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Did you know there's loads of cool space research happening in London?

Written by
Kate Lloyd

As ‘New Scientist Live’ lands in London this weekend, Kate Lloyd discovers some of the cool intergalactic research happening in the city

The team dusting distant galaxies

Astrophysicist Dr Amelie Saintonge, and her research group at University College London, are using infra-red telescopes to examine the properties of dust in different galaxies. The team travels around the world to collect data before processing and analysing it at their labs in central London. Dust might seem tiny and insignificant, especially considering how, er, spacious space is, but it holds important clues as to how stars are formed and galaxies grow. The big new idea that Saintonge has contributed to is to show that galaxy evolution is a slow, continuous and rather uneventful process instead of a violent one, as was previously thought.  

The scientists with a Twinkle in their eye

Giovanna Tinetti, Professor of Astrophysics at UCL, is working on the snazzily titled low-cost mission Twinkle. Its plan? To send a satellite (designed in Surrey, instrumented at UCL and other UK space research institutes) to orbit the Earth for up to four years. Our solar system is just one of hundreds in space, many with planets orbiting a star. Twinkle will record and analyse light bouncing off those planets. The results will help scientists work out the chemical composition, weather and history of those worlds for the very first time. 

The team sending a fireproof toaster to the sun

Space engineer Helen O’Brien and her team at Imperial College have spent a decade building and testing a magnetic field instrument that’s going to be sent on a spacecraft flying closer to the sun than any before. The flight model magnetometer will be one of ten instruments on the Solar Orbiter Spacecraft when it’s launched in 2019, alongside devices measuring UV, X-rays and solar winds. It’s about the size of a toaster with sensors that fit in the palm of your hand and will be able to record the sun’s magnetic field while withstanding its hot hot heat.

The scientist researching unkillable bacteria 

Finding alien life on a planet isn’t as easy as ‘Star Trek’ makes out. In fact, the stuff scientists are actually searching for is at a molecular level. Lewis Dartnell, Professor of Science Communication at the University of Westminster, is an expert in extremophiles – the hardiest forms of life on Earth – and how they might survive on Mars. He looks specifically at ultra radiation-resistant bacteria which could potentially withstand the intense cosmic rays on the planet, and could give us clues as to what life on Mars might actually consist of.

Speaking of which…

Dr Louisa Preston, a UK Space Agency-funded astrobiologist working at Birkbeck, University of London travels the world finding samples from extreme environments: from acid rivers in Spain to hot springs and glacio-volcanic terrain in Iceland. She then uses a spectrometer – the same device that’s on the Mars rovers sent to look for life on the planet – to find any biological materials hiding inside. As well as revealing which materials can survive extreme environments, it’s practice for research on the planet. 

Want more science? How about checking out the huge spat between the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum

All the scientists featured will be speaking at ‘New Scientist Live’ at ExCel London. Custom House DLR. Thu Sep 28-Sun Oct 1. Get tickets at

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