UK Students help select potential targets for the World's cutting-edge space observatory

19 September 2018

Pupils working to identify targets for the James Webb Space Telescope

Pupils from Larbert High School, Scotland, attending the launch event and working to identify potential targets for the James Webb Space Telescope.
(Credit: Institute for Research in Schools)

The Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS) are partnering with astronomers from the STFC UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) with the aim of identifying potential targets for the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be launched by NASA in 2021.

Students will contribute to studies which aim to identify how various materials were created over the history of the Universe and will allow students across the UK to gain experience in and contribute to real science.

The new project launched today involves identifying potential targets for the James Webb Space Telescope, which has been described by NASA as the world’s premier science observatory for the next decade. Scheduled for launch on an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana in early 2021, Webb will help astronomers understand more about how planets, stars and galaxies formed and evolved.

Webb’s unprecedented infrared sensitivity will allow scientists to explore massive clouds of cosmic dust to better understand how the materials around and within us are formed and spread through space.

We know that – at a chemical level – most of the materials around us were formed by stars living, dying and colliding with each other. However, there are still many questions as to how these elements are made and distributed throughout galaxies like our own Milky Way. By looking at a plot of how much light a star gives off at different wavelengths (a spectrum) and looking for tell-tale features (bumps, dips and wiggles) researchers can determine the amount and different type of elements in cosmic dust to help us identify how the materials were created and distributed over the history of the Universe.

James Webb Space Telescope

James Webb Space Telescope
(Credit: Northrop Grumman)

In this project students will be analysing spectral data from a previous mission – the Spitzer Space Telescope – which has observed over thirteen thousand point sources. Astronomers and education staff from the UK ATC have worked with IRIS to develop a classroom activity in which students examine and classify this rich collection of existing data. The ultimate goal is for students to collaborate with UK ATC astronomers on the selection of potential targets for Webb and the development of an observing proposal which makes the scientific case for pointing the huge space observatory at these objects.

The resulting work will be used to not only identify potential targets for Webb, but will also produce the first fully classified catalogue of these sources, which is expected to be of scientific value in its own right.

Schools that are interested in taking part are encouraged to contact IRIS.

For more information on IRIS and the James Webb Space Telescope project, please visit the IRIS website.

Notes to Editors

STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) is the national centre for astronomical technology. The UK ATC designs and builds instruments for many of the world’s major telescopes. It also project manages UK and international collaborations and its scientists carry out observational and theoretical research into questions such as the origins of planets and galaxies. Twitter: @UKATC

The Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS) is a charity where research is a key element of learning STEM such that both teachers and students are contributing valued members of the Scientific Community. IRIS makes cutting edge research projects open to school students and their teachers so that they can experience the excitement and challenge of science.   It makes data accessible to schools, providing teacher training and resources, and lends out scientific research equipment.  IRIS collaborates with many Universities, research institutes and industries with a view to showing how young people can contribute to science and be inspired alongside their teachers at the same time. Twitter: @ResearchInSch

Larbert High School are the current holders of the ENTHUSE Award for STEM Secondary School of the Year.  They are also the 2017 TES Education Awards STEM Team of the Year. In 2015 they won the inaugural STEM School of the Year at the Scottish Education Awards and this was the catalyst for developing their innovative approach to STEM education.

Last updated: 19 September 2018


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