Sofia Rojas was having breakfast with her family when the letter she had been waiting for so long finally landed in her mailbox.
A message was sent from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Science Mission Unit telling her that she has been given 18 hours to operate the telescope.
“I’m crazy,” said Rojas, a graduate student Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany. “I was jumping. And my family didn’t understand.”
Their confusion was understandable. It was March 2021 and Webb hadn’t even launched yet.
But even on earth infrared telescope with an impressive set of gilded hexagonal mirrors was something special. The $10 billion instrument was created to collect the faintest light from the earliest stars and galaxies.
Rojas plans to study how primitive galaxies were distributed across the sky and whether a mysterious substance called dark matter helped shape the nascent universe. She and her team would point Webb to random spots across the sky and see what they could find.
A total of 1,172 observation proposals were submitted to the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which operates the new telescope. Of these, 286 projects were selected for the first year of work, including about 25 under the guidance of graduate students. Christine Chenastronomer STSCI.
Six times larger and 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope, Webb’s ability to observe infrared light allows him to see through interstellar dust as well as detect wavelengths stretched expanding universe, invisible to the human eye.
Rojas knew that these features would make telescopes a hot commodity at the time. That her offer was accepted “seems a bit surreal,” she said, “especially since I’m just working on my PhD.”
Rohan Naidu hoped to use Webb for his PhD at the Harvard Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He started his graduate studies in 2017 and expected to get access to observational data, “but then there was a big, big delay,” he said.
It wasn’t the first. When NASA selected the general contractor to build the telescope in 2003, it estimated launch date was appointed in 2010. It was delayed several times before it finally started from French Guiana on 1 December. 25, 2021.
It was too late for Naidu’s dissertation, which ended up on the history of the Milky Way and how it tore apart and engulfed other galaxies to grow to its current size. But now that Webb is open for business, he may be revisiting his original plan to study how the first galaxies formed a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. He plans to study a certain part of the sky where there seem to be too many galaxies.
Webb will tell us “when the first fires in the universe were lit.”
Doing science from space is expensive. For the proposal to be accepted, scientists must convince Webb’s curators that their work cannot be done using telescopes on the ground.
graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley Aliza Beverage spent several weeks running simulations to show that the observations she wanted to make were of ancient galaxies whose light is too weak to penetrate The atmosphere of the Earth – it was impossible to study with the help of telescopes of the Observatory. VM Keka in Hawaii, the next best alternative.
The same was true for Gurav Khullarwho, along with his team, spent several sleepless nights drafting a successful proposal to use the Webb Telescope for the full 20 hours.
Hallar, who recently completed his PhD at the University of Chicago, aims to determine the age of early galaxies by studying what they are made of. One of Webb’s instruments, the near-infrared spectrograph, splits light to reveal fingerprints of elements that are more abundant in older galaxies.
“There is no other tool that allows us to spectrally study such early galaxies,” said Hullar, who will go on to work as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pittsburgh.
His target is a galaxy called COOL J1241+2219which seems to have grown much faster than other galaxies in the young universe.
Beverage, on the other hand, is exploring why some galaxies disappeared in those early days.
“Looking back in time more than 10 billion years, we see some dead galaxies — they no longer form stars,” she said. “They must flourish. There is so much gas around that they could form stars, but they don’t. And it’s a big mystery.”
While observation time has only been granted to select groups of astronomers, access to Webb’s data is by no means exclusive. A number of early release science projects will help the astronomical community understand the telescope observation process and data analysis techniques, and the data they generate will be made available to the public.
Kedar Phadke, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is involved in one such project. It targets four galaxies, “two of which are very dusty and two are not dusty and have already been observed by the Hubble Space Telescope,” he said. Observations of the latter two will be used to calibrate Webb’s work, and the dusty galaxies will serve as a test of how well his infrared vision can see through dust.
While Webb can see objects billions of light-years away, he can only see a tiny fraction of the sky at a time. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson compared it to watching a grain of sand held at arm’s length.
COSMOS-Webb is committed to expanding the vision of Webb. For 208 hours, the project will display a part of the sky called SPACE which is three times the size of a full moon.
The results will be published as a catalog for other astronomers. olivia cooper, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin helps lead. She said she expects Webb’s images of COSMOS to open up “questions that we don’t have yet, and that’s interesting.”
Cooper and others have many scientific advances to look forward to for a long time to come. Webb reached its destination nearly a million miles from Earth with minimal course corrections, saving enough fuel to extend its mission far beyond the 10 years originally intended.
Beverage said her advisors belong to a generation of astronomers whose careers blossomed when they made discoveries with the Hubble Space Telescope.
“I feel like I’m part of a generation that will be defined by the James Webb Space Telescope,” she said.