A Brief History of Building a Time Machine: Developing NIRCam on the James Webb Space Telescope and Recent Findings

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This presentation is about the very recent James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Its major science objectives include: 1) Detect the first stars to ever emit light, 2) Show us how galaxies and stars were formed in the early universe and 3) Study planets orbiting other stars outside our solar system. It was successfully launched in 2021. It reached its orbital parking space at L2, a million miles away, slowly cooled down per plan, and completed all its commissioning tasks. It has been in operation since July 2022. Unlike the Hubble telescope which is taking images in the visible portion of the spectrum, this one takes images in the Near Infra Red (NIR) and the Mid Infra Red (MIR) portions of the spectrum. Infrared light is important to astronomy in three major ways.
First, some objects are just better observed in infrared wavelengths. Some bodies of matter that are cool and do not emit much energy or visible brightness.
Visible light’s short, tight wavelengths are prone to bouncing off dust particles, making it hard for visible light to escape from a dense nebula or protoplanetary cloud of gas and dust. The longer wavelengths of infrared light slip past dust more easily, and therefore instruments that detect infrared light—like those on Webb—are able to see the objects that emitted that light inside a dusty cloud. Low-energy brown dwarfs and young protostars forming in the midst of a nebula are among the difficult-to-observe cosmic objects that Webb can study. In this way, Webb will reveal a “hidden” universe of star and planet formation that is literally not visible.
Finally, infrared light holds clues to many mysteries from the beginning of everything, the first stars and galaxies in the early universe, after the big bang. Through a process called cosmological redshifting, light is stretched as the universe expands, so light from stars that is emitted in shorter ultraviolet and visible wavelengths is stretched to the longer wavelengths of infrared light.
Observation of these early days in the universe’s history will shed light on perplexing questions of dark matter and energy, black holes, galaxy evolution over time, what the first stars were like, and how we arrived at the universe we experience today.
Our guest speaker is Bruce Steakley, who was the NIRCam Chief Systems Engineer and Program Manager. The NIR Cam has ten mercury-cadmium-telluride (HgCdTe) detector arrays. These are analogous to the silicon sensors found in ordinary digital cameras. The NIRCam is a science instrument but also an Optical Telescope Element wavefront sensor. It must be cooled to near absolute zero (K) temperature in order to eliminate most of the background noise benerated in the detectors. Fortunately that is easy to do in space.
Bruce is now retired and he will take us through major observatory and NIRCam driving requirements with a deep dive into building NIRCam. Along the way, the talented teams faced significant challenges, some expected and some not. Good plans, ingenuity, attention to detail, perseverance, bad luck, and good luck all are part of the development story that led to its exceptional success. JWST images and science data are enabling a new era in astronomy. The focus of this talk will be primarily the engineering and development of the sensor sytem and not on the finished images taken from this telescope
Meanwhile, work is already underway for another leap in technology and system capability beyond JWST. If you’re interested in an authoritative site on the JWST deployment timeline, its current status, and recent images; check this out: https://webb.nasa.gov/content/webbLaunch/whereIsWebb.html
This event is exclusively for in-person attendance, and walk-ins cannot be accommodated due to limited room capacity. The specific address will be provided to those who have registered up to the morning of the event. We will attempt to make a simultaneous broadcast on zoom but we are not vertain it will work well. We will send the zoom link to everyone who registers.
Participation in the event entails a fee of $5 for each adult (18+) who wishes to avail themselves of the dinner provided. Additionally, attendees have the option to bring up to three children (14-17 years old) to the dinner at no extra cost. Registration for the presentation-only segment is free. (Please do not bring children younger than 14).
Dinner: 6-7pm (registration required, $5 per adult. If you plan to bring children, kindly register them as well but they are free.
Presentation: 7:00pm – 8:30pm (registration is required, but if no meal is needed then admission will be free)
Co-sponsored by: Life Members Affinity Group of the SCV Section
Speaker(s): Bruce Steakley
Dinner: Jan 19 6:00pm to 7:00pm
Presentation: 7:00pm to 8:30pm
Sunnyvale, California, United States, Virtual: https://events.vtools.ieee.org/m/389814

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