Cycling scientist educates Kiwis on new space telescope

American scientist Scott Acton helped develop computer algorithms for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, which will ...
Warwick Smith

American scientist Scott Acton helped develop computer algorithms for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, which will launch in 2018

An American scientist, cycling his way through New Zealand, brings with him insight into the dawn of the universe. 

For the past 15 years, Scott Acton has been working on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a replacement for the Hubble Telescope, which is nearing the end of its operational life.

Since April 2016, he has ridden across the United States, Canada and Europe. He's given nearly 40 lectures on the JWST to everybody from astronomers to starry-eyed school children.

"It's been quite a diverse audience. The children are usually very excited about it – so are the astronomers in a different, quieter, way."

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Acton arrived in New Zealand on Christmas Eve and has made his way down to Palmerston North this week.

Hokowhitu man Andrew Ninness hosted Acton. The two had met via an online forum for travelling cyclists.

"It's fascinating talking with Scott about [the telescope], particularly when he's speculating about what they might find," Ninness said.

The telescope is an international collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

Acton said he couldn't wait to see what the JWST would uncover after its launch late next year.

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"Instrumentation is always the key enabler of scientific progress. When you have an instrument that lets you look where no-one has looked before everything you see is a new discovery."

Because of the time it takes for light to travel, the deeper you look into space, the deeper you can peer into the history of the universe.

The initial expansion of the universe, the Big Bang, happened roughly 13.7 billion years ago, and theorists believe it took about 400 million years for the first stars to ignite and the first galaxies to form.

Hubble allowed scientists to refine their estimates of when that happened, but it couldn't gaze deeply in time and space. The JWST could, Action said.

"We should be able to see that happening. We've seen a handful of early galaxies, but we've had to cheat with gravitational lensing - that's when we look at light going past a star, and the effect of its gravity acts like a giant magnifying glass." 

Acton said the JWST would give us the clearest pictures of that time we've ever had, once it's in position – 1.5 million kilometres from Earth, four times further away than the moon.

Action rode on from Manawatu on Thursday. 

 - Stuff

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