Science & Technology

Spanish scientist nervous about her turn to use Webb telescope

By Jorge A. Bañales

Washington, Mar 22 (EFE).- The James Webb Space Telescope, the largest telescope ever sent into space, recently finished deploying its 18 hexagonal mirrors covered in a microscopically thin layer of gold, and Spanish planetary scientist Noemi Pinilla Alonso is now nervously and impatiently waiting for her turn to use the complex instrument to explore the composition and origin of objects beyond the orbit of the planet Neptune.

“The study will give us data about the first stages of formation and evolution of the Solar System,” Pinilla told EFE in an interview.

“The objects in Kuiper Belt, also known as trans-Neptunian objects, are frozen time capsules that will give us knowledge about the gas and dust cloud that formed the Solar System,” she said.

The unmanned Webb telescope, launched on Dec. 25, 2021, is now at its planned destination 1.6 million kilometers (1 million miles) from Earth, and at the beginning of March it finished deploying and aligning its 18 mirrors made of beryllium covered with gold that now form a single mirror 6.5 meters (21.3 feet) in diameter.

Pinilla, who has worked at the University of Central Florida’s Space Institute since 2015, is the lead investigator on one project and co-investigator on two others that will use the quota of time allocated on the Webb ‘scope to study the heavenly bodies that orbit the Sun beyond the orbit of the gas giant Neptune, the farthest known planet from the Sun since Pluto’s planetary status was rescinded in 2006.

In 2017, the Telescope Allocation Committee issued a call for research proposals using the Webb and by the end of 2020 the group had received more than 1,100 from 44 countries, totaling more than 24,000 hours of use on the huge telescope.

The committee made up of 200 astronomical experts from all over the world, approved 286 proposals and allocated a total of 6,031 hours of telescope use, with Pinilla receiving 100 hours.

“It’s a complicated system for assigning time to users,” Pinilla said. “It takes time to prepare and to aim (the telescope). We made a list of 59 trans-Neptunian objects (to observe) and we need them all.”

Her team also includes Charles Schambeau and Brazilians Ana Carolina de Souza Feliciano and Mario De Pra, all of whom are scientists working at the Florida Space Institute.

“In the coming months we’ll get into the first cycles of observation focused on determining what the Solar System’s small bodies are made of,” said Pinilla, who in 2009 obtained her doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics at Spain’s Universidad de La Laguna.

“It’s a variety of objects and what we’re looking for is to understand not only what the largest are made of but also the smallest,” she said.

“Each individual object will give us information about its composition while the study of the entire sample will round out knowledge of the entire region,” she emphasized.

NASA describes the Kuiper Belt as the ring of icy bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune, of which Pluto – now called a dwarf planet – is the most famous and since 1930, when it was discovered, was considered to be the ninth planet from the Sun.

“We believe that that region is the ice reserve in the Solar System,” said Pinilla, who formerly was a researcher at the University of Tennessee’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

“Our research is not focused on the big planets or on the asteroids, but rather on these small frozen bodies which, despite being called small, are a great source of information,” she said.

The project will seek to determine the composition of the surface of smaller space bodies and the mechanisms by which their surfaces change, which will lead to an understanding of the conditions of their formation and evolution.

Pinilla said that the Webb telescope will allow scientists to use longer wavelengths and more sensitive equipment to observe objects in the Solar System and far beyond, adding that interpreting the data collected from the various projects will take years.

“Some of the analyses could be more immediate, but you have to add the time for processing the data,” she said. “It’s a new instrument and we have to learn in practice how to process the information to use it in the best way.”

The analysis will enable scientists to know how much water is to be found on a space body, what proportion of ices it has and if it has processed materials or if there is dust on the surface that would indicate that at some time it could have had an atmosphere.

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