British astronomy professor shares his thoughts on the new Webb Space Telescope

LEXINGTON, Kentucky (February 9, 2022) — Less than two months ago, NASA, in coordination with the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, launched the James Webb Space Telescope – the largest telescope ever built – on its 1.6 million miles away from Earth. The project lasts almost 30 years and is specifically designed to see some of the first stars and galaxies that formed in the universe.

Since its launch, the space agency has worked, from Earth, to get the telescope unfolded, aligned and powered up – a very meticulous process that continues to see success after success. Just this week, the telescope detected its first photons from a distant star.

To find out more about this historic breakthrough in space exploration, UKNow caught up with Gary Ferland, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the UK College of Arts and Sciences. Ferland shared his thoughts on the new observatory, how the UK will be involved and what it means to help humanity discover its place in the universe.

UKNow: The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), which is said to be the largest space observatory ever built. What did Hubble allow us to discover?

Ferland: The answer is the universe. HST has been worked on planets in our solar system, planets around other stars, our home galaxy the “Milky Way”, other galaxies, supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies, the formation of galaxies little after the birth of the universe, and the Big Bang itself. HST’s original plans did not expect these findings since many of these research questions were unknown at the time. This is the lesson of these large telescopes – they are machines of discovery. There’s an old adage in astronomy, the universe isn’t as weird as we think it is, it’s stranger than we are. can think.

We have no real idea what JWST will do in the next 20 years, but we know it will be wonderful. Stranger than we can think.

UKNow: How will the Webb Telescope take us to the next level in terms of space observation?

Ferland: JWST is 10 times more capable and can detect galaxies that are too distant and faint for HST to see. The aim of the JWST is to study, for the first time, how stars and galaxies formed when the universe was less than 500 million years old. That’s about 13 billion years in the past. HST can study galaxies that existed when the universe was a few billion years old or older. There is a huge “undiscovered country” – the time when galaxies were too distant and faint to be studied by HST, the time when the first stars and galaxies were formed, the first billion years of the universe – waiting for JWST to find out.

But 20 years from now, it’s safe to predict that we’ll be amazed and amazed to look back and see what JWST Actually discovered. It is safe to predict that we cannot predict it today.

UKNow: What unanswered questions/mysteries do we hope to uncover with the Webb Telescope?

Ferland: My own research focuses on quasars, the birth of galaxies around massive black holes that existed when the universe was young, and how chemical elements were created. JWST will directly seeing this for the first time. More generally, JWST will study planets around other stars and the young universe.

UKNow: How is the Webb able to ‘see’ so far back in time?

Ferland: Two big reasons:

Very distant galaxies are very faint, too faint to be seen by HST. JWST is much taller, so his mirror can gather more light and he can see farther. JWST can observe more distant parts of the universe than HST could see.

The universe is expanding, so light emitted by more distant objects is shifted to longer wavelengths. Visible light emitted by stars or galaxies is Doppler shifted into the infrared by this expansion. Light that would be visible in the local universe is shifted into the infrared, a type of light that HST was not designed to observe. JWST was designed to operate in the infrared.

Thus, JWST will see much further, see further in time and detect the light that comes to us from that distant time.

UKNow: What are the other key differences between the Hubble and Webb telescopes?

Ferland: Scientifically, JWST has a much larger detector, so it can see fainter and more distant objects. JWST can see in the infrared, the type of light emitted by stars and galaxies in the very young universe. These differences have caused many technical differences in the deployment and orbital location of the telescope. More importantly, he had to get very far from the heat of the Earth for his infrared detectors to work properly. It is located in one of the Lagrangian points Earth – Moon – Sun, a place where gravity balances. It is about five times farther from Earth than the moon and about 2,000 times farther than HST.

UKNow: What was involved in sending the Webb Telescope into space?

Ferland: Flying JWST was a collaborative work of great beauty. It took the combined talents of thousands of women and men, working closely together for more than a decade, to achieve this. This was possible thanks to the continued support of dozens of countries. It’s wonderful to see so many people and countries, working closely together with a common goal for many years, to find out how the universe came to be.

UKNow: When should we expect to see some of the first images of Webb?

Ferland: Rumor has it that the first PR images will be a few months away, but NASA will take its time to get the job done right. They made no official promise.

UKNow: What excites you the most? Are UK astronomy researchers (like yourself) considering or hoping to do future work with the Webb Observatory?

Ferland: NASA has generously supported my program here in the UK for several years. We develop the theoretical tools needed to understand JWST observations. These JWST grants supported Project Cloudy, a large astrophysical theory computer code that helps explain what JWST detects. Three UK graduate students – Maryam Dehghanian, Priyanka Chakraborty and Chamani Gunasekera – were all supported by JWST scholarships at the start of their PhDs in the UK. theses. A British research professor, Marios Chatzikos, was also supported by JWST. Chamani continues to work on developing the tools needed to understand JWST observations.

It’s impossible to predict what we’ll be doing with JWST in a few years, but the UK will be there.

UKNow: What else do you think the public should know about the Webb Telescope and what it means to learn more about our place in the universe?

Ferland: It’s a beacon that we can all work together and achieve wonderful things. A thousand years from now they’ll say that’s when humans first looked back at the first half billion years of the universe and discovered how the first galaxies, stars and planets formed. . JWST did. It is a breathtaking achievement.

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