For UVA Astronomers, New Space Telescope Could Be a ‘Game-Changer’


When the James Webb Space Telescope launches in October, it will be the world’s premier space science observatory. Its combination of high-resolution and infrared-detecting instruments is expected to provide astronomers with a wealth of detailed data – not only on individual stars in the local universe, but also an unprecedented level of detail of what’s happening at the cores of other galaxies.

Among those eagerly awaiting the Webb telescope’s launch are a pair of University of Virginia astronomers leading and working on two of the 13 Early Release Science projects selected by NASA and its partners, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, to test its capabilities. Data from Aaron Evans’s and Nitya Kallivayalil’s projects, as well as from the other 11 Early Release Science programs, will be made available to other astronomers immediately, and archived for future research.

To put it into perspective the technological leap forward offered by the Webb telescope, Evans said, it has about 50 times better sensitivity and 10 times better resolution than its predecessor, the Spitzer Space Telescope.

“For all of us who did work previously with the Spitzer Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope is basically a dream,” said Evans, UVA professor of astronomy and co-primary investigator of a project scheduled to explore the cores of merging galaxies. “If they were going to put a telescope under your Christmas tree, it would be the Webb telescope.”

Kallivayalil, an associate professor of astronomy who researches near-field cosmology and dark matter, is working as an investigator on a separate project, led by Daniel Weisz of the University of California, Berkeley, on resolved populations of stars that have been shrouded from observation behind gas and dust – until now, thanks to the Webb telescope’s ability to pick out the details of more individual stars.

“The Webb telescope’s ability to push out these sorts of technical observations, out beyond our galaxy and into the local universe, will really allow us to place the local universe into a broader cosmological context,” Kallivayalil said.