NASA on Wednesday embarked on a months-long, painstaking process of bringing its newly launched James Webb Space Telescope https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/science/nasas-revolutionary-new-space-telescope-due-launch-french-guiana-2021-12-25 into focus, a task due for completion in time for the revolutionary eye in the sky to begin peering into the cosmos by early summer.
Mission control engineers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, began by sending their initial commands to tiny motors called actuators that slowly position and fine-tune the telescope’s principal mirror.
Consisting of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-plated beryllium metal, the primary mirror measures 21 feet 4 inches (6.5 m) in diameter – a much larger light-collecting surface than Webb’s predecessor, the 30-year-old Hubble Space Telescope.
The 18 segments, which had been folded together to fit inside the cargo bay of the rocket that carried the telescope to space, were unfurled with the rest of its structural components during a two-week period following Webb’s launch on Dec. 25.
Those segments must now be detached from fasteners that held them in place for the launch and then moved forward half an inch from their original configuration – a 10-day process – before they can be aligned to form a single, unbroken, light-collecting surface.
The alignment will take an additional three months, Lee Feinberg, the Webb optical telescope element manager at Goddard, told Reuters by telephone.
Aligning the primary mirror segments to form one large mirror means each segment “is aligned to one-five-thousandth the thickness of a human hair,” Feinberg said.
“All of this required us to invent things that had never been done before,” such as the actuators, which were built to move incrementally at -400 Fahrenheit (-240 Celsius) in the vacuum of space, he added.
The telescope’s smaller, secondary mirror, designed to direct light collected from the primary lens into Webb’s camera and other instruments, must also be aligned to operate as part of a cohesive optical system.
If all goes as planned, the telescope should be ready to capture its first science images in May, which would be processed over about another month before they can be released to the public, Feinberg said.
The $9-billion telescope, described by NASA as the premier space-science observatory of the next decade, will mainly view the cosmos in the infrared spectrum, allowing it to gaze through clouds of gas and dust where stars are being born. Hubble has operated primarily at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths.
Webb is about 100 times more powerful than Hubble, enabling it to observe objects at greater distances, thus farther back in time, than Hubble or any other telescope.
Astronomers say this will bring into view a glimpse of the cosmos never previously seen – dating to just 100 million years after the Big Bang, the theoretical flashpoint that set in motion the expansion of the observable universe an estimated 13.8 billion years ago.
The telescope is an international collaboration led by NASA in partnership with the European and Canadian space agencies. Northrop Grumman Corp was the primary contractor. (Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Karishma Singh)
Earth simmered to the sixth hottest year on record in 2021, according to several newly released temperature measurements. (Jan. 13)
Earth’s interior is cooling faster than we previously estimated, according to a recent study, prompting questions about how long people can live on the planet.
There’s no exact timetable on the cooling process, which could eventually turn Earth solid, similar to Mars. But results from a new study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, focuses on how quickly the core may cool by studying bridgmanite, a heat-conducting mineral commonly found at the boundary between the Earth’s core and mantle.
“Our results could give us a new perspective on the evolution of the Earth’s dynamics,” ETH Zurich professor Motohiko Murakami, the lead author of the study, said in a press release. “They suggest that Earth, like the other rocky planets Mercury and Mars, is cooling and becoming inactive much faster than expected.”
While the process may be moving quicker than previously thought, it’s a timeline that “should be hundreds of millions or even billions of years,” Murakami told USA TODAY.
The boundary between the Earth’s outer core and mantle is where the planet’s internal heat interaction exists. The scientific team studied how much bridgmanite conducts from the Earth’s core and found higher heat flow is coming from the core into the mantle, dissipating the overall heat and cooling much faster than initially thought.
“This measurement system let us show that the thermal conductivity of bridgmanite is about 1.5 times higher than assumed,” Murakami said in the press release. “We still don’t know enough about these kinds of events to pin down their timing.”
One of the most important lessons I learnt from my seven years of graduate studies is the difference between simply ‘doing’ a research project and ‘owning’ one and how to make the transition from a doer to a researcher.
I started as very much a doer. During my master’s-degree work studying proteins involved in Alzheimer’s disease, at Wuhan University, China, I relied on my supervisor — biochemist Yi Liang — to assign me to a research project, to propose ideas and sometimes to plan out sets of experiments for me. I simply had to follow protocols and produce data. I would read papers, but just the most relevant ones on the particular protein I was studying, or those involving the same methods that I was using. When I read those papers, it was to benefit my own experiments: I wasn’t looking for any deeper knowledge or understanding.
There are advantages to this approach: once everything had been mapped out for me, I was well on my way to getting my name on a paper, thanks to the data contributions I’d made. But following instructions without developing a deep understanding is not how students become successful scientists, even if they get their name on a paper.
Doing versus owning a research project
My interest in protein structures continued during my PhD programme at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada. At first, I maintained the mindset I had while pursuing my master’s: I devoted myself to laboratory work and generating data. My PhD supervisor, structural biologist Gary Shaw, didn’t give me the step-by-step instructions I was used to, however. This often confused me and made it hard for me to find an obvious way forward. Our discussions on the project always remained ‘open ended’, leaving uncertainties for me to solve and decisions for me to make.
So, instead of being told what to do next, I learnt how to think about what confused me. I tried to answer my questions by myself, and to increasingly dictate the path of my own research. My PhD supervisor constantly encouraged and empowered me to come up with ideas, proposals and experiments. He told me, “You should own your research project instead of just doing it. By the time you graduate, your goal is to be the most knowledgeable person about your research in the whole world.”
Road to owning your research
Owning my research project in this way was deeply intimidating at first: I no longer had a decision-maker with more experience to follow. But as I developed as a scientist by reading and thinking at a deeper level, and as my excitement grew from following my own curiosity, I overcame this feeling. By the time I ended the second year of my PhD programme, I felt much more confident in my abilities as a researcher — not just as a data-gatherer.
Owning my project triggered some deep thinking that further inspired me to establish hypotheses, methodologies and collaborations with researchers around the world. In the last year of my PhD programme, I e-mailed neuroscientist Sandra Cooper at the University of Sydney, Australia, to discuss a few technical questions about her 2017 publication in the Journal of Biological Chemistry1. She kindly connected me to computational biologist Bradley Williams at the Jain Foundation in Seattle, Washington.
This was the start of a long-term collaboration between our labs, and I got to learn a lot about computational biology from them. The collaboration changed the direction of my project to some extent and brought a completely new perspective to my research and my lab.
Here are some tips I’d give anyone who wants to learn to own their research project.
1. Think beyond day-to-day bench work. Even if most of your time is allocated to doing lab work, don’t let it take over and become the core of your work. Instead, spend time thinking about why you’re doing particular experiments. What are you trying to achieve? What can you learn? What information is missing? All lab work should be driven by a clear rationale based on the literature, and motivated by a desire to answer scientific questions.
2. Make short- and long-term plans. Your supervisor might plan for you sometimes, but it’s important to be your own pilot. Make to-do lists for each day, week and month, so you know what you’re expecting and what you should prioritize. By doing this, you will learn how to make adjustments and better manage your time. Set goals along the way and enjoy every achievement — big and small.
3. Use all available resources. Science should not be a lone battle. Your supervisor, your lab mates and people from other labs are all resources that can help you with your research. There’s also a rich store of online advice and tools you can use to support yourself. For example, I found great help from Q&A forums on ResearchGate, a social-networking website for scientists. Don’t shy away from initiating conversations with researchers outside your department or institution if you think they could be helpful.
4. Communicate your research. Discussing your research at seminars and conferences, and with members of the public, requires your full understanding of it: I found that speaking at conferences helped me to discover what I didn’t understand in my field. Communication sparks collaboration and allows you to look at your research in contexts you might have not considered, which could in turn inspire ideas.
Of course, self-directed research has downsides. It won’t always give you the best results. You’re also likely to go through more trial and error. Not all the data you collect will be publishable — and some of it might feel like it’s downright useless. Certainly, the road to get my PhD work published was a winding, bumpy one. But nothing is more rewarding than owning up to your failures, pushing past each obstacle and finding a way to move forward.
A huge asteroid made its closest approach of the next two centuries Tuesday (Jan. 18), flying quite safely past our planet.
Asteroid 7482 (1994 PC1), which is classified as a near-Earth asteroid, only got within five lunar distances of our planet, the equivalent of 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers).
The Virtual Telescope Project, which is based in Rome, hosted a livestream allowing viewers to watch the 3,400-foot-wide (1 km) object during the closest part of its flyby, which occurred at 4:51 p.m. EST (2151 GMT).
Any asteroids or comets (which can be very loosely defined as icy space rocks trailed by gassy tails) that come within 1.3 astronomical units (120.9 million miles, or 194.5 million km) qualify as near-Earth objects, or NEOs, according to NASA. (One astronomical unit is equal to the average distance between the Earth and the sun).
While there are no known objects “out there” that may pose an immediate threat for Earth, NASA does keep its eyes peeled. Through partner telescopes in space and on the ground, it monitors and hunts NEOs while assessing potentially hazardous ones through the Planetary Defense Coordination Office.
The agency also tests out technology for potential planetary defense, including the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) that will seek to alter the path of an asteroid’s moonlet in the fall of 2022.
On a larger scale, NASA has a mandate from Congress to seek and report at least 90 percent of all NEOs 460 feet (140 meters) and larger, which would include 7482 (1994 PC1). The agency was tasked to finish the survey by 2020, but was unable to meet the deadline. That said, a dedicated world-hunting telescope called NEO Surveyor is planned to launch in 2026 to wrap up the work in the following 10 years.
Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.
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