‘I got front row seats to the astronomy event of my lifetime, and it didn’t disappoint’

By Colm Gorey, Frontiers science communications manager/Dr Susan Mullally, STScI

Image: Dr Susan Mullally, STScI

The successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope earlier this year captivated the world’s attention, promising a revolutionary view deep inside our mysterious universe. One of those involved in the hugely important project was Dr Susan Mullally of the Space Telescope Science Institute who now speaks to Frontiers about the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Last month, a new chapter in humanity’s understanding of the cosmos began when the first images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) were released to the world. Surpassing the capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope, JWST will directly observe a part of space and time never seen before and will gaze into the epoch when the very first stars and galaxies formed, more than 13.5bn years ago.

Dr Susan Mullally of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) was among those with backstage access to this latest piece of space history, and is currently the deputy project scientist for JWST working to ensure the scientific productivity of the mission. Previously, she worked in the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST) as the lead for archiving the data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), where she helped develop the exo.MAST interface, and to improve the archive for the TESS and Kepler missions.

Mullally also worked as the associate director of the Whole Earth Telescope Telescope run out of the University of Delaware to coordinate large month-long observing campaigns of variable stars, and spent seven years working as a scientist for the Kepler Space Mission at NASA Ames Research Center and the SETI Institute to find transiting exoplanets. Through collaboration with Frontiers, she currently holds an associate editor role for the journal, Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences, in the field of exoplanets.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

As a child, I would spend hours looking up at the stars from my backyard in somewhat rural Wisconsin. I was lucky enough to have a family that encouraged such interests, so when I got to college I chose physics as my major and ran the campus observatory. After that, I was lucky enough to get into graduate school and continue to find work as a scientist supporting astronomical research.

What was your role in the development of the James Webb Telescope and how did you find the experience?

I have only worked on JWST for the last few years. I worked on the archive for a couple of years and have recently worked on community and public engagement. These last two years have been very exciting. I got front row seats to the astronomy event of my lifetime, and it didn’t disappoint. I was on the edge of my seat as we watched the telescope launch and unfold. Now I’m mostly concerned with improving the software tools astronomers use to propose for observations, access data, and do their analysis.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

My research focuses on finding and studying exoplanets. It’s important because we have yet to measure the full diversity of the types of planets that exist in our galaxy, nor how common they are and how that diversity changes as the universe ages and evolves. Answers to these questions may someday tell us whether the galaxy is full of habitable worlds.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research? How would you address them?

One misconception from the public is that we have discovered a lot of exoplanets and that we know a lot about them. While we have found more than 500 exoplanets, in truth we have only found a sliver of a fraction of the exoplanets in the nearby galaxy, mostly just those 1-2% that happen to transit across the surface of the star. And, it is only for a small fraction of those where we have measurements of the planets mass or information about the planet’s atmosphere.

We are only just now starting to study the atmospheres of those exoplanets, something JWST will spend approximately 20% of the time doing. Because of the power and precision of JWST, we will, for the first time, be able to study the atmospheres of smaller planets, those only a bit bigger than Earth. However these planets are all orbiting very close to small, cool stars.

Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I’d like to see us study the physics of stars and exoplanets in different environments, like the galactic center, or in other galaxies. Only with a diverse set of exoplanets will we understand the physics that shaped our own solar system.

How has open science benefited the reach and impact of your research?

Open science was extremely important to the reach both Kepler and TESS have had on astronomical research. Without free and open data, those data sets would not have yielded so many scientific results about exoplanets, multi-stars systems and variable stars.

Those same data sets have even been used by citizen scientists and students for astronomical research, bringing astronomical research to even more people. JWST also has many public data sets that are available to everyone and accessible at MAST. I look forward to seeing how everyone will be able to learn how to do research with JWST data from these data sets.

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