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What The Webb Telescope Means For W.Va. Science, Education

SMACS 0723.jpg
Space Telescope Science Institut/NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO
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STScI
This galaxy cluster, known as SMACS 0723, was the first Webb Telescope image released by the White House. The image depicts thousands of galaxies, including some of the most distant ever detected.

Last month, NASA released the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope. Able to capture six times more light than its predecessor, the Hubble, it’s the largest and most powerful observatory in space.

Shepherd Snyder sat down with Shepherd University professor and astronomer Jason Best to discuss what the telescope’s launch could mean for both the scientific and education communities in West Virginia.

Snyder: Getting started here, I just wanted to ask: what exactly is the Webb Telescope? Can you give me some history on what it is and why it matters in the world of astronomy?

Best: Certainly. Put simply, the James Webb Space Telescope is the largest and most powerful space science telescope ever built. In the late 1980s, NASA recognized that there would one day need to be a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which at that time was about a year away from launching. Through numerous conversations and collaborations in 1996, it was formally decided that there would be a next-generation space telescope. Starting in the early 2000’s, construction began on the various pieces of this telescope because it was going to be an incredibly sophisticated instrument. This all came together over a roughly 18 year period. The telescope was launched in December of last year, 2021.

Snyder: A few weeks ago, the Webb Telescope and NASA released some very interesting images of outer space that have been making waves, both in the scientific community and on the news. I was wondering if you could go over what these images are and why they're so important.

Best: Certainly. The images that were released in July, were the first full color images and some of the spectroscopic data that came from the James Webb Telescope. It was a way to announce to the world that the general science operations of the telescope had begun. What's fantastic about these images is that the five images released actually tell the story of what Webb can do.

stephan's quintet.jpg
Space Telescope Science Institut/NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO
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STScI
This image of Stephan’s Quintet shows the interaction between and among a grouping of five separate galaxies.

Snyder: Going back to the technology of the Webb Telescope, how is it an upgrade from its predecessor, the Hubble Telescope? 

Best: The James Webb Space Telescope is really the successor, not only to Hubble, but in some ways to the Spitzer Telescope. The Hubble telescope, which is the space telescope that most people are familiar with, has a mirror that focuses on the radiation that comes in (to it). That mirror is approximately two meters across. The Webb Telescope, on the other hand, has a mirror that is about six and a half meters across. So that tripling in size gives you a much greater collection of radiation coming in (to it). And it allows you a greater sensitivity.

Furthermore, the Webb Telescope works in a different range of light. The Hubble Telescope works mostly in what we call optical light. It's the type of light that we see with our eyes. The Webb Telescope works in what's known as the infrared. The advantage of the infrared type of telescope is that it can see through the dust in space that would obscure light from Hubble. So it gives us a new window into the universe, it gives us a deeper window into the universe, it gives us greater sensitivity into the universe, it allows us to truly see farther, to see deeper and to see details that were heretofore unavailable to us.

Snyder: Now, you are an astronomy professor at Shepherd University. You're very much involved in the school's scientific community here. Just from your personal standpoint, as an educator, how would these images help further scientific education? Both in your local community here at Shepherd and also throughout the state, and even the country?

Best: The public has shown an interest in astronomy for decades, whether it has been the Apollo missions, the Voyagers which traveled past the edge of our solar system, the rovers such as Curiosity, which just reached its 10th anniversary on the surface of Mars. The public is interested in astronomy, because they're interested in being able to see more deeply to understand the world around them. Whether it's K-12 education, university level, or programs in the public, these images, and the images that will come from the Webb Telescope, will give us deeper insights into other worlds. And not only other worlds, but the worlds in our solar system. They will provide us with more detail. Webb will give us insight into the lifecycle of stars in a way that we've been unable to as yet understand. It will give us insight into galaxies over time, and how the large scale structure of the universe is established. And it will give us insights into the early universe, our beginnings.

carina nebula.jpg
Space Telescope Science Institut/NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO
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STScI
The study of the Carina Nebula, shown here, gives us deeper insights into how stars are born.

So I see, at all levels of education, these images helping to engage the curiosity in each of us. In terms of research, these areas of research are each going to be expanding the scales that we're talking about, going from planetary scales on the smallest, to the universe on the largest. We have a range of astronomers, geologists and chemists. When you're talking about other worlds, the understanding of biological processes, we have a range of research possibilities, those research findings, which will then come into the classroom and help students learn more about how their entire universe works.

Snyder: Could we see these images and the other data we're seeing – and we could see in the future from the Webb Telescope – be used as an education tool, maybe outside of college or higher ed classrooms?

Best: Most definitely. We will see these images engaging the public. We have already seen these images engage the public through various outreach programs, both formal and informal. The public hungers to understand its world around it. We can look back to 2017, the first total solar eclipse that was visible in the continental United States in a generation and the public engaged. They traveled across the country so that they could be in that relatively narrow path where the eclipse could be seen. The public cares about its world, the public cares about seeing what's happening around it. So not only within classrooms, scientists, educators of all sorts are extending the outreach mission that astronomy is known for. Historically, astronomy has been about research, it has been about teaching, it has been about outreach. Those avenues are simply going to be enhanced by being able to show these types of images, to be able to talk about the data coming from the James Webb Space Telescope, the analyses that are going to be conducted and that are already being conducted. We will see this as a larger part of our science, education mission.

Southern Ring Nebula (NIRCam and MIRI Images Side by Side)
Space Telescope Science Institute/NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
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STScI
These pictures of the Southern Ring Nebula display what will happen when stars of certain sizes are about to transition into the end of their life.

The public in the United States pays for science. That's important to remember. NASA is a government agency. It's funded by you, by me. It's a public trust. And astronomers have always believed that it's important to show the public what this investment means. Because in truth, discovery has no roadmap. Not only the data coming from the James Webb Space Telescope, but the technologies that will go into things like helping people with better eye correction, to be able to help with other resources that heretofore we haven't thought about yet. Since discovery has no roadmap, it's important for us, as astronomers, to engage with the public to show them what their investment means and why it matters so much to them.

Snyder: Do you think this is a stepping stone for more in depth astronomy research in the future? What sort of programs or initiatives could we potentially see being explored as a result of these images?

Best: In terms of how we look at astronomy research, we always build upon what it is we've seen before so that we can understand more in the future. Hubble, for a generation of scientists, has provided an incredible platform in terms of our understanding the universe. The James Webb Space Telescope builds upon that platform for planetary scientists, stellar astrophysicists, extragalactic astronomers, cosmologists, astrochemists, astrogeologists, across the spectrum of our science. The discoveries that we are making and will continue to make will allow our science to continue to grow, will allow our discoveries to continue to be understood within the greater context of what it is we know. And in truth, this tool will help us be smarter tomorrow than we are today. But that's what science is really all about. We know something today. We hope to know more tomorrow.

Snyder: Just  finishing up here, did you have any closing remarks before we go ahead and end  this interview?

Best: I often tell my students that the first three words that any astronomer says are, “I don't know.” The three words after that are, “Let's find out.” The James Webb Space Telescope is going to help us find out much more than we knew. It will make the next generation of astronomers smarter than the current generation. And that's how it's supposed to work. Because then that generation will help the public know more, and appreciate more. And that's how, as a society, we continue to grow positively in our knowledge.

Eastern Panhandle Reporter, ssnyder@wvpublic.org, 304-449-4653

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