UC Berkeley professors to lead research with new NASA telescope

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Move over, Hubble — there’s a new telescope in town. Two UC Berkeley astronomy professors will lead research teams to test the capabilities of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, which will replace the Hubble telescope.

According to Imke de Pater, one of the UC Berkeley professors chosen to lead a research team, JWST has a spatial resolution three times greater than that of Hubble and can observe objects in infrared.

JWST will launch between March and June 2019, and researchers will not have access to the telescope’s data until November 2019. The 13 research teams were announced earlier this month.

“I was in Baltimore at the Space Telescope Science Institute for a workshop about the JWST, and they announced (the teams) right at the beginning of that workshop,” said Michael Wong, a UC Berkeley associate researcher and co-investigator on de Pater’s team. “I felt rewarded because we had put in a ton of really hard work on our proposal.”

After a thorough review of research proposals and a recommendation from the Time Allocation Committee, 13 teams comprising 253 investigators in total were selected by NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute. Eighteen countries and 106 separate institutions are represented by the investigators.

“The competition level was really high, and there were over 100 proposals that went in,” said Dan Weisz, the other UC Berkeley professor chosen. “The odds of getting selected were pretty low.”

De Pater’s team will study the Jovian system, consisting of Jupiter and its many moons. De Pater said it is more difficult to observe a planet, as opposed to a stationary object, because planets rotate and move in orbits.

Wong also said the research will be challenging because JWST is perfect for observing faint objects, and Jupiter is “very close, bright and warm.” But the telescope will help reduce the effect of background noise, such as scattered light.

“(The project) will test the limits of what we can do with the JWST telescope,” de Pater said. “It’s the first characterization of the Jovian system, and this will be done more times during the JWST’s lifetime to see how Jupiter is varying over time.”

Weisz’s team will study individual stars in the Milky Way and neighboring galaxies. One of his ultimate goals is to “reconstruct” the galaxies’ histories by measuring the age of each star.

Because JWST is equipped with a large mirror, it can absorb more light and help separate stars that might otherwise look blurred together.

“It’s hard to understate how big a mission this is,” Weisz said. “This is NASA’s big thing for the next decade, and being able to influence and develop things in the very early stages is incredibly exciting and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Contact Anjali Shrivastava at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @anjalii_shrivas.