Space, Physics, and Math

Looking up in the sky, seeking answers of the beginning

Galactic archeologists expect the James Webb Space Telescope to be a game changer for their field

February 11, 2022
The most powerful and complex space telescope created by humankind, as photographed during assembly in TKYEAR, has been launched into space. We now wait for data to be processed and analyzed. [Credit: NASA | (license)]
The most powerful and complex space telescope created by humankind, as photographed during assembly in TKYEAR, has been launched into space. We now wait for data to be processed and analyzed. [Credit: NASA]

From his perch in an observatory atop a dormant volcano in Hawaii, astrophysicist Alan McConnachie can peer through a powerful telescope and see billions of years backward in time — almost all the way to the origin of the universe.

But what excites him these days is that in just a few more weeks, once data is collected from the orbiting James Webb Space Telescope, he and his fellow scientists will be able to look back even further.

On Christmas Day 2021, the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope was launched from French Guiana without a hitch. The telescope, McConnachie says, will be “a game changer for almost all of astronomy” — including for galactic archeologists like himself who are interested in how the Milky Way, Andromeda and other more distant galaxies came to be.

“For many of these very distant galaxies the light we see from them left a billion, five billion, eight billion years ago,” explains McConnachie, who works with the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano. “We aren’t seeing them as they are now. We’re seeing them as snapshots in their life.”

Although his research has also relied on other space telescopes such as the Hubble, the $10 billion Webb telescope, known as the JWST, is expected to generate even better data thanks to its larger primary mirror which will give it more light-gathering power.

The new telescope will also be able to cover more wavelengths with additional sensitivity, giving astronomers like McConnachie the ability to study more details about the chemistry of stars beyond the Milky Way, our home galaxy.

Anna Frebel of MIT is excited, too. For 20 years, observational astronomer Frebel has looked deep into space to study the oldest known stars. Her works uncover details about the young universe and its state just a few hundred million years after the time of the Big Bang, which happened roughly 13.8 billion years ago.

Works by Frebel and other galactic archeologists in recent years have led to the discovery of carbon in the early universe. “We are carbon-based lifeforms so no carbon, no people. It’s important to understand the biological history of the universe,” she said.

McConnachie and Frebel can’t literally time travel, but they can do the next best thing: mapping the early universe in its infancy with current data. It’s a privilege that excites McConnachie.

“Trying to understand how our galaxies came to exist within this universe, and what allowed the stars to exist, the galaxies to exist and for us to exist, for me, at least, is a very inspirational thing,” McConnachie said.

It all starts, he adds, with the simple act of looking up into the sky. Now they’re looking up with the world’s most powerful telescope, 25 years in the making, peering further than ever — almost all the way back to the beginning of everything.

About the Author

Lyric Aquino

Lyric Aquino is a Kent State University class of 2019 graduate. She double-majored in anthropology and journalism and is devoted to telling the stories of people and their cultures- including her Indigenous and Black communities. She’s passionate about most sciences in general and has hopes to report on anthropology, paleontology, the environment and critters. Lyric’s work has been published on Indian Country Today, The Morning Journal, Ohio Magazine to name a few. When she’s not writing she loves tending to her pet gecko, collecting taxidermy and spending time with family.

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