As an astronomer, one of the truly rewarding parts of my job is to share new scientific discoveries with other astronomers. We typically do this at meetings where we give short, 15-20 minute presentations on our recent research. I usually find these meetings to be very valuable, since I can form new collaborations and get involved in cutting-edge research projects.
Recently, I found myself in a different role, as the chief scientific and local organizer for one such meeting, a major international conference. The meeting brought together almost 200 astronomers from across the world to share in “Frontier Science Opportunities with the James Webb Space Telescope.”
The process of organizing a big meeting such as this begins more than nine months before the actual meeting. Late last year, we formed a “Scientific Organizing Committee” (SOC) consisting of a dozen members of the astronomical community, including myself.
We decided that we would like to jump-start a discussion of high impact science programs that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) could perform when it launches later this decade. The goal is to get astronomers actively thinking about the telescope, so we can jump into the science quickly when it’s ready.
Next, the SOC selected about a dozen speakers and invited them to the meeting to share the diverse research topics that Webb could address. With this list of experts posted, we opened up registration in January 2011. The community responded with a flood of interest. We received dozens of requests for contributed talks and presentations. Over the past few months, I have been involved in scheduling the meeting, organizing the discussion sessions, and planning a dinner for our guests at the Maryland Science Center with a screening of the “Hubble 3D” IMAX movie.
The payoff for all of the work came when the first science talk began. The topic was how Webb could improve our understanding of the atmospheric structure of nearby planets, such as Uranus and Neptune. The next talk told us how Webb could enable discovery of the first stars that exploded in the universe, through imaging of “Pair Instability Supernovae.” We were off to a good start! With the first two talks, we had covered a range extending from the nearest objects in the universe to some of the farthest away.
The conference continued for three full days and paved the way for a very exciting Webb science case that touches on many different topics: studying extrasolar planets and their atmospheres; learning how galaxies come together by mapping the ages, motions, and chemical nature of their stars; and discovering the first galaxies that emerged when the universe was in its infancy. Although some of these science goals are similar to those defined for Webb years ago, the presentations at the meeting provided a rejuvenated interest in these endeavors. In fact, many of the science cases have become stronger in light of recent research in these fields.
We discussed the criteria astronomers would use for future discoveries with Webb. If we find a planet with water vapor in its atmosphere, what kind of other criteria would be needed to declare that planet potentially life-bearing? When we’re looking at the most distant stars in space, what litmus tests must they pass before we can determine that we’re looking at the universe’s very first stars?
“Frontier Science Opportunities with JWST” also revealed that astronomers have a lot of homework to do before the telescope launches into space. Participants emphasized the fact that we have precious resources in astronomy right now that could be used to observe the types of exotic objects Webb will study. We could make those observations now and have a wealth of additional data for astronomers to study in conjunction with the eventual Webb observations – just as space telescopes like Chandra and Spitzer have been used to provide complementary observations for Hubble. One of my goals for the next few years will be to investigate this further and come up with a plan to ensure that we fully capitalize on our existing missions to make Webb that much more successful.
Want to know more? All of the talks and Powerpoint slides for “Frontier Science Opportunities with JWST” are posted at http://webcast.stsci.edu/webcast/.