Science & Tech

Texas A&M Astronomer To Test Capabilities Of NASA Telescope His Faculty Chair’s Namesake Helped Build

Casey Papovich, will test the first official round of James Webb Space Telescope testing before the $8 billion successor to the Hubble Space Telescope launches.
By Shana K. Hutchins, Texas A&M University College of Science November 30, 2017

Once launched into space, the Webb telescope's 18-segmented gold mirror is specially designed to capture infrared light from the first galaxies that formed in the early universe and will help the telescope peer inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming today. (NASA/Desiree Stover)
Once launched into space, the Webb telescope’s 18-segmented gold mirror is specially designed to capture infrared light from the first galaxies that formed in the early universe and will help the telescope peer inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming today. (NASA/Desiree Stover)

Texas A&M University physics graduate Ralph Schilling ’68 has seen and done a lot of cool and cosmic things during his 34-year career spent creating and constructing space systems. For starters, his technical handiwork included contributions to two of NASA’s Great Observatories. As a science co-investigator for NASA’s High Energy Astronomy Observatories Program in the early 1970s, he helped develop gamma-ray telescope technology that was utilized for the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. Beginning in 1980, his contributions to the Chandra X-ray Observatory spanned the entire development cycle of that system, from conceptual design and technology development through its insertion into high elliptical earth-orbit to initiate the observing program.

All that aside, it’s in retirement that Schilling is poised to experience his most profound first: seeing one of his inaugural chair holders test-drive the scientific capabilities of the newest NASA program to which he contributed, the James Webb Space Telescope.

Texas A&M astronomer Casey Papovich, co-holder of the Marsha L. ’69 and Ralph F. Schilling ’68 Chair in Experimental Physics, is a co-investigator for one of the 13 proposals recently selected* from the 106 submitted to NASA to go forward as the first official round of JWST science when the $8 billion successor to the Hubble Space Telescope launches.

“We have a team of 105 people from 10 countries, and we were selected by NASA to get 60 hours of JWST time in the first three months of the mission to demonstrate the science capabilities to study the most distant galaxies,” Papovich said. “I will be leading the analysis of one of the Webb’s three instruments we’re testing. I am also one of four scientists within our group of co-investigators who has a lead role on several of the science cases that will showcase its full observational prowess.”

Artist's concept of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, the world's most advanced space observatory designed to unravel some of the greatest mysteries of the universe, from discovering the first stars and galaxies that formed after the big bang to studying the atmospheres of planets around other stars. (Credit: Northrop Grumman.)
Artist’s concept of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. (Northrop Grumman)

University of Texas at Austin astronomer Steven Finkelstein, who completed his postdoctoral studies at Texas A&M under Papovich, is the principal investigator for the project, known as the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science (CEERS) Survey*, that will study the oldest galaxies in the universe to better understand their composition and evolution over time.

It would take seven Hubble mirrors to equal the collecting area of the James Webb, which completed final cryogenic testing at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston earlier this month. The bigger the mirror, the fainter the light that can be collected, making the Webb the ideal candidate to find the very faintest originating from the universe’s birth.

“This will be the first time anyone has had access to this brand-new telescope that is in some ways 100 times better than Hubble,” Finkelstein said. “This telescope will reveal enormous truths the moment we turn it on.”

Papovich, a member of the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy, joined the Texas A&M Department of Physics and Astronomy in 2008. He and Finkelstein, a 2011 Hubble Fellow, were part of a prior team that discovered the universe’s most distant galaxy, a breakthrough deemed one of Texas Monthly’s top five Texas-based scientific discoveries for 2013.

In addition to Papovich, the CEERS team includes Texas A&M astronomy graduate students Vincent Estrada-Carpenter ’19 and Taylor Hutchison ’18. The JWST will give them a number of technical advantages, including visibility of a broad range of infrared light that is blocked from ground-based telescopes by the Earth’s atmosphere. With no bright Earth atmosphere to drown out the faint objects, the astronomers will be able to see the same regions of the sky they did with Hubble but to both greater detail and distances, given the Webb’s higher resolution and vastly superior light-collecting capabilities.

“We have really pushed Hubble and other telescopes to their very limits, yet only scratched the surface of what galaxies in the very early universe were like,” Papovich said. “We have some expectations for what we should find with the JWST, but honestly, we’re looking into the unknown. The most amazing discoveries will be things that no one can predict.”

For Schilling, the former student and physics graduate who cut his technological teeth as a graduate student in the Texas A&M Cyclotron Institute and helped make it all possible through his professional innovation — and, in Papovich’s case, personal philanthropy — the full-circle effect is both powerful and palpable.

“During my career in aerospace, I participated in development of the system architecture and enabling technology for the JWST, so it is especially exciting and rewarding for my wife and me that Professor Papovich, who holds the faculty chair we sponsored, was selected for the initial observing program,” Schilling said.

This story by Shana K. Hutchins originally appeared on the College of Science website.

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