First Light

Students and faculty to deploy AI on data from NASA's new orbiting telescope

Dale Kocevski
By Laura MeaderPhotography by Gabe Souza
June 29, 2021

Astronomers refer to a new telescope’s initial images as its “first light.” Colby astronomers Dale Kocevski and Elizabeth McGrath are among a select group likely to receive the first light from NASA’s revolutionary James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in November.

“After that, it’s essentially a race,” said Kocevski. Since the telescope’s data is public, Kocevski and McGrath’s team of 17 international scientists—CEERS, or the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science Survey—will push to get out results and data products lightning fast: in just six months.

“We’ve promised NASA that we would analyze everything and give it to the public so that people could have an idea of what data from the telescope looks like,” Kocevski said. In preparation, the CEERS team has been practicing with simulated data so they can hit the ground running.

Now, thanks to Kocevski, the team can extend its work another year. NASA recently accepted three proposals by Kocevski as part of the agency’s General Observer program, or Cycle 1, which will extend into the telescope’s first year of full operation.

The programs will bring approximately $400,000 to Colby and give students an opportunity to contribute to research by Kocevski and McGrath, both associate professors of astronomy and physics. Colby’s new Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence will allow professors and students alike to use machine learning and artificial intelligence to analyze the data.

The CEERS project was funded in 2017 as part of NASA’s Early Release Science Program, one of just 13 projects selected to use the orbiting telescope during its first five months of operation.

One of Kocevski’s new programs will fund the CEERS team to use its first-light data to conduct scientific experiments in search of the earliest, or most distant, galaxies in the universe. The other programs are for new observations with the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST. Those observations will supplement Kocevski and McGrath’s research they began 12 years earlier with the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).

Kocevski studies supermassive black holes that reside in the center of galaxies; with the JWST he will try to understand how those black holes affect overall galaxy formation. McGrath, who studies the evolution of the structure of galaxies, will use JWST data and conduct modeling to remove the blurring effects of telescope optics on the images to determine the extent to which galaxy shapes change intrinsically over time.

The tennis court-sized James Webb Space Telescope, the largest ever put into space, will travel one million miles to its destination between the Earth and the Sun. The $8-billion telescope, with a segmented parabolic mirror 21.6 feet (6.5 meters) in diameter, will allow astronomers to see 13.5 billion years into the past, farther than any previous telescope. Instead of making observations in visible light, however, the JWST will study infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye.

Dale Kocevski
NASA recently accepted three proposals from Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy Dale Kocevski to study galaxy formation and structure using images from the revolutionary James Webb Space Telescope.

Kocevski’s newly funded programs will search for two types of galaxies: rare and faint. One program will survey two fields probing for rare objects; the other will survey part of one field hunting for faint objects. It’s part of what astronomers call a “wedding cake” strategy.

“You’ve got one tier that’s small but goes really deep. And then you’ve got a moderate depth survey that images relatively wider areas. And then you’ve got a shallow depth that covers a couple of very large areas,” Kocevski said. “That allows you to find rare objects that you need a large area to cover but tend to be pretty bright and also faint objects that are common but hard to see because they’re so faint.”

When the telescope begins sending back its first data, hopefully next summer, scientists expect it to help answer big questions. “We’ll be pushing back to the earliest galaxies that formed in our universe and trying to understand those fundamental questions of how we got to be here,” McGrath said.

By allowing humans to see farther than they’ve seen before, Kocevski said, the James Webb Space Telescope will drive science forward by looking into the past.

The James Webb Space Telescope is operated by AURA’s Space Telescope Science Institute in collaboration with the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. The telescope is named after James Webb, NASA’s second administrator, who led the Apollo lunar program and other space science initiatives.