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UCF researchers eagerly await first images from the James Webb Space Telescope

UCF physics graduate student Olga Harrington Pinto is counting the minutes to July 12. She is one of eight UCF researchers and an alumnus who will use the world’s most powerful space telescope as soon as NASA gives the green light on Thursday.

This is when the final verifications of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) should be complete and NASA should release the first deep space images to the public. The telescope has been over two decades in the making. Scientists around the world will use its cutting-edge instruments to find new galaxies, explore star formation, and provide us with unprecedented data on the physical and chemical properties of planetary systems, including our own.

“It’s super exciting,” said Harrington Pinto. “I know the delay wasn’t significant, but it allowed me to be part of a team that’s actually going to use JWST data to do research. We’re expecting data this month, so…it’s just an amazing opportunity for me as a graduate student to be able to work on that.

Olga Harrington Pinto

More than 1,100 submissions from 44 countries competed for time on the telescope in its first year of operation. A total of 286 proposals were selected representing 6,031 hours. In total, UCF scientists and alumni will spend more than 100 hours using the telescope in 2022-2023.

Here is a sampling of some of the projects UCF is working on.

If it walks like an asteroid, but quacks like a comet…

Harrington is part of the team that will examine objects known as Centaurs that live beyond Jupiter. These objects appear to be asteroids, but act much like comets, presenting quite the mystery. Adam McKay of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and American University leads the team that includes UCF physics professor Yan Fernandez and Florida Space Institute (FSI) assistant scientist Charles Schambeau. Towards the end of this month they will examine Centaur 39P/Oterma and later this year they will use more time to examine other Centaurs.

“My role is to make sure we know where to tell the JWST to point to so we’re actually ‘looking’ at the right object,” says Schambeau. “Many of our targets have not been seen for many years. We need to verify that their orbits can be well characterized so that we can be sure that the telescope finds them quickly and that we can get our data.

Schambeau has been leading a ground-based observing program for two years at the Gemini Observatory’s twin 8-meter telescopes in Hawaii and Chile. Telescopes have been looking for these moving centaurs to narrow the space for the JWST and to help put the JWST observations into better context.

These objects are important because they don’t act as intended, says Fernandez. He, Harrington Pinto, and Schambeau will help analyze the data from the telescope, and they’re looking for some vaporizing gas from the Centaurs. By comparing the gas signatures of centaurs with those of known comets in the inner solar system, they hope to understand why these centaurs act so much like comets. The gases they are most interested in are carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide as well as water. The relative amounts of these gases can help answer key questions about the structure and composition of comets and the early formation of planets in our solar system.

Studying comets and centaurs is really about studying the origins of our solar system, and JWST will make a huge difference to our efforts, Fernandez says. The telescope is so much larger and more sensitive than anything we have now that our team’s work wouldn’t be possible otherwise, he said.

Yan Fernandez

For Harrington Pinto, the project is essential to a successful doctorate. dissertation and diploma by December 2022. His goal – to continue to conduct research and unravel new scientific mysteries.

“Science is a philosophy of learning,” she says. “It’s not just about solving problems. It is the acquisition of knowledge from our exploration that can help us here on Earth. People don’t realize that a lot of the technology we develop for space can also help us solve problems here on Earth.

DiSCo Party Beyond Neptune

UCF-based FSI planetary scientist Noemi Pinilla Alonso is leading a team of researchers that will explore 59 Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs). The observation windows for these TNOs will open in early fall and extend through July 2023. These objects found after Neptune are thought to include some of the most primitive and unprocessed material in the solar system and preserve evidence of how the solar system first formed. The TNOs have been studied with ground-based telescopes for years, but the available technology is at its limits.

The telescope’s near-infrared spectrograph will be able to provide high-quality data, even in its low-resolving mode, that will surpass the quality of data available from Earth by magnitude 10, according to postdoctoral researcher Ana Carolina. De Souza Feliciano, who is writing code that will analyze the data. The objective of the project is to evaluate the relative ratio of water ice, complex organic compounds, silicates and volatiles on the surface of a large sample of TNO.

“This information is essential for improving models of the formation of our solar system and other planetary systems and relates to disciplines such as astrochemistry, cosmochemistry and astrobiology, being relevant to our understanding of the origin of the water and life on Earth and maybe elsewhere,” says De Souza Feliciano. “It’s super exciting because for the very first time, we’ll get to see the signatures of components that wouldn’t have been detectable before. At this point, I can’t wait to see the data.

The project is nicknamed DiSCo, because its full name is a mouthful: Discovering the Composition of the tTans-Neptunian Objects, icy Embryos for Planet Formation.

“My countdown to the release of the JWST scientific data was a succession of hackathons and virtual meetings,” says Pinilla Alonso. “At the beginning of this month, I will be able to take a look at some data and start working on the analysis. It’s going to be very revealing and I’m wearing my fingernails in anticipation.

Other members of this science team include FSI science assistants Mário De Prá and Schambeau and graduate student Brittany Harvison, from UCF’s physics department.

Mario De Pra

Psyche bound

UCF graduate Stephanie Jarmak PhD ’20PhD will use the JWST to search for water on the asteroid Psyche, located between Mars and Jupiter. It’s the same target of a NASA mission due to launch from Kennedy Space Center in August.

“Our planned observations will provide high-resolution spectra in a range of wavelengths inaccessible to the spacecraft on the Psyche mission,” says Jarmak, a postdoctoral fellow at the Southwest Research Institute in Texas. “Our ability to characterize various compositional features on the surface of Psyche will provide key context for the observations of the Psyche mission. In particular, the main objective of our program is to unambiguously identify the presence of water or hydroxyl on Psyche to constrain the possible formation of Psyche and the history of its impact, and these observations will provide uncritical context. only for the next Psyche mission, but also for the interpretation of hydration. characteristics observed on asteroids in general.

The asteroid is of particular interest because it appears to be the exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet.

Stephanie Jarmak

“Deep within the rocky terrestrial planets – including Earth – scientists infer the presence of metallic cores, but these are found far below the rocky mantles and crusts of the planets. Because we cannot see or measure Earth’s core, Psyche offers a unique window into the violent history of collisions and accretion that created terrestrial planets,” according to the Psyche Mission website.

The JWST will offer rich data ahead of the spacecraft’s arrival on the asteroid in 2026. Jarmak, who has worked on experiments that have flown on the Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic spacecraft, is thrilled to have the opportunity to getting an early peak and what it could mean for our understanding of asteroids.

“The sensitivity and spectral resolution available with the JWST in the infrared wavelength ranges will revolutionize the study of hydrated materials on solar system bodies,” Jarmak said.

FSI scientist Zoe Landsman is a co-investigator on the project. The telescope’s first observing period is scheduled for early 2023 and a second opportunity between December 2023 and December 2024.

Pluto and one of its five moons, Charon

Pinilla Alonso and de Souza Feliciano are also part of a team studying Pluto and Charon, one of its moons. Emmanuel Lellouch, astronomer at the Paris Observatory, is leading the mission. There are also collaborators at NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute.

The research team will use the telescope to collect data to answer questions about Pluto’s climate evolution, atmospheric chemistry and energy balance, and the thermal and compositional properties of Pluto’s and Charon’s surfaces. .

The other moons of Ariel and Uranus: Umbriel, Titania and Oberon

UCF’s Pinilla Alonso is also part of the team studying the moons of Uranus. Planetary astronomy researcher Richard Cartwright of the SETI Institute is leading the project. Collaborators include scientists from NASA, Lowell Observatory and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. The team aims to study materials on the moons of Uranus, which could indicate that they once supported the oceans. Researchers will look for spectral evidence of ocean activity and characterize organic matter on their surface. The information should give the team information to assess how the moons formed in the Uranian subnebula.

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