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NASA planetary scientist talks massive new space telescope ahead of Cal Poly talk

Illustration of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope.

Last December, NASA spearheaded the launch of a $10 billion, nearly three-story-tall telescope into space. The James Webb Space Telescope is described as a successor to the famous Hubble telescope and will be used to observe distant stars and galaxies from its eventual vantage point one million miles from Earth.

Courtesy of Stefanie Milam
Stefanie Milam in front of the James Webb Space Telescope during its construction.

Ahead of a talk at Cal Poly on Thursday, NASA's planetary scientist Stefanie Milam told KCBX News the telescope could be the most important observatory in space for the next 20 years.

Milam is a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and the new telescope’s deputy project scientist. She said the telescope observes ultraviolet, visible and near-infrared light, which will allow it to peer back billions of years to study the early history of the universe.

“We really want to push and see if we can see those infant years or those toddler years of the universe, and see how those stars and galaxies formed," Milam said.

Milam is an expert in modeling of astrochemistry, and said the James Webb Space Telescope will allow her and other scientists to study the chemistry of the atmosphere or other planets. She said it's even possible the telescope could identify extraterrestrial life.

“What we’re really looking for, though, is something unique about that chemistry suggesting that there’s some process happening. And that could be anything from geology, so volcanoes or other extreme events happening sub-surface, or it could be weather, storms — think about the giant red spot on Jupiter — [or] dust storms on Mars. Or it could actually be something more intriguing, like biology," Milam said.

Courtesy of Stefanie Milam
Stefanie Milam is a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, and is the new telescope’s deputy project scientist.

Milam's Cal Poly talk will be in-person at the university’s Advanced Technologies Laboratory, a setting she said she hopes could inspire STEM students at Cal Poly to pursue similar work.

“We’re looking at probably something like a 20-year science mission. So that means the next generation of scientists that are going to be using these telescopes are currently in grade school even, or early stages of their university career. And hopefully, they’re the ones who are going to carry on with coming up with the new things we should be using this telescope for and the next set of discoveries," Milam said.

Milam’s Thursday talk will be in-person at Cal Poly at 7p.m. It will also be online, and anyone can register for free on the university’s website.

Benjamin Purper came to KCBX in May of 2021 from California’s Inland Empire, where he spent three years as a reporter and Morning Edition host at KVCR in San Bernardino. Dozens of his stories have aired on KQED’s California Report, and his work has broadcast on NPR's news magazines, as well. In addition to radio, Ben has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.
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