Wales in Space

Looking at the Moon

What is the Moon?

The Moon is Earth’s only natural satellite. It was formed 4.5 billion years ago and is around 240,000 miles from Earth.

The Moon orbits Earth once every twenty seven days, the same time as it takes for the Moon to rotate once. As a result, the Moon does not seem to be spinning but rather appears to us on Earth as almost completely still.

Neil Armstrong was the first human to walk on the Moon in 1969. Eleven other astronauts have followed in his footsteps. There are plans for humans to return in the near future, with NASA hoping to build a base there by 2028.

Sir William Lower (c.1570-1615)

Born in Cornwall, Sir William Lower moved to Trefenty, Carmarthenshire, around 1601 following his marriage to Penelope Perrot.

In 1607, he observed Halley’s Comet with his naked eye and used a cross-staff to measure its position in relation to the stars. He shared his findings with other astronomers of the period, including Thomas Harriot, with whom he became a close friend.

Lower’s observations were greatly improved by the invention of the telescope in the Netherlands in 1608. Within a year, British astronomers such as Harriot were making telescopes for themselves and sending them to other observers such as Lower.

Using his telescope, Lower became interested in studying the Moon. In 1610 he observed its irregular surface, likening it to a tart that his cook had made – ‘full of bright and dark stuff’. This discovery was not published by Lower and the famous Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei was credited with the finding.

John Dillwyn Llewellyn (1810-1882)

John Dillwyn Llewellyn was born in Swansea in 1810 and was the eldest son of Lewis Weston Dillwyn, a prominent local businessman and naturalist.

He first became interested in photography during the 1840s and pioneered the so-called Oxymel process – a way of preserving images with honey and vinegar.

Llewellyn’s other great passion was astronomy and in 1851 he built an observatory in the grounds of his estate in Penllergare. The observatory was a birthday present for his daughter, Thereza, who shared his interest in the night sky. Thereza assisted her father in his experiments and in 1857 they produced one of the earliest photographs of the Moon. Their efforts led to the site becoming a popular place for stargazing among local astronomers.

In 2013, the Penllergare Trust embarked upon a project to restore the building to its former glory.

Arthur Mee and the Astronomical Society of Wales

Arthur Mee was born in Aberdeen, Scotland in October 1860. Shortly after, he moved to Llanelli before settling in Cardiff in 1892, working as a journalist for the Western Mail.

Mee displayed a keen interest in astronomy from a young age. When he was seventeen he acquired a telescope and observed Solar System objects such as the Moon and Mars, making detailed drawings of their features.

Mee also played a prominent role in encouraging amateur interest in astronomy in Wales, establishing The Astronomical Society of Wales in 1895. The Society organised regular lectures on astronomical subjects and published a journal under the editorship of Mee. At its peak, membership of the society numbered 200, although it disbanded with the outbreak of the First World War in 1918.

Mee Crater on the south-western side of the Moon honours his contribution to astronomy.

Hugh Percy Wilkins (1896-1960)

Wilkins was born in Carmarthen in December 1896. His interest in astronomy was evident from a young age and he first produced astronomical drawings at the age of thirteen.

Following his involvement in the First World War, Wilkins moved to Llanelli where he became greatly interested in studying the Moon and its surface. He completed his first Moon map in 1924 and subsequently published a number of larger and more detailed maps over the next ten years.

In 1938, Wilkins began work on a much larger map. This map was finished in 1946 and is his most famous work. It was over 7.6 metres (300 inches) in diameter and revealed hidden regions of the Moon and previously unknown features. The map was subsequently used by NASA to decide where to land during the Apollo missions of the 1960s. Unfortunately, Wilkins did not live to see this, but a crater on the Moon is named in honour of his contribution to lunar observation.

Solar Eclipse, 2015

On 20 March 2015, Britain witnessed a very rare event, a solar eclipse.

A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes directly between Earth and the Sun, blocking direct sunlight and turning a day into darkness. In the last 500 years, there have been only eight total eclipses that could be seen from the UK, the last in 1999. In 2015, a partial eclipse could be seen from Wales, covering around 85% of the Sun.

People gathered to watch the eclipse at specially organised events around the country, one of which was held here at the National Waterfront Museum. Over 200 interested amateurs, astronomers and schoolchildren watched the event from the Museum’s garden using telescopes and homemade viewers.

Special glasses were required to view the eclipse safely. Some of those that were used by observers at this museum had been made by Dr Howard Miles of Port Talbot, who was one of the leading manufacturers of solar viewing glasses.

Wales, the Stars and the Planets


Part of the belief system of our ancient ancestors revolved around significant rising or setting positions of the Sun, the Moon, or stars. They built monuments to mark these events. Studying these sites is called Astroarchaeology.

There are a number of these important sites in Wales, including Bryn Celli Ddu in Anglesey. The monument, near the town of Llanddaniel Fab, was built around 5000 years ago. It was initially used as a ritual enclosure and later became a burial chamber.

Bryn Celli Ddu is the only burial tomb on Anglesey that is accurately aligned to coincide with the rising Sun on the longest day of the year. At dawn on midsummer solstice, the rising Sun enters the monument’s passageway and lights the inner burial chamber. This sunlight was believed to bring warmth and life to those who used the chamber.

Joseph Harris (1702/3 - 1764)

Joseph Harris was born in Trefecca, Powys. His interest in astronomy was evident from a young age and he is known to have made a number of instruments for his observations. This interest continued into a professional career when he moved to London at the age of twenty two.

While in London, Harris developed his reputation as an instrument maker, testing a number of his inventions on two voyages to the Caribbean; one between 1725 and 1727 and another between 1730 and 1732. During these voyages, Harris made a number of important observations regarding global positioning and the positions of the planets.

In 1761, with deteriorating health, Harris returned to Trefecca to witness one of the most important scientific events of the eighteenth century – the transit of Venus across the Sun. According to one historian, Harris was the only observer to watch the event from Wales.

Nathaniel (1725-1804) and Edward Pigott (1753-1825)

Nathaniel Pigott was born in Middlesex, England. A keen amateur astronomer, Pigott was close friends of famous astronomers such as Charles Messier and William Herschel. Through these connections and on the back of a successful career in law, Pigott was able to buy some of the best scientific instruments and telescopes of his day.

In 1777, Nathaniel and his Son, Edward, moved to Frampton House near Llantwit Major, in the Vale of Glamorgan. Within the grounds of this estate they built an observatory which was widely regarded as the best in Wales until the early nineteenth century. This building and the range of observational instruments it contained put Wales firmly on the astronomical map.

In 1770, Nathaniel discovered the existence of ‘double-stars’ – two stars which appear close to each other when viewed through a telescope. In the same year, Edward noted a nebula within the constellation of Coma Berenices. This is the only object noted from Wales that appeared in the famous Messier Catalogue of Astronomical Objects.

Isaac Roberts (1829-1904)

Isaac Roberts was born in Groes, Denbighshire. He moved to Liverpool at the age of fifteen to pursue a career as an engineer. Roberts had a keen interest in astronomy and pioneered a form of long-exposure photography which allowed him to track astronomical objects with unprecedented steadiness.

During his life, Roberts photographed many star clusters and galaxies, revealing previously unknown details about the shape, size and organisation of stars. His most famous photograph is of the Great Nebula in Andromeda, which he took in 1887. This photograph showed that the galaxy had a spiral structure, which was unexpected at the time, and revealed new information about the formation of galaxies.

The importance of Roberts’s work has been recognised internationally. In 1895, he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, while a crater on the Moon has also been named in his honour.

The Spaceguard Centre

Based in Knighton, Powys, Spaceguard UK is the only organisation in the UK dedicated to addressing the hazard of Near Earth Objects (NEOs). NEOs are meteoroids, asteroids and comets that come close to, and sometimes collide with, the Earth, potentially having devastating consequences. The centre is run by Jay Tate, one of only a handful of astronomers in Britain studying these objects.

Acceptance of the threat posed by NEOs has risen in recent years following the explosion of a meteorite over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013. The work of organisations such as Spaceguard UK is crucial for assessing potential risks and for conducting research into how threatening impacts could be avoided. One possible way of dealing with NEOs is to ‘nudge’ them off course by using a rocket or controlled explosion.

Brecon Beacons and Elan Valley Dark Skies

Dark-Sky Reserve Status is an award given by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) to areas with an outstanding quality of night sky.

The Brecon Beacons National Park was awarded this status in 2013 and is one of only eight sites worldwide. To achieve this title, a survey was taken of thirty six sites within the 520 square mile National Park to gauge levels of light pollution. One of the best locations to observe the night sky within the park is the Usk Reservoir.

There is great potential to promote the tourism value of the National Park for stargazing – so-called ‘Dark-Sky Tourism’. Efforts have already been made to further reduce unnecessary lighting in the Park, including street lights, which will result in even darker locations.

In July 2015, the Elan Valley Estate in Powys was granted silver-tier status by the IDA. It is the world’s first privately owned but publicly accessible Dark-Sky Park.

The Welsh in Space

Tecwyn Roberts

Tec Roberts was born in Llanddaniel Fab, Anglesey, in 1925. After briefly serving in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, he began work as an aeronautics engineer, moving to Canada in the early 1950s to further his career.

Roberts joined NASA in 1959 as a Flight Dynamics Officer. As part of this role he was responsible for controlling the movement of spacecraft when they were in orbit, being based firstly at Mission Control in Cape Canaveral and later Houston, Texas. Tec popularised the phrase ‘A-OK’ to denote something that was ‘in perfect working order’.

Roberts was closely involved in the Apollo missions during the 1960s and was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by NASA, their highest honour. Tec retained close ties with Llanddaniel Fab during his career and returned to the village on several occasions before his death in 1988.

George Abbey

George Abbey describes himself as a ‘Welsh American’. He was born in Seattle in 1932, but his mother was born in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, before the family emigrated to North America during the 1920s.

While serving as a pilot in the US Air Force, Abbey applied to be an astronaut, although he was not accepted. He nonetheless joined NASA and in 1976 was named Director of Flight Operations, giving him overall responsibility for human spaceflight. Later in his career, Abbey was appointed Director of the Johnson Space Centre and played a crucial role in the creation of the International Space Station.

During his time at NASA, Abbey arranged for a photograph of Dylan Thomas to be taken from the Boathouse Museum in Laugharne into Space on board Space Shuttle Colombia. Abbey continues to make regular visits to Wales and recently gave the annual Richard Burton Lecture at Swansea University.

Joe Tanner

Joe Tanner was born in Danville, Illinois, in 1950. Despite his American upbringing, Tanner had close connections with Wales. His mother grew up in Tregaron, Ceredigion, while his grandfather worked as a head teacher in neighbouring Llanddewi Brefi, which Tanner himself visited in 1995.

After working as a pilot for the US Navy, Joe joined NASA in 1984. As part of his astronaut career, he flew on four Space Shuttle missions, spending over forty three days in Space. He also performed a number of spacewalks, including one to repair the Hubble Telescope.

In 1994, Tanner became the first astronaut to take a Welsh flag into Space. This flag was later donated to the National Museum of Wales and is displayed as part of this exhibition. Joe’s experiences in Space also provided the inspiration for a collection of poems written by Gwyneth Lewis. She was the first National Poet for Wales and is Joe Tanner’s cousin.

Dafydd Williams

Dafydd Williams was born in Saskatoon in Canada. His father was born and grew up in Bargoed in the south Wales valleys, before emigrating to North America when he was thirty.

After working in the medical profession, Dafydd was selected by the Canadian Space Agency in 1992. Three years later, he joined NASA as a mission specialist astronaut. He flew on two Space missions, the first on board Space Shuttle Colombia in 1998 and the second on Space Shuttle Endeavour in 2007. He completed three spacewalks as part of his career.

Despite his Canadian upbringing, Dafydd remains proud of his Welsh heritage. On his first mission in 1998, he took a number of Welsh items with him including a Welsh flag, a rugby cap worn by Sir Gareth Edwards and Mr Urdd, the Eisteddfod mascot. He also conducted a live television interview from Space with BBC ‘Wales Today’, during which he became the first person to speak Welsh in Space.


The International Space School Education Trust (ISSET) was founded in 1998 by Chris Barber in the Vale of Glamorgan. ISSET uses Space exploration to inspire young people to choose careers and education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

ISSET’s flagship competition, ‘Mission Discovery’ gives students the chance to work alongside NASA astronauts, designing an experiment that could be carried out in Space. The winning experiment is launched to the International Space Station. There, the astronauts carry out the experiment and feed the results back to Mission Control in Houston.

In 2014, the first winning experiments began their journey into Space, with two groups of students from Wales being chosen to have their experiments tested on the mission. One experiment looked at the effect of weightlessness and another on the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

By 2017 ISSET will have launched more experiments into space than any other UK organisation with a majority of them stemming from Welsh pupils.

Hefin Jones – Wales Space Campaign

Hefin is a London-based designer who grew up in Cardigan. His ‘Welsh Space Campaign’ project explores how Welsh culture, skills and traditions could be applied in a cosmic context.

As part of this project, Hefin created a Space suit that is made entirely from Welsh-sourced materials. The wool used to make the suit has been sourced from the last remaining wool mills in Wales while a traditional clog maker has made Space clogs instead of Space boots. Hefin’s brother, a qualified plumber, also built a pressure system designed to support life in outer Space.

In 2013, Hefin was awarded the Christine Risley award for outstanding work relating to textiles. He is currently working on a number of associated Space design projects, including a new Space suit and designing fictional astronaut training centres in abandoned collieries.

Welsh Technology in Space

William Grove

William Grove was born in Swansea in 1811. A lawyer by profession, Grove was also a keen amateur scientist. He was closely involved with the formation of the Royal Institution of South Wales in 1835.

In 1842 he invented the hydrogen fuel cell, which produced electricity. This was achieved by placing electrodes in sulphuric acid and separately in hydrogen and oxygen to produce an electrical current. By linking several cells together a higher voltage could be achieved.

A hundred years later, Grove’s invention provided the basis for the fuel cells used by NASA for the Gemini Earth orbit missions and the Apollo Moon landings. More recently, this technology has been used to power the Space Shuttle and satellites.

In 2015, Swansea City Council unveiled a Blue Plaque close to his former home in Grove Place to honour his achievements. A crater on the Moon is named in his memory.

Beagle 2

Beagle 2 was a British Space probe that was launched in 2003. Its purpose was to search for signs of life on Mars, past or present.

The project was managed by the National Space Centre in Leicester and the robot was developed by a large team of experts. Scientists from Aberystwyth University were responsible for developing Beagle’s robotic arm. This arm was designed to collect samples of soil from the planet. It would then return them to the robot’s on-board laboratory to search for signs of life. The University also developed a computer simulation of the surface of Mars to help its movement.

The robot was due to land on Mars on Christmas Day 2003, though no message was received to confirm that it had landed safely and it was assumed lost. In 2015, however, detailed images developed by scientists at Aberystwyth University showed that Beagle had successfully landed on Mars but had failed to deploy properly.


The Herschel Space Observatory was launched and operated by the European Space Agency. It was active between 2009 and 2013. It is still the largest infrared Space telescope ever launched.

Building the telescope was an extremely complicated challenge and drew upon the expertise of individuals from across the globe. Scientists from Cardiff University played an integral role in this process, taking the lead for producing one of the telescope’s three cameras, named SPIRE.

SPIRE was a camera and low-resolution spectrometer that was capable of seeing light from stars and planets that were billions of light-years away. It was powerful enough to detect the glow of a 100w light bulb a million kilometres away, or a low energy 20w bulb on the Moon. This allowed scientists to study distant galaxies and look more closely at how stars are formed.

In April 2013, the liquid helium used to cool the telescope’s instruments ran out and the satellite was turned off in June of that year.


Qioptiq Space Technology is a specialist manufacturer of sheet cover glass for the Space industry. Based in Bodelwyddan, Denbighshire, the company is one of only two facilities in the world that produces the ultra-thin glass used on the majority of the world’s satellites.

The glass is used to protect the solar cells which power the satellites against the harsh environment of Space. Although the glass is as thin as a human hair it is extremely strong. It can be bent double without breaking.

During the four decades that Qioptiq has been making the glass, it has been used on the Hubble and Kepler Space telescopes, the International Space Station and the Spirit and Opportunity Mars Rovers. More recently, it has been used on the Rosetta mission to land a probe on a moving comet, achieved in November 2014.

Wales and Space: The Future

Welsh Space Strategy

In July 2015, the Welsh Space Strategy was launched. This document outlines the role that Wales hopes to play in future Space exploration and the contribution it will make to the growth of the UK Space sector.

The areas identified for growth in Wales include unmanned aerial systems, rocket propulsion, satellite manufacturing and Earth observation. Developing these areas will improve the technology we rely upon for telecommunications, weather reporting, environmental analysis and national security.

A large number of companies and universities, as well as Aerospace Wales Forum and the Welsh Government have committed themselves to working together to ensure that Wales promotes its potential internationally and continues to attract new investment. By 2030, it is hoped that Wales will generate 5% of the UK Space industry’s turnover – a £2bn opportunity per annum.

Welsh Spaceport

Commercial Space travel is already a reality. In 2001 the Russian Space Agency began transporting ‘Space tourists’, with journeys costing over twenty million dollars. Space tourism is set to grow in the next ten years, with companies such as Virgin Galactic offering the chance for paying passengers to undertake flights outside the Earth’s atmosphere.

The British government want to capitalise on this market and are in the process of selecting a suitable site to base a UK spaceport. From an original short-list of eight sites, only three remain: Prestwick in Scotland, Newquay in Cornwall and Llanbedr in Gwynedd.

If selected, the development of a spaceport in Llanbedr would create hundreds of jobs and pave the way for further investment. Campaigners, however, have been less enthusiastic, arguing that the scheme would spoil the outstanding natural beauty of the area. A decision on the location of the spaceport is expected early in 2016.

Airbus Planetary Penetrator

Wales is home to a number of important testing facilities, including the world’s second longest test track in Pendine, Carmarthenshire. Operated by QinetiQ, a defence technology company, this test track allows objects to be accelerated to high speeds before hitting a target.

Recently, UK engineers have been testing a projectile technology they believe could be used to explore the Solar System. A steel penetrator developed by Airbus Defence and Space was fired at a 10-tonne cube of ice to simulate the surface of Jupiter’s Moon Europa. The penetrator travelled at nearly the speed of sound and remained completely intact following impact.

When the penetrator is fired into Europa, it will drill into its crust and take samples for analysis in an on-board laboratory. These results will then be communicated back to Earth. Further testing is taking place and it is hoped that the penetrator will be launched in the next few years.

Aberystwyth University and ExoMars

The ExoMars rover is a robotic Mars explorer due to be launched in 2018. The mission will search for possible signs of life on Mars, past or present. It will also examine the planet's surface to try and better understand its evolution.

The mission is led by the European Space Agency and combines the expertise of a number of organisations and institutions. A team at Aberystwyth University are responsible for developing new colour calibration techniques for the rover's Panoramic Camera. These techniques will ensure that the images sent back to Earth are a true representation of the natural colours of Mars.

As with the Beagle2 mission, the Aberystwyth team will also provide a terrain map of the planet to identify possible landing sites for the rover. This will be done using images taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Glyndwr University and the European Extremely Large Telescope

Scientists from Glyndwr University in Wrexham are currently working to develop the mirrors for the European Extremely Large Telescope. The Telescope, due to be completed in 2024, will be situated in Chile. It will gather fifteen times more light than the largest telescopes around today, allowing it to see further into the universe.

Mirrors are an essential part of a telescope. Their quality determines the sharpness and clarity of the images they are able to produce. The size of the mirror required for this telescope – around half the size of a football pitch – means that it is not possible to build in one-piece. As a result, scientists are using many smaller mirrors pieced together as a jigsaw.

Each edge of these mirrors needs to be polished very finely to ensure that they fit together securely and that no light is lost. The team at Glyndwr University recently received world-wide acclaim when they polished the edge of a prototype mirror down to 7.5 nanometres – less than one millionth of a millimetre.

Cardiff University and Twinkle

Due for launch in 2019, Twinkle is an ambitious mission that will provide new insights on the formation and evolution of exoplanets. An exoplanet is a planet that orbits a star other than the Sun. These planets are outside our Solar System.

Although 2,000 exoplanets have already been discovered, we know very little about these distant worlds. Twinkle will analyse the atmospheres of at least 100 exoplanets in the Milky Way and tell us whether they could, or indeed are, supporting some form of life.

Cardiff University is playing a key role in the project, taking responsibility for developing the satellite’s instrumentation. The team is led by Dr Enzo Pascale who is working with undergraduate and postgraduate students to develop this technology. This collaboration is strategically important for Wales, providing training for the next generation of scientists.

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