News and events archive 2004 - 2013


University of Leicester celebrates 50 years of space research

Professor Ken Pounds CBE FRS, one of the founders of the space programme at the University of Leicester.

University of Leicester celebrates 50 years of space research

Golden anniversary for pioneer who launched Leicester’s space programme

Issued on 11 January 2010

In 2010, the University of Leicester marks 50 years of space science with a host of activities celebrating the world-class achievements of the University in space research-and paying tribute to the man who launched Leicester’s space programme, Professor Ken Pounds CBE FRS.

Professor Ken Pounds, a UK pioneer of space science, was among the founders of the space programme at the University of Leicester- now among the biggest academic space research centres in Europe.

Having rejected early invitations to join NASA and the new European Space Research Organization, he embarked on a career-long ambition to help establish the international standing of space science in the UK – and Europe.

Best known for his research in X-ray Astronomy, which led to the discovery that massive Black Holes lurk at the centre of many galaxies throughout the Universe- he is continuing to inspire new generations of young scientists through his dedication to science communication.

The concept of black holes - regions in space where gravity is so strong that not even light can escape - is one that has fascinated scientists and the general public. Observations with the British satellite Ariel 5 allowed Ken Pounds’ research team at Leicester to establish in the late 1970s that powerful X-radiation from ‘Active Galaxies’ was a strong indication that Black Holes are common in the Universe.

This discovery opened up the study of a new area of space exploration, and 5 of Professor Pounds’ publications from this research appear in the all-time 1000 most-cited astronomy papers; with some 300 publications overall he is named as a highly cited researcher by Thomson Scientific.

Professor Pounds’ career in science has been a varied one. But X-rays from across the Universe are the common theme. In the late 1950s he was working as a research student in the Rocket Research Group at University College London, and became a visitor to Leicester because it happened to have the vacuum equipment he needed to test his prototype X-ray detectors.

In 1960, just three years after the launch of the Soviet satellite, Sputnik, Ken Pounds was appointed to an assistant lectureship at Leicester to help set up a new space research group. In June that year the group was awarded a grant of £13006 by the Royal Society ‘to study x-radiation from the Sun and other stellar sources’.

He has spent most of the intervening 50 years at Leicester apart from a challenging four-year secondment as first chief executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council. As he explains, things have changed a lot since his team put X-ray cameras on Skylark rockets and fired them off from Australia. The field is now dominated by a small number of big Space Observatories, spaced many years apart. So diversification has become essential to maintaining a viable space programme in the university.

Over the past 50 years, the programme he helped to found at Leicester in space astronomy has become one of the biggest academic space research centres in Europe, with a staff of around 80 academic researchers, engineers, technicians and Phd students, and grants totalling more than £12 million. The work of the department of Physics and Astronomy also led to the creation of the National Space Centre in Leicester.

Throughout the 1960s, the Leicester group launched a series of Skylark sub-orbital rockets, mainly from Woomera in South Australia, obtaining the first X-ray photographs of the Sun and undertaking some of the first searches for cosmic X-ray sources. In 1962, the first British satellite, Ariel 1, was launched, and with it an experiment, involving the Leicester team, to record the first low-resolution x-ray spectra of the Sun. Later in the decade more advanced experiments were selected for flight on NASA’s Orbiting Solar Observatory spacecraft, and on the first European satellite ESRO-2.

The research emphasis moved to the study of cosmic X-ray sources – across the Galaxy and beyond - with the launch in 1974 of Ariel 5. During a successful 6-year mission the Leicester Sky Survey Instrument on Ariel 5 catalogued more than 300 x-ray sources, charting some of the most powerful objects in the Universe. That success and the demonstrated reliability of Leicester-built equipment led directly to the group being invited to take part over the following 30 years in X-ray astronomy missions from the European Space Agency, NASA, and space agencies in Germany, Japan and –most recently -India.

Leicester-made equipment is now in orbit as part of six different projects, including ESA’s XMM-Newton X-ray Observatory, Swift, a NASA mission to detect gamma ray bursts, and three ESA Earth Observation spacecraft. The University Space Research Centre will be closely involved in developing an infra-red camera for the James Webb Space Telescope, due to replace Hubble in 2013, and over the next ten years will take part in missions to Mercury, Mars and Jupiter. It will also be expanding its Earth Observation programme, with an emphasis on obtaining accurate global data on the atmosphere and oceans for the assessment of climate change.

Professor Pounds said: “This broad research programme builds on the existing skills in our Space Research Centre and increasingly opens up opportunities for applications in other fields such as biology and medicine.”

Asked about his own favourite result from 50 years of science, Professor Pounds thinks back to 1976 and the data from Ariel V, next to last in this final series of all-British science satellites. Its most dramatic results came in while a major astronomy conference was being held at Leicester. The powerful X-ray outburst turned out to come from a black hole which was sucking in material from a nearby star. Professor Pounds’ current research is also on black holes. He is looking at the relationship between black holes at the heart of galaxies and the way in which galaxies form stars. This involves studying “active” galaxies which are the most luminous objects in the universe.

He remains confident that Leicester has a great future in space. The department recently brought in the five-flight NASA astronaut and MIT academic Jeff Hoffman as a visiting lecturer to teach an undergraduate course in human spaceflight. Professor Pounds regards this as proof that Leicester continues to move with the times and will continue to attract top students and more research money. He thinks that non-government entrants to the space business such as Virgin Galactic may push down the cost of putting people and machines in orbit, making Space more accessible and giving a major boost to the space industry as well as to research and exploration. Leicester would be in a strong position to benefit in both research and training programmes.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Robert Burgess said:

“Over an extended career Professor Ken Pounds has made important scientific discoveries that have advanced our understanding of the universe, has provided vision and leadership contributing to the strength of UK science, and has been an enthusiastic and effective champion of initiatives to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.

“He is among the most eminent academics at the University of Leicester whose work is world-class.”

Professor Martin Barstow, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Science and Engineering, said: “Ken’s contribution to space research is incalculable. Without his leadership, the University of Leicester would not have its space activity, which has grown into a wide-ranging internationally respected world-class programme. It has been a great privilege for me to be a part of this research group for 30 of the last 50 years and have the opportunity to attempt to follow in Ken’s footsteps.”

Professor Mark Lester, Head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, said: “Ken has made many major and significant contributions to space science over 50 years and his enthusiasm for space science remains undiminished. During his time in the Department of Physics and Astronomy Ken has inspired numerous students to develop their own careers in space science. The current world class international programme of research in space science at Leicester is based on Ken's initial discoveries, his vision and leadership over the last 50 years.”

Professor Pounds said:

“Looking back over 50 years, I appreciate my good fortune in being directed to the new Rocket Research Group at UCL to study for my PhD. That was in October 1956, still a year before the launch of Sputnik 1, and an initiative that pays tribute to the foresight of leading scientists at the time.

"Shortly after coming to Leicester, in 1960, the first Cosmic X-ray source was discovered, giving our new Space Science group the opportunity to get into an exciting new area of research from the beginning. With the crucial support of many outstanding colleagues (and friends) I believe we were able to take that opportunity, contributing to human knowledge of the cosmos, while helping establish the UK and Europe as major players in Space Science.”

During the year, the Department will host an international conference attended by many of the former Leicester students now working around the world, while a Sky at Night broadcast is planned for next summer. To commemorate the anniversary the University is arranging its graduates’ reunion, Homecoming, around the theme of space science.

Visit the University of Leicester 50 years of space science portal here:


For interviews with Professor Ken Pounds, please contact University of Leicester press office on 0116 252 3335



- Interviewees needed for reception study of Holocaust films

- IRIS launch event for the Colleges of Arts, Humanities & Law and Social Science

- Participants need for online study about the need for cognitive closure

- 'Faith and Politics'

- Undergraduates wanted, for a paid opportunity to take part in a short memory study

[University Home]. [eBulletin]. [University Index A-Z]. [University Search]. [University Help]
Managed by Press Office
[Copyright] and [Disclaimer]