When we look up at stars we don't only have to think about where we're looking at in the galaxy, but when.
Space effectively acts as a time machine - the further away we look, the further back in time we're seeing as it also takes a greater amount of time for the light to reach our eyes.
With NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, a team of researchers are using this principle to investigate the birthplace of stars.
Natural cosmic telescopes
Principal investigator Jane Rigby of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and co-principal investigator Joaquin Vieira of the University of Illinois are part of a team of researchers who are training the Webb Telescope on natural, cosmic telescopes called gravitational lenses.
These large celestial bodies magnify light from distant galaxies that are at the peak of star formation. Effectively, gravity acts as a magnifying glass, allowing us to see further into the universe.
Gravitational lensing occurs when a huge amount of matter - a galaxy cluster, for example - creates a gravitational field that magnifies light from objects behind it. Training a machine telescope on these natural telescopes allows for impressive insights into incredibly old galaxies.
“We’re studying four galaxies that appear much, much brighter than they actually are because they’ve been highly magnified up to 50 times. We’ll use gravitational lenses to study how those galaxies are forming their stars, and how that star formation is distributed across the galaxies,” Rigby explained in a NASA statement.
Four main goals
The NASA program aimed at using gravitational lensing via its Webb telescope is called Targeting Extremely Magnified Panchromatic Lensed Arcs and Their Extended Star Formation (TEMPLATES).
It has four main goals. Firstly, the team wants to measure how many new stars are forming, to determine how rapidly galaxies form stars. Secondly, they'll map this star-formation rate in these galaxies, creating a huge database.
Thirdly, the team will compare the young and old stellar formations to see how star formation has changed in galaxies over time.
Finally, they will measure the conditions of gas within these galaxies to measure what are the ideal conditions for star formation.
The James Webb Space Telescope is set to launch in 2021. The TEMPLATES program is just one of the many ways it will be used to uncover the mysteries of distant planets and stars.