OSWEGO—Recently, NASA images from the James Webb (JW) Space Telescope showing the swirling patterns and pleasing colors of distant galaxies lit up social media and fired the imagination of many viewers.
And while that aesthetic is part of the project’s appeal, Shashi Kanbur, a physics professor at SUNY Oswego, notes that the telescope will tell astrophysical researchers like him a lot more than was previously possible.
“The JW Telescope will be able to see the very first stars and galaxies that formed,” said Kanbur, for whom studying the age and formation of the universe is a decades-long passion that has involved many international publications and research opportunities. “We can then compare these early galaxies with galaxies that formed later and understand how galaxies form.”
Launching on Christmas Day 2021, the telescope – a partnership between NASA and the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency – brings together the advantages of powerful technology and proximity for the benefit of researchers and space enthusiasts. everyday space by essentially looking further into the universe and into the past than ever before. The first image released “shows galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago, with many more galaxies in front and behind the cluster,” NASA explained on the site. Telescope web.
“Because the telescope is in space, it is unaffected by the significant blurring effect that can occur for ground-based telescopes due to Earth’s atmosphere,” Kanbur explained.
In this way, he can better differentiate objects in space; for example, it can tell better if a drop of light is actually multiple drops of light, or distant suns or other objects.
“Plus, it’s tuned to observe in the infrared, which means there will be less interstellar reddening: Interstellar reddening occurs because as light travels through space, it interacts with particles of intermediate dust that makes it redder than it actually is,” Kanbur said. “But this effect is reduced at infrared wavelengths. This allows it to observe objects that would be too distant, too faint or too old for the previous space telescope (the Hubble Space Telescope). It has 18 hexagonal mirror elements that combine to effectively form a mirror 6.5 meters in diameter – that’s larger than the previous space telescope.
For comparison, Kanbur recommended the Webb Compare website, www.webbcompare.com, which shows how much clearer and more defined the images from the new telescope are than those of its predecessor.
This larger mirror and its infrared sensitivity will allow observers to see much further into the universe, Kanbur said.
“Because of the finite speed of light, seeing farther means seeing farther back in time,” Kanbur noted. “Observing pulsating variable stars called Cepheids and supernovae in distant galaxies will allow us to estimate the Hubble constant with unprecedented accuracy. This in turn will allow us to determine the eventual fate of the universe and allow us to constrain the models describing the formation of the universe.
Cepheids and pulsating stars have been subjects Kanbur has studied intensely for years, resulting in international collaborations, publications, and research opportunities for SUNY Oswego students. For example, Selim Kalici, Michele Manno, and Hugh Riley Randall, physics majors from Kanbur and SUNY Oswego, worked this summer with some of the world’s top astrophysical researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Germany, where Earl Bellinger, SUNY Oswego graduate and Kanbur alumnus – is a post-doctoral fellow.
Additionally, the Webb Telescope is just beginning to probe the question of whether life exists elsewhere.
“With its infrared capability, we will be able to see into the gas clouds where stars are forming and thus better understand star birth,” Kanbur said. “We will be able to detect planets around stars like our sun and see if those planets contain life. The telescope has already detected signs of water in the atmosphere of some extra-solar planets.
The continuous search for knowledge, the search for answers and the resolution of some of the constant questions of humanity make the process interesting, he added.
“For me, seeking knowledge is enough,” Kanbur said. “I don’t think there can be many more important questions than constraining the formation of the universe or the formation of galaxies or the formation of stars or whether extra-solar life exists.”
For more information and images, visit NASA’s James Webb Telescope website, webb.nasa.gov.