How a Massive New Telescope Could Dramatically Expand our Understanding of the Universe.

A week before this past August’s “Great American Eclipse,” Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy Anne Pellerin gave a community talk about the event at Wadsworth Library in Geneseo.

“There were 5-year-old kids, there were elderly people — all ages, just being excited about science,” says Pellerin. That energy carries her: “It’s what wakes me up in the morning, and is really why I’m doing that job as a teacher. I want to share the excitement.”

The James Webb Space Telescope

Anne Pellerin shares what’s behind the new lens. (Spoiler alert: It’s a big deal.)

  • It’s going to be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. It is not a replacement in that the Hubble is optimized for optical light — the visible light — whereas the James Webb is going to be optimized for infrared light. It’s going to be the most powerful infrared instrument ever built. NASA is planning on launching it in the spring of 2019.
  • Astronomers are already thinking about what objects they want to observe and what kind of science they want to do with the James Webb. I’m part of the team called LEGUS, Legacy Extragalactic UV Survey. That’s an international group of more than 50 scientists that put together a proposal to observe 50 nearby galaxies using the Hubble. Now we’re wondering: How we can use this infrared technology? In the infrared, we’re looking at things that are usually cooler or colder. We can see things that are forming that are still embedded in the galaxy and that we can’t see with our own eyes. The light would be blocked by a dust or the gas layer. In the infrared, we can see through that.
  • The James Webb is going to bring a lot of new science, helping us better see extra-solar planets, stars forming, and protoplanetary disks that may help us understand better how the solar system forms — how we came to be here, basically.
  • I’m interested in anything that has to do with the formation of stars, what’s going on embedded in the clouds that are forming stars. The massive stars can sometimes have such a short lifetime. They live and die before the parent cloud that formed them dissipates. With the infrared, maybe we’re going to be able to see deeper and see into those most massive stars. That’s what I’m hoping for.