Alex: Hello and welcome to Reporter Podcast. I’m your host, Alex Meddin, and today we’re gonna be discussing an article from our March print issue, the James Webb Space Telescope. I’m joined by Kristin Grant, our online managing editor, and the author of the article.
Kristin: Hi! Glad to be here.
Alex: As well as Kevin Cooke, who’s an astrophysics phD candidate.
Kevin: Hey, thanks for the invitation.
Alex: So to start us off, Kristin, could you please explain what this article talks about?
Kristin: Alright, so this article is all about, as the title suggests, the James Webb space telescope. And RIT’s involvement into the research that it’s going to be pioneering. As well as our school’s kind of looking to see what we can do in the next generation of telescopes as well.
Alex: Okay, so, what does this telescope do?
Kevin: So the James Webb space telescope really is the next generation of space telescopes which brings a new capability for seeing the earliest galaxies in the universe, as well as better observation capability to see in-construction solar systems nearby. So it’s really going to teach us about the origins of planets and solar systems as well as the origins for galaxies.
Alex: Okay so the article mentioned the hubble space telescope a couple times in comparison. My first question is, does this like, how does this stack up to the hubble space telescope. The most famous space telescope there is.
Kevin: So the JWST really is a successor and not a direct replacement to the Hubble space telescope. Hubble has a mirror that’s about 2.4 meters in diameter, which is still pretty, a pretty good size. JWST has a mirror that’s 6.5 meters so it can collect a whole lot more light but it looks at a different type of light than the Hubble space telescope can. Hubble looks at optical light just like our eyes whereas JWST looks at infrared light, which really tells us something about objects that are either farther out in the universe or that are very cold and nearby.
Alex: Topics like this always kinda make my head spin. So why does looking at a different kind of light let us see different things?
Kevin: So different processes emit different light naturally, just based on the temperature of what’s happening. For example the hotter something is, the more energetic kind of light it’ll give off. So as something gets hotter and hotter, it may emit from the infrared or as it gets hotter, in the optical or even hotter, ultraviolet, for example. And another effect is that as all these galaxies in the universe are receding away from us, as the universe is expanding, which is a whole other, huge topic, the light that is being emitted actually gets stretched out into lower energies, which is precisely in the infrared, which is where JWST is going to observe. Which is exactly why we built it.
Alex: Okay, I’m kind of following. So what is RIT’s part in this?
Kevin: So my advisor, Dr Jeyhan Kartaltepe, is one of the major contributors to one of the early release science projects that JWST will be doing. This is called the CEERS survey for Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science. As the telescope is being calibrated and as it’s kind of getting used to itself, out in space, there’s a bunch of early projects that NASA wanted to be done to really test out the capabilities of the telescope. So they put out a call for proposals saying, well, what are the best things we could do to test out and my advisor was part of a team for one of these projects.
Alex: Okay, so what exactly is the project that you are working on?
Kevin: So right now I’m working on the evolution of the most massive galaxies in the universe. How do you piece these galaxies together? Where do their stars come from? And James Webb in the future, is really going to help me answer these questions by seeing the earliest stages of galaxy evolution.
Kristin: And because Dr Kartaltepe is part of this research group that will be studying the first data that is received from the James Webb space telescope, RIT will really be pioneering in how to use all this data, which is an amazing opportunity for our school.
Alex: What other future advances do we see following this telescope?
Kevin: So the James Webb space telescope is unique in that it’s a transforming telescope. It’s not a single object that is built and finished on the ground in a final configuration and then launched. It’s — basically, the mirror is too big to be launched on any rockets that we currently have. So the sides of the mirror actually fold back and this huge sunshield that it has to keep itself cool is rolled up. So after it’s launched, it basically unfolds and transforms into its final form and that is something that took a lot of money, a lot of engineering know-how for people to figure out, and may be how future space telescopes are going to work.
Alex: It’s pretty cool.
Kristin: I also had the opportunity to talk to Dr Figer in the Center for Detectors, and what detectors do is that they’re actually placed in the telescope and they notify the computers about the presence of light. And so right now detectors are kind of confined to a certain size, based on the wafer that supports the detector material. And those wafer materials can often be very, very expensive. And what Dr Figer and his team are doing is they’re trying to put them on silicon wafers which are the same type that you have in your phone, for example. So there’s a ton of industry already there to make silicon wafers. The problem is the technology isn’t to the point yet where you can put the detector material on these wafers. So what Dr Figer and his team are doing at the Center for Detectors is they’re trying to find a way like, can we take all this technology and infrastructure that’s supporting this one type of wafer and can we somehow put it on the telescope? And what that means for future generations of telescopes is that you can have huge detectors that are able to process a lot more data. And it can mean kind of the next step. So even though the detectors are already decided for the JWST, there’s a possibility in the future for like, what sort of technology can we have on future telescopes. And that’s something RIT is also exploring.
Alex: Awesome. But for now the JWST is still a big leap forward. And in the article you mentioned that there’s a lot of data, simulated data that you guys are making to start testing out what sort of things you’re gonna look at. So do you guys have any sort of hypotheses that you plan on testing? Any thought about what you might discover?
Kevin: So the discovery of new things is really one of the exciting things. Currently a lot of our observations of early galaxies are really blobs, because telescopes have only been good enough to detect that they’re there, but they don’t have the resolving power to actually show you what it really looks like. And so some of the practice data that people are going through right now for James Webb is learning exactly how to process some of the images that we’re going to get, and actually resolve some of the really close and defined features in early galaxies, so we can really learn whether or not they were symmetrical or asymmetrical, does their shape actually matter for their formation and questions like that.
Alex: Okay, I’m computer science, so this is kind of like a question that interests me personally. When you’ve got a big old satellite floating out there taking these enormous photos I guess you could call them, what do they send you? Do they send you like, some file format that only you’re prepared to use? How do you communicate with the telescope from the lab here at RIT?
Kevin: So the telescope sends data on a pretty regular basis to ground stations here on the ground. Usually in its own custom format. And then those kind of get processed into a raw image, that is then made available to the scientists that proposed for the telescope to take that image. And once we get ahold of a raw image like that, then we actually go through the process of reprocessing the image, getting rid of some of the noise in the image, make it look really nice, so we can get better science out of it than if we took it directly out of the telescope.
Alex: So is this data available to anyone who wants to look at it? Or is RIT special?
Kevin: So this early release science, particularly the kind that RIT is involved in, this data is specifically for the community to practice on. So pretty much as soon as this survey is taken, using JWST, it’ll be available to the general public and the general scientific public. That is because NASA and all the organizations involved want to give scientists the opportunity to practice with some real data before they send in their proposals for the formal, like, science proposals, cycle 1 or cycle 2 that will dominate the years of JWST being online.
Alex: Okay, so is there anything that you personally want to see like in the next five to 10 years come out of this telescope? Like your dream of physics discovery?
Kevin: What I would really like to see is an image of early galaxies merging. So we see galaxies merging in the local universe and we can see that it's a very messy process with stars and their gas supplies basically going in many directions. And in the early universe we believe galaxies to be more gas-dominated because they haven’t formed a lot of their stars yet and it would be really interesting to learn how these systems are combining together when they really don't have too many stars at all at that point, they’re really just systems of gas.
Alex: That does sound pretty fascinating. Kristin, from the people that you interviewed, did it sound like they have anything that they’re looking forward to seeing?
Kristin: I think a lot of people are just excited to see what the early universe looked like. Because right now there’s a whole lot of questions about how galaxies are formed, how stars initially are formed into galaxies. And I think that we haven’t really been able to see that currently, if I’m correct, so that’s you know, answering those questions that have been held for so long is something that’s really exciting and I think that’s — when I talk to people that's something that they’re really eager to see.
Alex: Okay so I’m not a physics expert, but I feel like there’s only a certain distance back we can look, is that right?
Kevin: Yup, so that’s exactly right. So there’s this hard limit, where too early in the universe and the universe is so compact that it’s opaque to light, we’ve observed that point in the microwave so some people may have heard of the cosmic microwave background. And so that’s been a very special observation that people have used. But we can never really look further than that. And there's a gap in between that furthest observation and some of the earliest galaxies that we’ve seen with hubble, for example. And JWST will be able to fill in that gap of the era where the universe was transparent to light.
Alex: So that opaque microwave layer, we’ll never see past that.
Kevin: With telescopes that rely on light, correct.
Alex: Are there other options?
Kevin: So in the distant, distant future, if we were ever able to get either Neutrino telescopes or gravitational wave telescopes, maybe we could look that far back, but we’re talking about technology that’ll take centuries to really use.
Alex: But for now the JWST is taking us a step closer.
Alex: And a big step, I guess, for sensors that use light waves.
Alex: Um, alright, so I think that’s gonna wrap up our episode for today. Thank you guys very much for joining us. To our listeners, I ask you to as usual, look for this article when it hits the shelves in March, or goes up on reporter.rit.edu. Follow us @reportermag on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter, and as per usual, call RINGS or text RINGS, the number’s 585-672-4840. Share any random middle-of-the-night thoughts you have, and maybe it’ll get featured in the magazine if it’s interesting enough. Thanks for listening.