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UT Professor To Peer Back In Time With NASA's New Space Telescope

A model of the James Webb Space Telescope was presented at South by Southwest in 2013.

An associate professor of astronomy at UT-Austin will lead a study using the powerful successor to NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

The $8 billion James Webb Space Telescope, which is expected to launch in 2019, is said to be 100 times better than the Hubble. It will have a much larger telescope mirror, allowing scientists to see much fainter objects in greater detail.

While Hubble specializes in mostly optical light – the kind our eyes can see – Webb will study the universe using infrared light. This will allow astronomers to see into dusty, star-forming regions in our own galaxy, as well as peer into distant galaxies, which look more red as the universe expands.

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“We can’t see them with Hubble,” said UT's Steven Finkelstein, who will lead one of 13 so-called "early release science" programs associated with the new telescope. “Hubble doesn’t go red enough, but that’s going to be right in Webb’s wheelhouse.”

Finkelstein's team is made up of 105 astronomers from 10 countries and includes researchers from 28 universities in the U.S. The project is a continuation of his work using the Hubble to study the oldest galaxies in the universe.

With the ability to use infrared light, Finkelstein says, researchers will be able to discover galaxies as they existed 13.4 billion years ago. Because light takes time to travel, he and his team are essentially looking back in time.

“Light takes eight minutes to get from the sun to the Earth, so the sun could disappear and you would not know for eight minutes,” Finkelstein says. “So, if we look at extremely, extremely distant galaxies, we are seeing galaxies as they existed in the very, very, very early universe.”

Scientists have used the Hubble to look back about 500 million years after the Big Bang. Finkelstein says researchers will be able to go back even farther using the Webb to see some of the first galaxies ever to form in the universe.

“Our particular program is focused on finding these extremely distant galaxies, even more distant than Hubble can see,” Finkelstein says. “From what we know now, we ought to see galaxies to a time when the universe was 3 percent of its current age, so just the first few hundred-million years of time.”

The data Finkelstein’s team collects will be made available immediately to scientists around the world. He says they'll need to work fast, though; the Webb Space Telescope is expected to last between five and 10 years.

Nadia Hamdan is a local news anchor and host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT.
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