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A Texas astronomer prepares to peer deep into space with the new James Webb Space Telescope

Caitlin Casey, an astronomer with the University of Texas and the Big Bend region’s McDonald Observatory, will co-lead the largest research project in the first year of the powerful new telescope’s operation.

By Travis Bubenik

This month, the largest and most powerful space telescope ever built is launching into space from South America.

The James Webb Space Telescope, named after one of NASA’s earliest administrators, is bigger than the famous Hubble Space Telescope and is expected to give astronomers a much deeper understanding of our universe.

Astronomers from all over the world will use the telescope to explore the mysteries of the cosmos, but Texas researcher Caitlin Casey is co-leading the most ambitious project in the telescope’s first year.

The project, known as the Cosmic Evolution Survey or “COSMOS-Webb”, aims to survey half a million galaxies, observations that astronomers from around the globe will be able to use in their own research.

Casey joined us to talk more about the goals of the project.

Interview Highlights

Setting out to see things never before observed by the human eye

“We are looking for so many things, among them, the most distant galaxies that have ever been found,” Casey said. “We will be able to find galaxies that, believe it or not, formed something like 400 million years after the Big Bang.”

When astronomers look deep into space, they’re also looking back in time. With the COSMOS-Webb project, researchers will be looking more than 13 billion years into the past, Casey said.

“We hope to see the first collections of stars that first lit up the universe,” she said.

The scientific goals of COSMOS-Webb

Casey described the project’s overall goal as “pretty off-the-wall ambitious.”

The researchers aim to put together a much more expansive version of the famous “Deep Field” images taken by the Hubble telescope.

“The Hubble Deep Field covers about the size of a head of a pen, if you’re holding that pen at arm’s length, on the sky,” Casey said. “With COSMOS-Webb, we’re covering an area that’s roughly the size of three full moons, so that’s pretty large.”

Casey said the data researchers gather could reveal some of the “largest structures that exist in the cosmos.”

“These are larger than galaxies, larger than galaxy clusters,” she said. “These are the fundamental filaments that link everything in the universe with everything else, and we’re trying to find those filaments at the dawn of time.”

What the universe will look like through the Webb telescope

“We expect these images to look absolutely stunning.” Casey said.

The images are expected to appear similar to what astronomers have seen with the Hubble telescope, but with many more distinct objects.

“We will still see exquisite galaxies that have spiral arms and are colliding with one other,” Casey said. “We expect them to be really quite stunning - they’re also going to be higher resolution images than Hubble has given us.” 

The personal meaning of this moment

“It’s pretty profound,” Casey said, noting the years of work it’s taken researchers to get to this point.

“When [the Webb telescope] first got going as a project, I was still in elementary school,” Casey said. 

“I feel just so lucky to be a part of it,” she said. “I think everyone in the world, too, should feel lucky that we get to be alive at this wonderful time, when we’re going to see the most distant objects that humans have ever seen.”

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.