European scientists have completed the first component for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
The Mid InfraRed Instrument (MIRI), a camera so sensitive it could see a candle on one of Jupiter's moons, has been declared ready for delivery by the European Space Agency and NASA.
The MIRI Optical System is the first of four instruments to be completed for JWST, which will eventually take up a position four times further away from the Earth than the Moon.
The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled for 2018, taking over from the Hubble Space Telescope.
"MIRI is the impressive result of more than ten years of work, led by Britain in partnership with Europe," said David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science.
"With world-leading space research facilities at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, a host of excellent universities and strategic direction from the UK Space Agency, the UK is clearly well placed to contribute to major global missions."
MIRI will now be shipped to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center where it will be integrated with the other three instruments and the telescope.
The handover ceremony between the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA at the Institute of Engineering and Technology in London was the culmination of a long term collaboration effort between the US (NASA), European (ESA) and Canadian (CSA) space agencies.
MIRI was subjected to exhaustive mechanical and thermal testing at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory to make sure it could survive the rigors of a journey into space and also remain operational for the life of the mission.
"The whole team is delighted that our hard work and dedication has resulted in a MIRI instrument that will meet all our scientific expectations," said Gillian Wright, the European Principal Investigator for MIRI based at STFC's Astronomy Technology Centre.
"It is wonderful to be the first to achieve this major milestone for the JWST project and we can now look forward to significant scientific discoveries when it is launched."
MIRI will allow astronomers to explore the formation of planets around distant stars and could even pave the way for investigations into the habitability of other planetary systems.
Its levels of sensitivity and resolution will allow it to penetrate the dust obscuring distant objects, allowing for smaller and fainter objects than have ever been detected to be mapped in unprecedented detail.
Its wavelength of 5 to 28 microns brings a unique scientific capability among the other instruments on the James Webb Space Telescope.
MIRI will therefore have a key role in the study of light that has travelled from the early moments of the universe by JWST.
"The delivery of JWST's MIRI is a significant achievement and an important milestone on our collective journey in creating a space telescope that will dramatically alter our understanding of the universe," said Eric Smith, JWST deputy program director from NASA HQ.
Facilities at STFC's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory had to be specially designed to simulate the environment the instrument will experience in space and account for its extremely low operating temperatures.
The instrument was assembled from major sub-systems that had already been built-up and thoroughly tested in the partner institutes.
The RAL test chamber was then used to test the performance of all the scientific operating modes of the instrument and obtain critical calibration observations.
Such rigorous testing promotes confidence in the science it will do when the mission is launched.
MIRI will now be transported the Goddard Space Flight Center in a specially constructed environmental container designed to protect it from moisture and keep the temperature stable.
Once there it will start the long process of integration with the other instruments, two years of testing to ensure that they all function together correctly, and then integration and test with the telescope optics.
"It is an immensely challenging project, but together with our US and Canadian colleagues, European scientists and engineers have successfully risen to the challenge," said Mark McCaughrean, head of the Research & Scientific Support Department of the European Space Agency.