaxies. The data gained is used by the Liège Astrophysics and Geophysics Institute (IAGL). The ESA has also given the Liège University centre the responsibility of testing the Herschel and Planck telescopes, its next observatories of the universe, and to calibrate their performances. The FOCAL X simulator was adapted, between July 2002 and September 2003, and became FOCAL XXL in order to test its infrared instruments at temperatures close to absolute zero (that is to say at minus 273.15° Celsius, or 0 Kelvin). A new wing had to be constructed at the Liège Space Centre in order to accommodate the teams responsible for the tests.
The Liège space adventure : useful readings