Auburn physics professor discusses new revolutionary telescope, recent space-related news

Published: December 08, 2021
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Space-related storylines have proliferated the news in recent weeks, from reports of space debris forcing astronauts at the International Space Station, or ISS, to take shelter or maneuver the station out of harm’s way, to satellite launches aimed at meteors. In addition, NASA will launch a revolutionary telescope on Dec. 18 that will give scientists expanded capabilities for novel research projects designed to study the formation of planets. Auburn University Associate Professor of Physics Dennis Bodewits discussed the recent news and what the future may hold for space research.

NASA plans to launch the James Webb Space Telescope into orbit on Saturday, Dec. 18. What can you tell us about what the revolutionary telescope will allow scientists like yourself to do and explore that has yet to be possible, even with the Hubble Telescope?

We scientists are very excited about the capabilities of JWST. It is designed for observations in Infrared light and will be very good in detecting the emission of molecules. Its sensitivity will allow scientists to search for water vapor throughout the solar system, to look at the atmospheres of exoplanets and to study the formation of planets.

You are part of two observing campaigns with the telescope. When will those campaigns take place, what are your plans for your time with the revolutionary technology, and what do you hope to discover?

Comets are thought to be icy leftovers of the time when the planets formed, and asteroids are their rocky counterparts that formed closer to the sun. But in the past years, we’ve discovered that the story is not that simple. Even though they are relatively close to the sun, some asteroids contain a lot of water and some even behave like comets, sprouting a tail every time they approach the sun. JWST will allow us for the first time to determine what gases drive that activity and how much water or ice these asteroids contain. We hope this helps to settle the score whether asteroids or comets delivered water to Earth.

Switching gears, there have been multiple reports recently about the International Space Station being forced to avoid or dodge space debris and astronauts being forced to take shelter in a spacecraft attached to the station because of close passes with debris. What do you know about these incidents, and is there anything that can be done about the seemingly growing occurrence?

Unfortunately, there have been multiple countries now that have tested satellite-destruction technologies that have resulted in clouds of very fast-moving debris in space. This is connected to my research in multiple ways. We use a telescope on board the ISS to study the interaction between comets and the solar wind, so we follow the news about the ISS closely.

In addition, in my field of planetary science the first missions to unknown objects are often fly-by missions, where a probe passes closely to objects like a comet, planet, or dwarf planets like Pluto. These probes are very fast—New Horizons passed Pluto at 52,000 miles per hour. At those speeds, even small dust particles can be fatal. But New Horizons, of course, did not have any astronauts on board. Finally, my favorite objects, comets, are often the culprit of “natural debris.” Their tails consist of fast-moving dust particles that wreak havoc on spacecraft, and they are in fact responsible for meteor showers when Earth moves through them.

Other recent space-related news involved SpaceX launching NASA’s DART spacecraft to intercept and alter the orbit of an asteroid. What can you tell us about this mission, how the kinetic impact will be measured by NASA and what can scientists learn from it going forward?

We have had several close calls with asteroids passing closely by Earth, and an asteroid impact 65 million years ago ended the era of the dinosaurs. We had an asteroid the size of the Jordan-Hare Stadium hit Wetumpka, Alabama, some 100 million years ago. Impacts can clearly be a threat, and we need to study how to mitigate these early. Most scientists agree that blowing up asteroids would only make the problem worse, so DART is a very clever mission to study how to deflect asteroids a little bit more subtly. It will hit the smaller of a pair of asteroids that orbit each other, and then observers from Earth will determine how much it moved. In fact, Auburn Aerospace Professor Masatoshi Hirabayashi and his graduate students are participating in this mission.

More Information Media interested in interviewing Bodewits can contact Maria Gebhardt, director of communications for the College of Sciences and Mathematics, at mcg0052@auburn.edu.