UW alum leads launch of historic James Webb telescope

“It’s the next big thing after Hubble.”
NASA is getting ready to launch a new and powerful telescope into space that will be able to see billions of light years away.
Published: Dec. 24, 2021 at 9:35 AM CST|Updated: Dec. 24, 2021 at 6:26 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - NASA is getting ready to launch a new and powerful telescope into space that will be able to see billions of light years away. The man who is heading up the project is a UW-Madison graduate.

“It’s going to show us all kinds of things we haven’t seen before in the universe,” said Dr. Ken Sembach, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.

Dr. Sembach spent four years as a graduate student at UW-Madison earning his PhD in 1992.

“I had a wonderful time in Madison. It was a really great experience for me, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world,” said Dr. Sembach. On Christmas morning, he will oversee the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.

James Webb telescope
James Webb telescope(NASA)

The Webb telescope will be able to look at galaxies billions of light years away, possibly the very first galaxies to ever exist in our universe. The telescope will be looking at infrared wavelengths that are beyond the grasp of the Hubble Telescope.

To give you an idea of just how far away the telescope will be able to see, the closest star is about 3 light years away. Dr. Sembach says these galaxies they are looking for could be as far as 13.5 billion light years away.

Dr. Ken Sembach
Dr. Ken Sembach(NASA)

“The fact that we are going to be exploring the universe in a new way, that should bring joy and interest to anyone,” said Dr. Sembach.

The idea for Webb first came about in the late 1980′s.

“There have been thousands and thousands of people who have worked on this mission over the years. It’s been said that something like 40 million hours of work have gone into creating this observatory and I think that is a severe underestimate,” he added.

The telescope may even be able to detect life on other planets.

“I think it’s possible that we learn a lot about what is required for life to exist on other planets and whether or not our own earth is in fact unique. And the conditions that we see here on earth may exist in other places as well,” he said. “We are going to be looking for signs of life, water vapor in the atmospheres, carbon dioxide,”

The Webb telescope will be launching from French Guyana in South America on Christmas morning.

“We are super excited. I was telling my staff the other day when I was boy, I wanted a telescope for Christmas…Oh did I want a telescope for Christmas! And Christmases would come and go and one Christmas I finally got one. I told my staff this year I think I want another telescope for Christmas!” joked Dr. Sembach.

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