A-Maize-ing Space

How The Michigan Astronomy Department Contributed to the Greatest Development in Space Technology of the 21st Century

It’s no surprise that as the number one public research university, the University of Michigan has been a dominant force in space science development throughout the 21st century. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), launched at the end of last year, has connections with over a third of the Department of Astronomy’s faculty through either construction or data analysis. Nineteen researchers affiliated with Michigan astronomy and astrophysics are involved in projects that will employ JWST data to broaden the horizons – literally – of what we think we know about space.

After 24 years of research and development, various setbacks both before and during the pandemic, and $10 billion of funds allocated to NASA, JWST finally sailed past Earth’s atmosphere in December 2021. JWST was a joint effort between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency to breach the current knowledge boundary to stellar and planetary science. Its goal is to “look back at first light in cosmic time,” explained Dr. Michael Meyer, a professor of astronomy at Michigan who specializes in stars and their concomitant exoplanets, in his recent Saturday Morning Physics talk.

Dr. Meyer is one of many faculty members at Michigan whose research for various government agencies and astronomy research institutions led to the telescope’s success. He has been involved with the project since 1997 (before almost all of the current undergraduate population was born), developing certain camera technology to view light in space that does not fall in the visible range of light for human eyes. Called NIRCam (Near Infrared Camera), this instrument onboard JWST is designed to detect light from “the earliest stars and galaxies in the process of formation, the population of stars in nearby galaxies, as well as young stars in the Milky Way and Kuiper Belt objects.”

Nineteen researchers affiliated with Michigan astronomy and astrophysics are involved in projects that will employ JWST data to broaden the horizons – literally – of what we think we know about space.

JWST is unique in its ability to study objects both within the solar system and as far back as 13.7 billion years ago, almost to the beginning of our universe. While galaxies emit light in the ultraviolet wavelength (that which can cause skin cancer, for instance), by the time the light travels to our telescopes near or on Earth, the wavelength of the light usually has stretched out to fall in the infrared region.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Monica Valluri, professor of extragalactic and galactic astronomy at Michigan who is involved with nuclear dynamics and black hole research in JWST’s Cycle 1 research endeavor. To Dr. Valluri and the broader scientific community, JWST presents a revolution in the field of space science. “This is the first time we will have such a clear window on the infrared,” she commented during the interview.

The telescope has undergone countless changes and readjustments using satellite commands from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. To resolve these infrared images of stars and galaxies, “JWST has these eighteen mirrors, and so they have to be all aligned perfectly to get a single image” Dr. Valluri clarified. JWST became fully aligned and oriented to send resolved images at the end of March.

Dr. Valluri is hoping to use data collected from JWST on Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN), regions in the center of some galaxies that are brighter than they should be if just the stars present were contributing light. AGN have supermassive black holes acting upon the central region of their galaxies. By employing infrared light to study AGN in one instance, Valluri and her team can improve their measurement of the mass of the black hole in that galaxy. She believes that JWST will “revolutionize the ability to get more spectra for these galactic nuclei and understand black holes.”

Funding for space science research can be quite controversial. When JWST was conceived in 1997, the amount of funding allocated for this project was to be around $1.5 billion, or $2.6 billion in 2022 U.S. dollars.  Delays in machine parts, NASA funding, and testing schedules have exacerbated the cost of this mission as the American public foots the annual appropriations bill. It can be difficult to support increasing space exploration funding when those dollars compete with funding social security, welfare for single moms and their children, or small business loans.

JWST experienced “a real near-death experience” in 2011 according to Dr. Meyer, who detailed the Congressional and budgetary hurdles JWST had to clear over its 24-year inception. Some in Congress argued that continuing to fund JWST would be “throwing good money after bad,” especially when the project was delayed eight times before the critical vote in 2011 that sustained controversial NASA funding. It’s no surprise that then-Senator Barbara Milulski committed herself to defending JWST, given that both the Space Telescope Science Institute and the Goddard Space Flight Center are in her home state of Maryland.

Part of the defense for the sky-high JWST price tag is that its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, is way past its warranty. “A lot of things are failing on Hubble,” Dr. Valluri claimed; “And, you know, it’s not serviceable anymore.” The Space Telescope Science Institute is actively transitioning from manning Hubble with all of its energy to manning JWST.

Dr. Valluri believes that JWST will “revolutionize the ability to get more spectra for these galactic nuclei and understand black holes.”

Other reasons to fund JWST are its contributions to the field of science more broadly. JWST will allow scientists to develop a better understanding of certain fields like biology, chemistry, and physics. “Some of the techniques that were developed for aligning the telescope… have already been found to be useful in  ” according to Dr. Valluri. Dr. Meyer also contended that the infrared technology employed by JWST has valuable applications for military surveillance.

While allocating American tax dollars to fund space science research and development remains contentious, the continuing influence of University of Michigan’s superior astronomy department in shaping the future of space science is undeniable. We should be proud to support these faculty and staff members making critical discoveries in astrophysical research with JWST as they analyze the history of the universe and blaze the star-lit trail into its future.

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About Lindsay Keiser

Lindsay Keiser was co-editor in chief of the Michigan Review.