Visions of Space

Tucson Astronomers Behind Concept, Design of NASA’s James Webb Telescope

By Dave Perry

Images from the James Webb Space Telescope take your breath away.

Cosmic cliffs of copper and golden mountains and valleys of gas, speckled with stars. Galactic “dinosaurs,” their light transmitted billions of years ago. Colliding stars. A jet stream along Jupiter’s equator. The supersonic outflow of a newborn star. The remains of a dying star.

The Webb, orbiting the Sun about 1 million miles from Earth, is capturing and sending never-before-seen pictures of the universe. All are screensaver-worthy and all are inspiring research, by inquisitive astronomers across the globe.

No less astounded are Marcia and George Rieke, the University of Arizona astronomers who helped create two of the four active instruments on NASA’s Webb telescope, the largest and most powerful telescope ever launched into space.

“We knew the image quality from this telescope was going to be exceptional,” said Marcia, principal investigator with the Near Infrared Camera, or NIRCam. “It isn’t until you get a picture like that, with multiple colors, you say ‘oh my gosh, not only is it working better, it’s just absolutely stunning’.”

“I’m awestruck on multiple levels,” said George, the science team lead for the Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI. “One, wow, we’ve got the technology to do that.” The other – “whoa, this is inspirational, in terms of learning about the universe.”

“Astronomy and sports are the only things that put positive things on the front pages of newspapers,” George said. “As soon as we stop learning new stuff, we’re not going to make the front page anymore.”

The Riekes, and 20 of their colleagues at UArizona’s Steward Observatory have been major participants in the Webb’s concept, creation and deployment, George said.

“I liken our role to quarterbacks on a football team,” he said. “The quarterback gets all the credit for everything the team does. Without the offensive line, the quarterback would be smashed to the ground, and that would be the end of it.”

The beginning of it goes back half a century. George has been at UArizona for 53 years. He knew the pioneers of Steward, where modern infrared astronomy was born. “The capability of infrared astronomy has grown incredibly,” George said, and today Tucson is “one of the great world centers of astronomy.

“We keep building bigger and better telescopes. The science has taken exponential leaps into what we can detect. MIRI, and all of Webb’s other instruments, are ushering humanity into new scientific territory, and that’s super exciting.”

“It’s proven to be easier to find very distant galaxies,” Marcia said. “We thought they would be rare, and we’ve found a number of them.” They help explain “how things got started in the early universe.”

The Big Bang was some 13.8 billion years ago. “We’re finding objects whose age we estimate to only be 500 million years after that Big Bang,” she said. “We thought we would find some of those, but not so many. The light from them has been traveling to us more than 13 billion years.”

George said the Webb has shown a nearby galaxy “didn’t look like it was supposed to look. There’s a whole lot of structure which we never dreamed of. After all, that is what a discovery is. You think you know what you’re doing, and it turns out you don’t.”

The Riekes have offices down the hall from one another on the UArizona campus. The previous day was the deadline for submission of new proposals for telescope time during the third year of the Webb mission.

“You wouldn’t have believed the activity around here,” Marcia said, “how many people were submitting proposals and new ideas” for its use. “It will continue to be oversubscribed by a factor of 10, year after year after year.”

“The telescope is in that much demand in the community,” George said. And the resulting research will “help rewrite all the textbooks with new discoveries.”

Pictured above –

Carina Nebula, one of the first images captured by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI)
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