UC Berkeley astronomers will be among the first to use NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST.
Compared to the Hubble Space Telescope, the JWST has improved infrared capabilities that will allow researchers to study clouds of gas and dust, according to a JWST senior project scientist John Mather. The telescope also differs from the Hubble Space telescope in that it is both larger in size and magnification, according to UC Berkeley astronomy professors Alex Filippenko and Steve Beckwith.
“The Webb telescope is designed to be able to see normal light from stars farther back in time than any previous telescope,” Beckwith said. “It is designed to watch the universe light up as the very first stars and galaxies are created out of detritus from the Big Bang.”
Campus astronomy professor Dan Weisz will be among the first users of the JWST.
Weisz said in an email that his program will observe three targets — an ancient star cluster in the Milky Way, an ancient galaxy that orbits the Milky Way and a younger “dwarf galaxy” near the Milky Way forming new stars.
His team’s first task will be building software to measure the amount of light from each star in the images, Weisz explained. Using the software, Weisz will measure the ages of stars in his targets and place them on a cosmic timeline.
“The ultimate goal is to figure out the timeline by which our Galaxy, the Milky Way, and all our neighboring galaxies formed so we can measure our local cosmic history,” Weisz said in the email.
Filippenko, whose proposal was also selected for the JWST, said he has been looking forward to using the telescope for a long time. He will use the telescope to study stars that exploded as “supernovae.”
Filippenko’s teams will be searching for dust signatures of the supernovae, both ejected during the explosion and gently expelled by the star in the centuries before exploding, he added. This dust goes on to form planets such as Earth.
“I feel very lucky and privileged to use such a fantastic telescope,” Filippenko said in an email. “It will be wonderful to get exquisite new data from JWST, and I’m really looking forward to it!”
According to JWST spokesperson Peter Sooy, the telescope will use a system similar to the Hubble Space Telescope to schedule observing plans.
Mather emphasized the JWST was a decades-long international collaboration, with contributions from Canadian and European teams. Beckwith added some of the world’s best engineers and scientists worked on the telescope, and compared it to “a modern cathedral” — beautiful but hard to build.
“The Webb will be one of the wonders of our modern world,” Beckwith said. “It’s the type of creation that everyone should be able to love.”