Nobel winner gives Purdue audience preview of new space telescope




Dr. John Mather talking JWST in Physics, Room 203.

Click here for a video excerpt.

Coming up with the Hubble Space Telescope’s successor is no easy task.

There are 18 large beryllium mirrors and a sun shield the size of a tennis court to be installed, materials must be able to withstand temperatures of 40 Kelvin and an unprecedented rocket that can send the James Webb Space Telescope off onto its 930,000-mile destination must be perfected.

Dr. John Mather, head scientist of the James Webb Space Telescope project and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics, visited Purdue University on Nov. 15 and assured a packed Physics Room 203 that the new ‘scope is steadily progressing as its 2018 launch draws closer.

“If we can do the Mars rover (Curiosity), we can do this,” Mather told the students and faculty gathered.

Mather’s appearance was sponsored by the Department of Physics. He is currently based out of the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where most of the work on the JWST is being finished.

During his hour-long presentation, Mather showed how the telescope would be much further out into space where it will orbit at least five years, perhaps longer. He expects sharper images and more opportunities to view supernovas, gamma ray burst objects, stars “turning on” and proto-planetary disks. The telescope will help read better measurements of dark energy as well.

“We will get to learn how solar systems evolve,” Mather said.

The JWST will launch in French Guiana in 2018 in the Ariane 5 rocket, which is being built by France. The satellite folds into about six meters in diameter before it unfurls into its proper position. It will take several days to “unfold” after its two-month journey to almost 1 million miles away from Earth. It will take an additional two months to “cool down” to a temperature where it can properly operate.

The Webb telescope will be a huge tool for space exploration, just like Hubble. While more than a decade of work will go into the Webb, Mather believes it just one of many new ‘scopes to, hopefully, come.

“Although big and powerful, this is not the last thing people will want us to build,” he said.

Prof. Wei Cui of the Department of Physics introduced Dr. Mather to the audience.

“It was an excellent colloquium, one of the very best in a long time,” he said. “This is what a colloquium should be: understandable by undergraduate students yet substantive for the taste of experts. It helps to have a speaker like Dr. Mather, not only because of his stature — being a Nobel Laureate — but also of his style of delivery, clear and factual, with few technical jargons. He also has a good sense of humor. For me personally, although I had known quite a bit about the telescope, being in the field, I still learned a lot of the technical details of the instruments and their scientific capabilities.”

On Purdue campus, much of what Dr. Mather introduced is being studied in labs and classrooms now.

“Dr. Mather's talk touched upon a number of research projects undertaken by the faculty, students, and postdocs in the astrophysics group, such as black holes at the centers of galaxies, gamma ray bursts, dark matter and dark energy,” Dr. Cui stated. “We are trying to position ourselves to take advantage of the unprecedented opportunities that will be provided by JWST, along several other powerful observatories, such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope that several of us in the Department of Physics participate in constructing, over the next decade and beyond.”

Dr. Cui believes there is no limit to what the JWST has the potential to discover.

“What makes astrophysics special is that the universe, as a laboratory, is full of surprises,” he said. “The most exciting discoveries will likely be those that would require new physics to explain. Brilliant minds would then be needed to see where the new physics lies.”

JWS Telescope

An illustration of a completed JWST.