Michael Meyer, PhD, professor in the U-M department of astronomy, joins this episode of Michigan Minds to provide insight on the significance of the new images taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Meyer shares his unique perspective and experience as one of the scientists who had a role in the design and construction of the telescope.
Meyer’s research focuses on how planets like Jupiter and Earth form around stars like the Sun in the Milky Way galaxy and his work involves infrared observations and characterizing young stars and planets, as well as mature planets around other stars, which we refer to as exoplanets. During his fellowship at the University of Arizona (UA), Meyer’s mentor recommended he serve on a committee considering early designs for JWST, including the instruments that would ultimately be built for it. As a junior faculty member at UA, Meyer served on a successful proposal team to build the near-infrared camera, NIRCam. He then went on to join the Canadian instrument team, NIRISS, where he was involved in various design issues—such as the filters NIRCam uses and descopes for the Canadian instrument, which led to the versatile version on JWST now.
“In the past 20, almost 25 years now, it’s been very, very exciting to be a small part of what is a huge international team of thousands of people who have contributed to this incredible success that we’re enjoying today.”
When the images from the James Webb Space Space Telescope were recently released by NASA, Meyer says two things came to mind when he finally saw those published photos. First, he explains how the galaxy cluster lensing images of distant background galaxies made him wonder just how many stars in those galaxies might host planetary systems similar enough to our own, or host life-bearing worlds. Second, Meyer draws a connection between the image of the Carina Nebula and how it looks similar to a mountain range. He illustrates a metaphor that references how hikers generally follow a path but are occasionally moved to explore hidden treasures—and similarly how astronomers will also carry-on important research which was imagined to be done with JWST, but surely the most interesting discoveries will take astronomers by complete surprise.
“I think as astronomers, that’s the kind of sense of wonder that we have. We think we know what we’re looking for. We think we know where we’re heading,” he says.
While describing the significance of the new images taken by the telescope, Meyer describes what this innovation means to space science. He draws on how the James Webb Space Telescope itself is a marvel of engineering, referencing the telescope’s access to wavelengths that cannot be observed from the ground. Meyer describes the telescope as a truly transformational facility, providing access to new windows on the universe, with explosive possibilities for discovery.
“I think the other thing that James Webb showed us is the strength of when we work together, what we can do,” Meyer says. “It really is an international partnership led by NASA, but with strong participation from the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. Also, working between universities, the government, through NASA, and our industry partners—it really shows what that kind of cooperation can do. And eventually, we will understand what kinds of technological spin-offs came from JWST and how they will have sparked innovation in our own economy going forward. All of these are things that are touched on by the success of the James Webb Space Telescope.”