January 13, 2022 at 2:30pm
Dane Lisser

MU professor offers insight into James Webb Space Telescope

Christmas 2021 saw the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) that now serves NASA as another eye in the sky.

A joint effort with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency, the Webb observatory is NASA's revolutionary flagship mission to seek the light from the first galaxies in the early universe and to explore our own solar system, as well as planets orbiting other stars, called exoplanets.

On Jan. 8, NASA's James Webb Space Telescope team fully deployed its 21-foot, gold-coated primary mirror, successfully completing the final stage of the project.

In a recent interview with NowDecatur.com, Dr. Casey Watson, chair of the Physics & Astronomy Department at Millikin University, said, "This reminds me of the launch of the Hubble [Space Telescope]. There is a comparable level of excitement to what I saw and felt 32 years ago among both the astronomy community and the general public about our ability to learn vastly more about our cosmos."

The James Webb Space Telescope needed to unfold its sunshield and one of its two large mirrors to finish the deployment. It is considered to be the most powerful telescope ever launched into space.

"The telescope will revolutionize our understanding of when the first stars in the universe were formed, as well as provide more detailed information about planets orbiting other stars within our own galaxy, which may reveal signs of life," Watson said.

Watson added, "Much closer to home, however, the JWST will provide a much more comprehensive data set on near-Earth objects to see which are existential threats to the human race and give us as much time as possible to react to them."

Casey Watson Millikin University

Casey Watson

The James Webb Space Telescope is expected to stay in space for at least the next 20 years. The Hubble has the opportunity to work with the new telescope to better provide data.

Millikin University offers space-lovers a few ways to learn more and contribute to science and astronomy.

Watson noted, "Millikin offers 'The Planets' each spring … and 'Stars and Galaxies' each fall. One or both of these courses are sometimes offered if there is sufficient interest. Pre-pandemic, from the months of March to May and again from September to November, we opened up the Requarth Observatory for weekly Public Observation Nights. We hope to start those up again come this fall."

Housed on the fifth and sixth floors of the Leighty-Tabor Science Center on Millikin University's campus, the Requarth Observatory was built in 2000 and is the largest publicly available telescope in Illinois. All three 300 lb. support sections that hold the 20" (.5 meter) telescope were carried up six flights of stairs by hand. 

In addition to the main telescope, the Leighty-Tabor Science Center also features an observation deck on the fifth floor that surrounds the base of the dome. This observation deck provides the perfect platform to set up the smaller 8" telescopes that are commonly used in introductory astronomy classes.

Each semester, Millikin hosts Public Observation Nights in the Requarth Observatory to provide people on Millikin's campus and in the surrounding Decatur, Ill., community with access to some of the best astronomical equipment in the state. The observation nights have provided guests with views of distant galaxies, giant star clusters within the Milky Way, binary stars like Albireo, red super giants like Antares and Betelgeuse, blue super giants like Vega, not to mention outstanding close-ups of the solar system, including our Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and its four largest (Galilean) moons, Saturn's rings and two of its largest moons, Uranus, Neptune and even the dwarf planet, Pluto.