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Astronomers, visitors revel at Badlands night sky brought closer by James Webb images

Astronomers and park visitors wait to peer into the night sky at Badlands National Park
Amber Zora
Astronomers and park visitors wait to peer into the night sky at Badlands National Park.

Adam Boone peers into the clear night sky through a telescope.

The Milky Way hangs there like a zipper at Badlands National Park.

Boone is from Rapid City. He says the telescope is the most powerful one he’s used.

“Definitely,” Boone said. “I think I counted, like, over 500 stars or something.”

Boone and his parents are some of the over 500 people who attended a presentation on the James Webb Telescope at the Ben Riefel Auditorium as part of the annual astronomy festival in the park.

The telescope launched on Christmas Day in 2021 and travelled 930,000 miles to reached its destination in January. It took several months to align itself properly to take images of space. The James Webb released its first image on July 11. The telescope gathers infrared light, something humans normally experience as heat.

Logan Poe is with Dark Ranger Tours out of southern Utah. He’s been teaching astronomy for 14 years.

Poe says the James Webb is an important telescope for the future of humanity.

“It’ll catapult our observations of the universe around us much, much faster than we’ve ever been able to experience before," Poe said. "It’s a great time to be alive.”

The James Webb’s first image is the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date. It had an exposure time of about 12 hours.

James Webb's first deep field image
James Webb's first deep field image.

At first blush, the image looks like a black marble countertop. But to Poe it means so much more.

“While the edge of the universe is amazing, and seeing a galaxy — what is it, 32 billion light years away? — is really phenomenal," Poe said, "I’m sure there’s only more to come.”

Part of that clarity is due in part to the work by Eve Wooldridge, who also attended the astronomy festival.

“I led the contamination control effort for James Webb Telescope,” Wooldridge said.

Basically, those sharp images are a result, in part, of Wooldridge keeping the telescope very, very clean.

“In order for all the light to get through and for it to have the sensitivity it needs to see the dim signals the telescope needed to be clean," Wooldridge added. "That’s particles you don’t even see.”

Wooldridge worked on the James Webb since the beginning — for a quarter-century.

“We were at the Johns Hopkins Space Institute and they had a cardboard model of what they thought might be this telescope," Wooldridge said. "They were playing with how do we want to angle the sunshield. How do we want to do these things. It dawned on me at that time I could be on this — I was young enough at that time — I could be on this from concept through launch.”

For Wooldridge, the excitement from people for the telescope is about as exciting as the launch.

“We’re curious people. We want to know. We’re excited and every new thing we see arouses our wonder," Wooldridge said. "It’s a great thing.”

The Cartwheel Galaxy
The Cartwheel Galaxy.

Since the astronomy festival, the James Webb released photos of the Cartwheel Galaxy, which is located 500 million light-years away in the Sculptor constellation. The galaxy looks like a wagon wheel.

Tom Durkin is with the South Dakota Space Grant Consortium.

Durkin said the James Webb telescope is 100 times more powerful than the Hubble telescope. Durkin argues the Hubble telescope is the most significant scientific instrument ever made by mankind.

“Because of what we learned about the universe,” Durkin said. “The sheer number of peer reviewed scientific publications that come from that instrument — 19,000 publications. No other instrument has produced near that amount of scientific discoveries and information.”

While the Webb is peering out into the deep edges of the universe, Durkin said there’s connections to research taking place at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead.

“There’s an amazing number of similarities at the macro-scale as there are at the micro-scale," Durkin said. "A lot of people say, ‘So what? Why are we studying this in Lead, South Dakota? What is this information going to give us when we learn more about neutrinos and dark energy?”

Neutrinos are a byproduct of nuclear fusion. That reaction is part of what creates stars.

Durkin said the cutting edge, grassroots science from James Webb and the Sanford Underground Research Facility could lead to major developments in energy and transportation.

Peering back up at the sky, Durkin said the James Webb’s ability to take photos quicker and sharper than the Hubble telescope means it has the potential to eclipse Hubble’s discoveries.

“It’s neat that everything worked out and we’re able to collect the data from the instrument, now,” Durkin said. “Now is just the start. Who knows what we will learn over the next 10 years.”

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.