Rutgers Astrophysicist Will Use the New Webb Space Telescope to Determine Star Formation in Two Galaxies

Rutgers Professor Kristen McQuinn, an astrophysicist based on the Rutgers New Brunswick campus, has an out-of-this-world stake in the new James Webb Space Telescope. In her opinion, the Webb Telescope will be a giant leap forward in our understanding of the universe.

The large infrared telescope with a 6.5-meter primary mirror is scheduled to be launched on an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana this fall, according to NASA. The Webb Telescope will be the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. It will study every phase in the universe’s history, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our Solar System.

Dr. McQuinn’s research focuses on the formation and evolution of small (low-mass) galaxies that serve as the building blocks of larger galaxies, including spiral galaxies like our own Milky Way. She reconstructs the history of the galaxies by age-dating the stars. Using these histories, she can determine how oxygen, a byproduct of star formation, is distributed throughout a galaxy and whether some of it has been lost by supernovae-driven galactic winds. She has a large program for such research called GLOW (Galaxies Losing Oxygen via Winds) that involves about 40 galaxies that are relatively close to Earth.

Using the Webb telescope, Dr. McQuinn will focus on determining the star formation histories in two galaxies and one globular cluster.

“Our team, which includes Rutgers Professor Alyson Brooks, will obtain James Webb Space Telescope images that will reveal the individual stars in the Messier 92 (M92) globular star cluster in the Milky Way, the extremely faint dwarf Draco II galaxy that is a close neighbor of the Milky Way, and the slightly larger Wolf–Lundmark–Melotte (WLM) galaxy that, while still nearby, sits outside of dark matter halo of the Milky Way,” said Dr. McQuinn, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the School of Arts and Sciences.

“The oldest stars in these systems were formed at the earliest epochs of time and, by measuring their properties, we will be able to reconstruct how these systems formed and evolved across cosmic time. Combined with existing data from the Hubble Space Telescope, we will also measure the bulk motion of these systems and reconstruct their orbits around the Milky Way.

“Using the Webb telescope’s unique longer wavelength coverage, we will study the properties of rare evolved stars that shine the brightest in the infrared. While Hubble has laid the groundwork for these types of studies, the combination of high-resolution imaging, the ability to collect more light and see fainter objects, and Webb’s unique infrared capabilities will allow us to make a leap forward in understanding our local neighborhood of galaxies and galaxies in general.”

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