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James Webb Space Telescope

Students invited to help select potential targets for the world’s cutting-edge space observatory

  • The Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS) are partnering with astronomers from the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC) with the aim of identifying potential targets for the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be launched by NASA in 2021.
  • Students will contribute to studies which aim to identify how various materials were created over the history of the Universe.

The Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS) has opened registration for a new project in partnership with the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh that will allow students across the UK to gain experience in and contribute to real science.

Due to begin in September 2018 the project will involve identifying potential targets for the James Webb Space Telescope, which has been described by NASA as the world’s premier science observatory for the next decade. Scheduled for launch on an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana in early 2021, Webb will help astronomers understand more about how planets, stars and galaxies formed and evolved.

Webb’s unprecedented infrared sensitivity will allow scientists to explore massive clouds of cosmic dust to better understand how the materials around and within us are formed and spread through space.

We know that – at a chemical level – most of the materials around us were formed by stars living, dying and colliding with each other. However, there are still many questions as to how these elements are made and distributed throughout galaxies like our own Milky Way. By looking at a plot of how much light a star gives off at different wavelengths (a spectrum) and looking for tell-tale features (bumps, dips and wiggles) researchers can determine the amount and different type of elements in cosmic dust to help us identify how the materials were created and distributed over the history of the Universe.

In this project students will be analysing spectral data from a previous mission – the Spitzer Space Telescope – which has observed over thirteen thousand point sources. Astronomers and education staff from the UK ATC have worked with IRIS to develop a classroom activity in which students examine and classify this rich collection of existing data. The ultimate goal is for students to collaborate with UK ATC astronomers on the selection of potential targets for Webb and the development of an observing proposal which makes the scientific case for pointing the huge space observatory at these objects.

Like many of the IRIS collaborations, this project will help professional researchers to go through vast amounts of information that would otherwise take years.

The resulting work will be used to not only identify potential targets for Webb, but will also produce the first fully classified catalogue of these sources, which is expected to be of scientific value in its own right.

The project officially launches on the 19th September 2018. Schools that are interested are encouraged to contact IRIS at info@researchinschools.org.

For more information on IRIS and the James Webb Space Telescope project, please visit the IRIS website

Register your interest by contacting us at

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