The People Behind Webb

 The People Behind Webb

A wide range of staff, including astronomers, scientists, and engineers, support the James Webb Space Telescope’s daily operations. Plus, researchers around the world continually use the observatory’s data to conduct scientific research. Their efforts contribute to a long and ongoing legacy of scientific discoveries. In summer 2023, staff and researchers shared what it’s like to actively support this space telescope or investigate its data. Not only are there a range of roles and personal backgrounds within the Webb mission, there are also many other active and upcoming telescopes that require similar contributions.

Néstor Espinoza, Assistant Astronomer and Mission Scientist for Exoplanet Science at the Space Telescope Science Institute:

“I joined STScI two years before Webb launched, and went on to lead a team that helped commission one of its instruments. I also spearheaded the team effort to test the capabilities of Webb to observe exoplanets. I worked with fantastic teams filled with very talented people I knew I could rely on. We calibrated the instrument and solved a lot of problems together. Our initial analysis of the first planet we observed with Webb took only a day or two! The observatory made it very easy because it is extremely stable, but I was still shocked by the precision of Webb’s data. Now, we’re routinely seeing clear signatures of carbon dioxide and water in exoplanet atmospheres. Webb is helping us ask so many new questions about exoplanets.”

Brett Graham, Senior Software Engineer at the Space Telescope Science Institute:

“When Webb launched, I was impressed by the scale and goals of the mission and immediately started looking for a position at STScI. Now, I contribute to Webb by working with a team to revise software that processes Webb’s data. Our goal is for the software to quickly and efficiently pass the data along to scientists. Together, we manage a large number of complex and ever-evolving needs for calibrating and analyzing data from Webb’s instruments. It is an honor to work with a friendly, helpful and professional team of developers, and support astronomers around the world.”

Taylor Hutchison, Postdoctoral Fellow at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center:

“I study incredibly distant galaxies. During graduate school, I used some of the biggest telescopes on the planet—and in space—to catch their faint light. In 2022, I began using this telescope—and its data are absolutely exquisite! Now, I can look at star formation happening inside galaxies and investigate how stars’ radiation impacts the gas. I have dreamed of researching spectroscopic data like these for years and I sometimes still pinch myself to make sure this is real. In addition to analysis, I am also very passionate about creating resources that level the playing field for everyone in astronomy. I want to help protect and uplift astronomy’s most underserved members, and make access to resources and mentorships as easy as possible.”

Mike Menzel, Mission Systems Engineer for the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center:

“I’ve been working on the Webb team for about 25 years. Webb is designed to see the farthest objects in the universe. When I saw Webb’s First Deep Field, which took less 12 hours, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Whatever is in the distant universe, Webb will see it!”

Brittany Miles, 51 Pegasi b Fellow at the University of Arizona:

“I was part of a team that received some of Webb’s earliest data. I knew the telescope offered game-changing information about VHS 1256 b, a giant Jupiter-sized object. We chatted about our findings almost daily. I absolutely loved collaborating with this team and I’m elated I’ll have the opportunity to recreate these moments over the telescope’s lifetime. You do not need to be a ‘genius’ to do science. Science only requires steady work and collaboration. If you are a Black girl or woman, take up space and stick to your values.”

Takahiro Morishita, an Assistant Scientist at IPAC-California Institute of Technology:

“I’m part of a team that received some of the earliest data Webb sent back. I worked with more than 40 team members to reduce the data and submit our paper in only five days. It was the most exciting, and sleep deprived, time in my life. Our team has of a range of experts and we worked together closely to put out the paper so quickly. It’s very exciting to work with folks around the world so closely. The skills used in astronomy vary so much that we have to rely on each other. And having colleagues in different time zones can make continuous work possible, just like a relay race.”

Alyssa Pagan, Science Visuals Developer at the Space Telescope Science Institute:

“It is a huge honor to be one of the first people to see Webb’s new images. Our team’s goal is to highlight the complex structures of objects in space while simultaneously making aesthetically pleasing images. Raw telescope images initially appear black and white. When I add color, I follow well-established principles of astrophotography, assigning bluer colors to shorter wavelengths and redder colors to longer wavelengths. From there, the science informs our team’s decisions about contrast, color separation, and composition. My hope is that Webb’s images generate interest in astronomy and connect us all.”

Jane Rigby, Senior Project Scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center:

“Webb has exceeded every one of our expectations. For example, Webb observed galaxies that existed in the early universe in just a couple of hours. We knew Webb was going to do that, but we didn’t project it could between lunch and dinner! This is possible because Webb is supported by hundreds of people in a wide range of roles. Teamwork helped us build, test, and commission Webb—and continues to keep it operating around the clock. Science has always been collaborative, but it’s easier to see now. We all have a place in astronomy and STEM fields. My advice: No matter what your passion is, go for it. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. When you’re puzzling through problem sets with other students, that’s good practice—you will work with teams throughout your career.”

Naomi Rowe-Gurney, recent Postdoctoral Researcher at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and current Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Support Officer at the Royal Astronomical Society in London:

“While at NASA, I supported researchers who study our solar system’s planets and moons. This began with raw data from Webb and continued through the publication of their scientific findings. I also acted as the subject matter expert for Webb’s first views of Uranus and Neptune. I was shocked at how beautiful Webb’s unprocessed, raw images are. I briefed the writers about what was new and exciting, and supported the image processors who composed the final images. In my current role at the Royal Astronomical Society, I help implement projects that will increase representation and inclusion in astronomy. I am very passionate about making it easier for people from underrepresented backgrounds to get involved in STEM and space. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t do something. Instead, find people you can relate to and who support you.”

Irma Aracely Quispe Neira, Senior Flight Operations Engineer at the Space Telescope Science Institute:

“I work in Webb’s Mission Operations Center in Baltimore. Thirty minutes after its launch, when we took control, I led the commands. When I hear my voice in documentaries about Webb, I am genuinely emotional. I feel gratified as a Peruvian American and a woman. I had a tremendous opportunity to collaborate with our team, NASA, and our partners during this historic event.”

Massimo Stiavelli, Head of the James Webb Space Telescope Mission Office at the Space Telescope Science Institute:

“Webb was the obvious next step in astronomy. We set goals for it that are unobtainable by any other telescope. Some of the people who worked on the initial concepts for the telescope retired before it launched. I am lucky that Webb’s operations reasonably match my career. In 2023, I published a paper as the lead author for the first time in years. Know that there is room for everybody in science, no matter which avenue you pursue. Passion is important. Wherever you go you will encounter difficulties, and passion will help you overcome them.”

Aaron Yung, recent NASA Postdoctoral Fellow at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and current Giacconi Fellow at the Space Telescope Science Institute:

“A few centuries back, important scientific discoveries were predominantly made by individual researchers using artisanal instruments. In contrast, modern-day instruments, like the James Webb Space Telescope, are highly sophisticated and demand the combined efforts of large groups of scientists and engineers. These collaborations have allowed me to learn from others who often possess entirely different scientific backgrounds. We work better as a supportive, interconnected team!”

Sebastian Zieba, PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg, Germany:

“We are privileged to be among the first generations of humans to know that there are planets orbiting other stars. Webb is already advancing our understanding of rocky exoplanet atmospheres and surfaces. In 2022, I was part of a team that managed to detect heat coming from TRAPPIST-1 c, a planet the size of Earth that is 40 light-years away. I am also excited about the chance to study the surfaces of planets that are bare rocks. When a planet doesn’t have an atmosphere, we can directly observe its surface. Different types of rocks have unique characteristics that can tell us about a planet’s geological history. Webb is a testament to human curiosity and ingenuity, and gives us a remarkable ability to explore the entire cosmos.”

Read longer quotes from these contributors.