Archive for NASA

James Webb: the wrong name for a Space Telescope

Posted in History, LGBT, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on July 13, 2022 by telescoper

Following yesterday’s excitement about the new images from the James Webb Space Telescope I thought I’d share this video documentary that explains why the choice of name for this facility is highly inappropriate and should be changed. This is a matter I’ve blogged about previously, in fact, but the video is new.

The First Deep Field from JWST

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on July 12, 2022 by telescoper

I have to say that I didn’t stay up to watch the live stream of last night’s preview of this afternoon’s release of the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope. It started very late and I got sick of listening to the dreary music on the feed so went to bed. Nevertheless here is the first picture:

Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

This is a deep field image taken using JWST’s NIRCAM (Near-Infrared Camera). Note that the artifacts you see around some objects are diffraction spikes which occur around bright sources; their six-fold symmetry reflects the hexagonal structure built into the JWST’s mirror assembly. Sources sufficiently bright and compact enough to cause these spikes in deep field images are foreground stars: the extended, fainter objects are all much more distant galaxies.

The description from the NASA page is:

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has produced the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date. Known as Webb’s First Deep Field, this image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 is overflowing with detail.

Thousands of galaxies – including the faintest objects ever observed in the infrared – have appeared in Webb’s view for the first time. This slice of the vast universe is approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground.

This deep field, taken by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), is a composite made from images at different wavelengths, totaling 12.5 hours – achieving depths at infrared wavelengths beyond the Hubble Space Telescope’s deepest fields, which took weeks. 

The image shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago. The combined mass of this galaxy cluster acts as a gravitational lens, magnifying much more distant galaxies behind it. Webb’s NIRCam has brought those distant galaxies into sharp focus – they have tiny, faint structures that have never been seen before, including star clusters and diffuse features. Researchers will soon begin to learn more about the galaxies’ masses, ages, histories, and compositions, as Webb seeks the earliest galaxies in the universe

Here is a close-up of one of the distorted galaxy images and othe features produced by gravitational lensing:

We’re having a special viewing in Maynooth this afternoon of the press conference which will unveil more new images from JWST – nice telescope, shame about the name. I may add comments on here if anything particularly exciting turns up. You can watch it here:

Let’s hope this one starts on time!

R.I.P. Gene Parker (1927-2022)

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on March 16, 2022 by telescoper
Professor Gene Parker, May 18, 2017. (Photo by Jean Lachat)

I was very sad to hear via the NASA website of the death, yesterday at the age of 94, of Professor Eugene N. Parker (known to all as “Gene”). He was best known for his work on solar magnetism and the solar wind, but he made important contributions across a wide range of astrophysics; he wrote an excellent book entitled Cosmical Magnetic Fields: Their Origin and Activity which I bought many years ago. Most recently NASA’s Parker Solar Probe was named in his honour.

I only met Gene Parker once, many years ago, and was a bit in awe of him because of his intellectual reputation but he came across as a very likeable and friendly man.

We have lost a giant in the field of astrophysics who leaves a huge legacy and will be greatly missed. I send my condolences to his family, friends and colleagues at the University of Chicago where he worked since 1955.

Rest in Peace, Professor Eugene N. Parker (1927-2022).

Top Ten JWST Facts!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on December 4, 2021 by telescoper

The James Webb Space Telescope looks nothing like the Hubble Space Telescope shown here.

As excitement mounts ahead of the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) later this month I thought I would, as a service to the community, for the edification of the public at large, and despite popular demand, present my list of Top Ten JWST Facts.

  1. The JWST spacecraft will orbit the Sun near the Second Lagrange Point, L2, because it took so long to get built that tickets were no longer available for L1.
  2. JWST cost $10bn but its telescope is so sensitive that it can see back to redshifts greater than ten, meaning that it sees light that was emitted when its budget was less than $1 bn.
  3. To provide secure backup storage of the complete JWST data set, NASA has commandeered the world’s entire stock of 3½ inch floppy disks.
  4. As well as observing the Universe’s first galaxies and revealing the birth of stars and planets, JWST will look for signs that there might be intelligent life somewhere in the Universe.
  5. JWST’s unique 6.5m deployable mirror was  especially designed by experts from the IKEA company in Sweden who are famous for making items for ‘easy self-assembly’.
  6. The angular resolution of JWST is  0.1 arc seconds, which means  it could resolve a football at a distance of 550 km (or even further if it had Sky Sports).
  7. The Near-Infrared Spectrograph on JWST will be able to make simultaneous measurements of up to 100 sources while at the same time making a cup of coffee and washing the dishes.
  8. The BBC will be shortly be broadcasting a new 26-part TV series about JWST. Entitled WOW! JWST! That’s Soo Amaazing… it will be presented by Britain’s leading expert on infra-red astronomy, Professor Brian Cox.
  9. Er…
  10. That’s it.

The 2020 Decadal Survey

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on November 4, 2021 by telescoper

Delayed by a year, the 2020 US Decadal Survey of Astronomy -full title Pathways to Discovery in Astronomy and Astrophysics for the 2020s – is now out.

It’s a hefty document of more than 600 pages so I haven’t had time to do anything but skim it. The top priority for NASA for the next decade seems to be a 6-m class space telescope capable of imaging Earth-like worlds orbiting sun-like stars, something that can’t be done with much larger telescopes from the ground though the plan does involve bringing very large ground-based telescopes (the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile and the Thirty Metre Telescope in Hawaii) into service more quickly than currently scheduled. Any new space telescope won’t be built and launched on the timescale of course: it probably won’t fly until the 2040s by which time I’ll probably be retired,

I also noticed in the section on the Cosmic Microwave Background we have

Recommendation: The National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy should jointly pursue the design and implementation of the next generation ground-based cosmic microwave background experiment (CMB-S4).The panel suggests that third-generation CMB experiments aligned with CMB-S4―specifically, the SPO (South Pole Observatory) and the “nominal” version of the SO (Simons Observatory)―be high priorities for federal support.

The clarifications in parentheses are my additions.

The shopping list is a lot longer than these items however. There is plenty of discussion in the media already. See, for example, here. I may comment further if time allows.

UPDATE: there is a very user-friendly interactive overview of the survey here.

This is of course an American survey but Astronomy is a truly international enterprise so astronomers all round the globe will be studying it and trying to work out its implications for their own research environment.

And of course there’s a box below for comments from you!

JWST: Nice Telescope, Shame about the Name…

Posted in LGBT, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on October 17, 2021 by telescoper
The JWST deployable mirror undergoing tests

I heard last week that the ship carrying the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) arrived safely in French Guiana and is now being prepared for launch on an Ariane-5 rocket at the European Space Agency’s facility at Kourou. Since the telescope cost approximately $10 billion there was some nervousness it might have been hijacked by pirates on the way.

I’m old enough to remember JWST when it was called the Next Generation Space Telescope NGST); it was frequently discussed at various advisory panels I was on about 20 years ago. Although the basic concept hasn’t changed much – it was planned to be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope working in the infrared and with a deployable mirror – at that time it was going to have an even bigger mirror than the 6.5m it ended up with, was going to be launched in or around 2010, and was to have a budget of around $600 million. About a decade ago cost overruns, NASA budget problems, and technical hitches led to suggestions that it should be cancelled. It turned out however that it was indeed too big too fail. Now it is set for launch in December total cost greater than ten times the original estimate.

I know many people involved in the JWST project itself or waiting to use it to make observations, and I’ll be crossing my fingers on launch day and for the period until its remarkable folding mirror is deployed about a fortnight later. I hope it goes well, and look forward to the celebrations when it does.

There is a big problem with JWST however and that is its name, which was changed in 2002 from the Next Generation Space Telescope to the James Webb Space Telescope after James E. Webb, a civil servant who was NASA’s chief administrator from 1961 to 1968.

It’s not uncommon for scientific space missions like this to be named after people once the proposal has moved off the drawing board and into serious planning. That happened with the European Space Agency’s Planck and Herschel to give two examples. In any case Next General Space Telescope was clearly never anything but a working title. Yet naming this important mission after a Government official always seemed a strange decision to me. Then news emerged that James Webb had enthusiastically cooperated in a McCarthyite purge of LGBT+ people working in government institutions, part of a wider moral panic referred to by historians as the Lavender Scare. There have been high-profile protests (see, e.g., here) and a petition that received over a thousand signatures, but NASA has ruled out any change of name.

The main reason NASA give is that they found no evidence that Webb himself was personally involved in discrimination or persecution. I find that very unconvincing. He was in charge, so had responsibility for what went on in his organization. If he didn’t know then why didn’t he know? Oh, and by the way, he didn’t have anything to do with infrared astronomy either…

It’s a shame that this fantastic telescope should have its image so tarnished by the adoption of an inappropriate name. The name is a symbol of a time when homophobic discrimination was even more prevalent than it is now, and as such will be a constant reminder to us that NASA seems not to care about the many LGBT+ people working for them directly or as members of the wider astronomical community.

P.S. As an alternative name I suggest the Lavender Scare Space Telescope (LSST)…

Farewell to Spitzer

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on January 17, 2020 by telescoper

Just a quick post to advertise the fact that NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which was launched in 2003, is due to be `retired’ at the end of January 2020. Spitzer is an infrared telescope that has done a great number of wonderful things over the past 16 years or so. Here’s a short video giving an overview of the mission.

There will be a live-streamed event next week, on January 22nd 2020, featuring mission members and NASA leadership, at 10am PST (6pm GMT/Irish Time) during which members of the public can ask questions. For more details of this event see here.

Although it’s sad to see the end of one `Great Observatory’, hopefully it would be long before the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope which should be even greater. It certainly has a much bigger budget anyway! JWST is due to be launched in March 2021.

Countdown to Cassini’s Grand Finale

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on September 12, 2017 by telescoper

In case you didn’t realise, this week sees the end of the superbly successful NASA mission Cassini, which has been exploring Saturn, its ring systems and its many satellites since it arrived there in 2004, including sending the Huygens probe into the largest moon Titan. Its final act will be to plunge into Saturn itself, which it will do on Friday 15th September, taking measurements all the way until it is destroyed. It has already started the final manoeuvre that will end when it enters the planet’s atmosphere. Radio contact with the spacecraft is expected to be lost  just before 1pm GMT.  For further information about this final act, see here.

Cassini was launched in on October 15 1997, so its mission will have lasted  one month shy of twenty years (although there were many years of preparation before that). Although I don’t work on Solar System studies, I have followed the progress of Cassini with great interest over the years primarily because there was a group (led by Carl Murray) working on Cassini (specifically on its imaging system) at Queen Mary when I was there during the 1990s.  I was there in 1997 when the spacecraft was launched, but at that time the rendezvous date with Saturn of 2004 seemed in the unimagineably distant future. Seven years seems a very long time when you’re young!

Anyway, I’m sure Carl (along with all the other scientists working on the Cassini mission) will feel sadness when it all finally comes to an end, but the consolation will be that the mission  has been such a spectacular scientific triumph. Here’s a video about the end of Cassini, showing some of the highlights of the mission and some of the thoughts of the scientists that have been working in it for so long.


The Path of the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 6, 2017 by telescoper

I thought I’d share this nice NASA video showing the path of totality of the solar eclipse which will take place on 21st August 2017. This is he determined by the changing position of the shadow cast on the Earth’s surface by the Moon as the Earth rotates beneath it. As you can see the shadow will cross the United States of America from Oregon in the North West to South Carolina in the South East. It even passes over Kansas City on the way, so this promises to be a phenomenon that very many people will experience and enjoy.

Eclipses are not particularly rare: there are at least two every year, but most of these are partial rather than total and it is less common for totality to be witnessed from highly populated areas.

For much more information about the 2017 total eclipse of the sun, see the NASA page here.

Dunes on Mars

Posted in Art, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on November 21, 2016 by telescoper


This isn’t a new picture, but I hadn’t seen it before a friend put in on their Facebook page at the weekend. It isn’t what I first thought it was – a wonderful piece of abstract art – but is, in fact, an equally wonderful photograph of the inside of the Bunge crater on Mars, where a complex pattern of dunes has formed through wind action. The area covered by the image is about 14 kilometers wide.

According to the official NASA webpage: “This image was taken in January 2006 by the Thermal Emission Imaging System instrument on NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter and posted in a special December 2010 set marking the occasion of Odyssey becoming the longest-working Mars spacecraft in history.”