24 Karat Magic at L2

The Luhr’s Performing Arts Center was astir with excited space enthusiasts Wednesday night as professors, students and community members marveled at a presentation by Dr. Eric Smith, the program director for the James Webb Space Telescope.

The JWST is an international collaborative project to create the most powerful telescope ever built in order to observe stars and exoplanets much further and more clearly than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, could ever do. It is different than the HST in many ways – its diameter is over twice as large, it registers light in the infrared wavelength rather than the visible and it will be much further away from Earth the the HST.

“The title of my speech is a shameless attempt to appeal to the younger crowd,” said Smith to a round of laughter from the audience. It is a play on the fact that the primary mirror is made of gold-plated beryllium and it will reside at the Earth and Sun’s second Lagrange point (L2), about a million miles away from Earth.

Smith’s speech focused on the history of telescopes, the technical wonders of the JWST, and some of the science that goes into making such a powerful telescope.

The uses for the device are numerous, but the different generations of scientists on the project have very different ideas about its principal use.

“There is a pretty distinct age barrier [dividing scientists’ opinions],” explained Smith. He claims that those below 40 are primarily interested in exoplanets, while those 45 and older are more interested in very deep space to observe objects around the beginnings of the universe, as well as inside nebulae to gain insight into how stars form.

While the HST can view objects as old as 14 billion years, the resolution is far inferior to that of the JWST. Hubble’s successor is also capable of viewing much further due to its larger mirror.

Smith also took the time to answer questions about his history with the project. He started in the 1990s at NASA to complete his postdoctoral work as a scientist, but quickly found himself making the foray into the administrative side of the organization. Although many scientists seem to make this transition due to their ability to translate complicated scientific ideas into layman’s terms, Smith was quick to point out that his journey is not everyone’s.

“In fact, I would say [my path] is very atypical,” explained Smith to an aspiring scientist from the audience.

Smith’s lecture was part of the Kirkland-Spizuoco lecture series at Shippensburg University. The program was founded to honor the memory of the titular faculty members, both of whom died in 1999. The lectures alternate years, being based primarily in either biology or physics in homage to the respective departments of the late Drs. Kirkland and Spizuoco.

For more information on the James Webb Space Telescope, visit http://jwst.nasa.gov.

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