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Launch of James Webb Space Telescope will advance UTSA black hole research

Launch of James Webb Space Telescope will advance UTSA black hole research

The James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to launch on December 24 aboard a rocket in French Guinea.

DECEMBER 21, 2021 — One of the most important missions into space includes a UTSA connection. The James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to launch on December 25 aboard a rocket in French Guinea. The telescope is the largest and most powerful space science telescope in (and out of) the world.

NASA has awarded a select group of astronomers to have time on the Webb for research. Chris Packham, a professor of astronomy in the UTSA College of Sciences, is co-leading a team of international scientists conducting research on black holes. Packham, an expert in the study of black holes, regularly uses some of the largest telescopes on earth, located in Hawaii, Chile and La Palma, for his research.

Webb is an international collaboration between NASA and its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency. Thousands of engineers and scientists worked to make Webb a reality.

According to NASA, the Webb is more than 100 times more powerful than the Hubble telescope. Scientists will use the telescope to study planets and other bodies in our solar system, to determine their origin and evolution and to compare them with exoplanets, planets that orbit other stars.

“ Our team will study how these supermassive black holes could be intimately linked to the whole of the galaxy.”

“We formed an initial group of about 30 others around the world to make preparation observations for the James Webb Space Telescope. All of the science we’ve done in the past 20 years has been preparing for this moment,” Packham said. “We now have about 55 people across multiple countries with an excellent set of team skills. That's why we're distributed around the world, all the way from Japan, through to Alaska, and everywhere in between. We're well positioned to use every second of time on the telescope.”

The team Packham co-leads is called Galactic Activity Torus and Outflow Survey, or GATOS. They’ll use the Webb to increase their understanding of the interaction between active galactic nuclei—small regions at the center of a galaxy that emit huge amounts of energy in the form of radio, optical, X-ray or gamma radiation, or high-speed particle jets—powered by supermassive black holes. The light-gathering power of the Webb telescope will help the GATOS study these black holes to better understand how galaxies interact with these incredible objects at their center.  

“We now think there's a strong connection between the so-called host galaxy, and the supermassive black hole in the center. Supermassive black holes were thought to accumulate, only attracting everything in, but actually, they also expel material.” said Packham. “This expulsion of material might have a very significant impact in how galaxies form and how they evolve. Our team will study how these supermassive black holes could be intimately linked to the whole of the galaxy.” This process could have a significant effect on the evolution of galaxies, so incredibly to fully understand the Solar System and hence our own place in the universe, it might be necessary to analyze black holes.

GATOS is part of a select number of teams awarded access to the Webb telescope for research. The team was granted 53 hours on the telescope to collect its data. After their information is transmitted back to Earth, NASA will send the team an email that their data is ready for download. UTSA will store the data on a high-capacity, cloud-based OneDrive account.

The Arcticus supercomputer, located in the UTSA Advanced Visualization Laboratory, will be used by the team to process data.

“We’ll be hosting the data here for the international collaborative team. They’ll be able to log on to our OneDrive and grab the data from Spain, Japan or Alaska, wherever they are.” Packham added. “My graduate and career student scientists also benefit from our work on the Webb. They will have access to the GATOS data for their research projects.”

Learn more about Chris Packham’s research.

NASA is projecting it will take six months after liftoff for Webb to travel the one million miles to its destination in space and be ready for use. The telescope will go through an intricate process of unfolding its mirrors, sunshield and other smaller systems, cooling down, aligning and calibrating. Packham believes GATOS will be able to use its 53-hour research time in late 2022 or 2023. Until then, Packham and his fellow astronomers will wait anxiously for the Webb to blast off and begin its mission.

 “The day after the launch, GATOS is meeting on Zoom to celebrate the Webb’s launch and to toast to our future success,” Packham said. “We’ll then wait for our turn to use the Webb to advance our understanding of black holes and the formation of galaxies.”

Editor's note: The story was updated on Dec. 22 to reflect the delay in the launch to Dec 25.

Bruce Forey

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