UNCG Magazine

Far out! UNCG was visited by Webb Telescope’s lead scientist

NASA has released the most startling images we’ve ever seen of deep space.

UNCG learned the details of this project eight years ago, when its senior project scientist, Dr. John C. Mather, came to speak with students and give a public lecture.

What seemed like science fiction at the time – as he showed how this telescope (seen above) would be engineered, positioned in deep space, unfolded, and used – has become reality as of this week. And the photographs, such as the one below, are mind-blowing. Literally out of this world.

“It’s a great occasion!” says Dr. Steve Danford, emeritus professor of Physics & Astronomy, who continues to do research using UNCG’s Three-College Observatory. Danford was very involved in Mather’s 2014 visit to campus.

This telescope will “look into the dark ages of the universe, before stars turned on,” Danford said in an interview just before the images were unveiled. It will provide details of star formation. It will provide unparalleled views of planets we have not been able to see.

And virtually everything in this project had to proceed almost perfectly, to reach this point, Danford marvels. Apparently, it has.

During that February 2014 visit by John Mather of the Goddard Space Flight Center, UNCG’s STAMPS students had dinner and talked with the Nobel laureate. STAMPS (“Science, Technology and Math Preparation Scholarships”) is a program that provides scholarships to UNCG undergraduates who are majoring in Biology, Chemistry/Biochemistry, Mathematical Sciences, Computer Science, Geology/Geographical Information Systems, and Physics/ Astronomy. About 40 UNCG students attended the momentous talk. Danford recalls that a main topic of conversation was that very fact: that virtually everything had to proceed perfectly with this project: the engineering, error-free construction, launch, placement of the telescope, unfolding of the light shield and of the telescope, and transmission of data.

“It’s now at the L2 point of the Lagrange. It’s about a million miles from earth. There’s no way to retrieve it,” Danford says. “It’s come through with an almost flawless launch and deployment.”

How did the UNCG visit by the Nobel laureate come about? UNCG student April Frake ’12, ’14 MA received an internship in 2012 at Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington, DC. “I was the first geographer they’d ever had (as an intern in the Lunar and Planetary Science Academy),” she said in an interview this week. Her work that summer supported Dr. Tim McClanahan’s effort to understand why the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Narrow Angle Camera imagery was blurred (coined the “jitter problem”) and to propose possible solutions. Fascinating figures at Goddard – such as astronaut/scientist Piers Sellers, with whom she’d regularly speak at coffee breaks – would give talks to the approximately two dozen interns. After Dr. Mather spoke to the interns, she asked him to come speak to the students at UNCG. He said he would.1 

Dr. Mather, 2015 photograph. Posted to Flickr by the photographer, Christopher Michel. Creative Commons.
Dr. Mather with STAMPS Scholars at UNCG, February 10, 2014. April Frake is at far right.

The rest is history, literally. In fact, the public lecture by the Roanoke, Virginia, native, in the Sullivan Science Building’s Mead Auditorium, was titled “The History of the Universe from Beginning to End.” (Frake had the honor of introducing him that evening.) Mather traced how the universe began, its past, present and future, and how it could have produced an Earth where sentient beings live.

And he discussed NASA’s plans in progress for a telescope project that would be more far-reaching than the Hubble Telescope’s. It would be called the James Webb Space Telescope, named for North Carolina native James E. Webb, who was appointed by Lyndon Johnson to be NASA’s second administrator.

Mather served as senior astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, where he specialized in infrared astronomy and cosmology. He has been a senior project scientist since 1995 for the Webb Space Telescope program. As a postdoctoral fellow at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, he led the proposal efforts for the Cosmic Background Explorer Satellite, or COBE (1974-1976). His research on the COBE project showed that the cosmic microwave background radiation has a blackbody spectrum within 50 parts per million, which confirmed the Big Bang theory. The COBE team also discovered the cosmic hot and cold spots in the background radiation, which is now believed to be the primordial seeds that led to the structure of the universe today. 

These findings led to Mather and George F. Smoot of the University of California receiving the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2006 for their work using the COBE satellite to measure the heat radiation from the Big Bang. As Mather’s NASA bio notes, their work confirmed the Big Bang theory to extraordinary accuracy.

The UNCG talk was sponsored by STAMPS Science Scholarships at UNCG, Sigma Xi Society, and the UNCG Department of Physics and Astronomy.

This diagram illustrates how gravitational lensing by foreground galaxies influences the appearance of far more distant background galaxies. These far-off galaxies that might otherwise be invisible appear due to lensing effects. The plane at far left contains very distant, background galaxies. The middle plane represents foreground galaxies; their gravity amplifies the brightness of the background galaxies. The right plane shows how the field would look from Earth with the effects of gravitational lensing added.
Credits: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay and A. Feild (STScI)
Image credit: NASA/Francis Reddy

By Mike Harris, UNCG Magazine editor
Unless noted otherwise, photography courtesy NASA. 2014 photography courtesy Steve Danford.

1Paragraph revised July 13, with information provided in interview with April Frake.

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