A Needle in A Needlestack

“How’d they find that far-away star, Cathleen? Seems like you’d have to know just where to point your telescope.”

“It’s worse than that, Al, first you’ve got to find that telescope, or more precisely, its lens. We can’t simply swing a black hole or galaxy cluster into position for a good look at something interesting. No, we have to discover lensing objects that magnify good stuff beyond them. The good news is that some of those are out there, but the bad news is that the sky is cluttered with far more objects that don’t play the game we want. This research team appears to have hit paydirt but they did it with humungous power shovels and heavy‑duty panning techniques.”

“Impressive metaphor, Cathleen. Could you un‑metaphor it for us?”

“Sure, Sy. The power shovels are Hubble and Spitzer, both of which piled up beaucoodles of data from decades of infrared observing time.”

“I thought Hubble was designed for visible and UV surveillance.”

“It is, mostly, but since 2009 its instrument suite included WFC3, a camera that’s sensitive out to 1700 nanometers and covers a square 2 arcminutes on a side. That’s a lot, by big‑telescope astronomy standards.”

“Wait, arcminutes?”

“That’s right, Mr Feder. We astronomers have trouble with distances but we’re good at measuring angles. The Moon’s about a degree across. One degree is sixty arcminutes, next step down is sixty arcseconds per arcminute. After that we go semi‑metric, milliarcseconds and so forth. One WFC3 pixel records a patch of sky 130 milliarcseconds across. JWST‘s NIRCam instrument has a resolution twice as sharp. Anyway, Hubble‘s 1700‑nanometer limit is plenty good enough to pick up 120‑nanometer hydrogen light that’s been stretched out by a factor of z=2.8. Distance and stretch correlate; the lens that highlighted Earendel and its Sunrise Arc for NASA and Vinnie is that far away.”

“How far away?”

“It’s tricky to answer that. The spectra we see let us measure an object’s z‑factor, which by way of the Doppler effect tells us how fast the object is moving away. Hubble’s constant ties that to distance, sort of. My convenient rule of thumb is that an object whose z is near 2 is running away at 80% of lightspeed and on the average is about 55 trillion lightyears from us but don’t quote me because relativity complicates matters. Using the same dicey calculation I estimated the lens and Earendel velocities at 87% and 96% of lightspeed, which would put their ‘proper distances‘ around 60 and 66 trillion lightyears away. And no, I’m not going to go into ‘proper distance‘ versus ‘comoving distance‘.”

“Let’s get back to your metaphor, Cathleen. I get that Hubble and Spitzer and such generated a ton of data. What’s the panning part about?”

“Well, in the old days it would have been hired hands and graduate students spending years peering at dots on photographic plates. These days it’s computers, thank Heaven. The research team used a series of programs to filter their digital data. The software had to decide which dots are stars or noise specks and which are galaxies or arcs. Then it picked out the reddest red galaxy images, then clusters of galaxy images at the same redness level that are near each other in space, then clusters with arcs around them. I said that WFC3 covers a square 2 arcminutes on a side, remember? The sky, both hemispheres, contains almost 2½ million squares like that, although the surveys didn’t get all of them. Anyhow, after burning through cubic acres of computer time the team found 41 deep red lensing clusters.”

“Only 41.”


We ponder that for a minute, then Vinnie pipes up. “Wait, the dots are in color?”

“No, but these images are generally taken through a filter that transmits only a known narrow wavelength range, infrared or whatever. Using relative dot intensity at several different wavelengths you can create ‘false color‘ images. When you find something, you know where to point spectroscopic tools to be sure you’ve found the good stuff.”

“Like a star shining less than a billion years after the Big Bang.”


Image adapted from NASA and STScI

~~ Rich Olcott

Lord Rayleigh Resolves

Mr Feder just doesn’t quit. “But why did they make JWST so big? We’re getting perfectly good pictures from Hubble and it’s what, a third the size?”

Al’s brought over a fresh pot and he’s refilling our coffee mugs. “Chalk it up to good old ‘because we can.’ Rockets are bigger than in Hubble‘s day, robots can do more remote stuff by themselves, it all lets us make a bigger scope.”

Cathleen smiles. “There’s more to it than that, Al. It’s really about catching photons. You’re nearly correct, Mr Feder, the diameter ratio is 2.7. But photons aren’t captured by a line across the primary mirror, they’re captured by the mirror’s entire area. The important JSWT:Hubble ratio is between their areas. JWST beats Hubble there by a factor of 7.3. For a given source and the same time interval, we’d expect JWST to be that much more sensitive than Hubble.”

“Well,” I break in, “except that the two use photon detectors that are sensitive to different energy ranges. The two scopes often won’t even be looking at the same kinds of object. Hubble‘s specialized for visible and UV light. It’s easy to design detectors for that range because electrons in solid‑state devices respond readily to the high‑energy photons. The infrared light photons that JWST‘s designed for don’t have enough energy to kick electrons around the same way. Not really a fair comparison, although everything I’ve read says that JWST‘s sensitivity will be way up there.”

Mr Feder is derisive. “‘Way up there.’ Har, har, de-har. I suppose you’re proud of that.”

“Not really, it just happened. But Cathleen, I’m surprised that you as an astronomer didn’t bring up the other reason the designers went big for JWST.”

“True, but it’s more technical. You’re thinking of resolution and Rayleigh’s diffraction limit, aren’t you?”

“Bingo. Except Rayleigh derived that limit from the Airy disk.”

“Disks in the air? We got UFOs now? What’re you guys talking about?”

Portrait of Sir George Airy
licensed under the Creative Commons
Attribution 4.0 International license.

“No UFOs, Mr Feder, I’ll try to be non‑technical. Except for the big close objects like the Sun and its planets, telescopes show heavenly bodies as circular disks accompanied by faint rings. In the early 1800s an astronomer named George Airy proved that the patterns are an illusion produced by the telescope. His math showed that even the best possible apparatus will force lightwaves from any small distant light source to converge to a ringed circular disk, not a point. The disk’s size depends on the ratio between the light’s wavelength and the diameter of the telescope’s light‑gathering aperture. How am I doing, Al?”

“Fine so far.”

“Good. Rayleigh took that one step further. Suppose you’re looking at two stars that are very close together in the sky. You’d expect to see two Airy patterns. However, if the innermost ring from one star overlaps the other star’s disk, you can’t resolve the two images. That’s the basis for Rayleigh’s resolvability criterion — the angle between the star images, measured in arc‑seconds, has to be at least 252000 times the wavelength divided by the diameter.”

After a diagram by cmglee
licensed under the Creative Commons
Attribution 3.0 International license.

“But blue light’s got a shorter wavelength than red light. Doesn’t that say that my scope can resolve close-together blue stars better than red stars?”

“Sure does, except stars don’t emit just one color. In visible light the disk and rings are all rimmed with reddish and bluish fuzz. The principle works just fine when you’re looking at a single wavelength. That gets me to the answer to Mr Feder’s question. It’s buried in this really elegant diagram I just happen to have on my laptop. Going across we’ve got the theoretical minimum angle for resolving two stars. Going up we’ve got aperture diameters, running from the pupil of your eye up to radio telescope coalitions that span continents. The colored diagonal bands are different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. The red bars mark each scope’s sensor wavelength range. Turns out JWST‘s size compared to Hubble almost exactly compensates for the longer wavelengths it reports on.”

~~ Rich Olcott

A Tale of Four Brothers

Jim hands the mic to Cathleen, who announces, “Bio-break time. Please be back here in 15 minutes for the next speaker. Al will have fresh coffee and scones for us.” <a quarter-hour later> “Welcome back, everyone, to the next session of our ‘IR, Spitzer and the Universe‘ memorial symposium. Our next speaker will turn our focus to the Spitzer Space Telescope itself. Newt?”

“Thanks, Cathleen. Let’s start with a portrait of Spitzer. I’m putting this up because Spitzer‘s general configuration would fit all four of NASA’s Great Observatories…

A NASA artist’s impression of Spitzer against an IR view of the Milky Way’s dust

“Each of them was designed to be carried into space by one of NASA’s space shuttles so they had to fit into a shuttle’s cargo bay — a cylinder sixty feet long and fifteen feet in diameter. Knock off a foot or so each way to allow for packing materials and loading leeway.”

<voice from the crowd> “How come they had to be in space? It’d be a lot cheaper on the ground.”

“If you’re cynical you might say that NASA had built these shuttles and they needed to have some work for them to do. But the real reasons go back to Lyman Spitzer (name sound familiar?). Right after World War II he wrote a paper listing the benefits of doing Astronomy outside of our atmosphere. We think Earth’s atmosphere is transparent, but that’s only mostly true and only at certain wavelengths. Water vapor and other gases block out great swathes of the infrared range. Hydrogen and other atoms absorb in the ultraviolet and beyond. Even in the visible range we’ve got dust and clouds. And of course there’s atmospheric turbulence that makes stars twinkle and astronomers curse.”

“So he wanted to put telescopes above all that.”

“Absolutely. He leveraged his multiple high-visibility posts at Princeton, constantly promoting government support of high-altitude Astronomy. He was one of the Big Names behind getting NASA approved in the first place. He lived to see the Hubble Space Telescope go into service, but unfortunately he died just a couple of years before its IR companion was put into orbit.”

“So they named it after him?”

“They did, indeed. The Spitzer was the fourth and final product of NASA’s ‘Great Observatories’ program designed to investigate the Universe from beyond Earth’s atmosphere. The Hubble Space Telescope was first. It was built to observe visible light but it also gave NASA experience doing unexpected inflight satellite repairs. <scattered chuckles in the audience. The maybe-an-Art-major nudges a neighbor for a whispered explanation.> The Atlantis shuttle put Hubble into orbit in 1990. Thirty years later it’s still producing great science for us.”

<The maybe-an-Art-major yells out> “And beautiful pictures!”

“Yes, indeed. OK, a year later Atlantis put Compton Gamma Ray Observatory into orbit. Its sensors covered a huge range of the spectrum, about twenty octaves as Jim would put it, from hard X-rays on upward. In its nine years of life it found nearly 300 sources for those high-energy photons that we still don’t understand. It also detected some 2700 gamma ray bursts and that’s something else we don’t understand other than that they’re way outside our intergalactic neighborhood.”

“Only nine years?”

“Sad, right? Yeah, one of its gyroscopes gave out and NASA had to bring it down. Some people fussed, ‘It’ll come down on our heads and we’re all gonna die!‘ but the descent stayed under control. Most of the satellite burned up on re-entry and the rest splashed harmlessly into the Indian Ocean.”

<quiet snuffle>

“Cheer up, it gets better. A month and a half after Compton‘s end, the Columbia shuttle put Chandra X-Ray Observatory into orbit. Like Hubble, Chandra‘s still going strong and uncovering secrets for us. Chandra was first to record X-rays coming from the huge black hole at the Milky Way’s core. Chandra data from the Bullet Cluster helped confirm the existence of dark matter. Thanks to Chandra we understand Jupiter’s X-ray emissions well enough to steer the Juno spacecraft away from them. The good stuff just keeps coming.”

“Thanks, that helps me feel better.”

“Good, because it’s time for the Spitzer‘s inspirational life story.”

~~ Rich Olcott