7/27/2022 Peter Durantine

Students Aiming for the Stars

As the James Webb Space Telescope* sent Earth stunning infrared images of galaxies in the early universe, a Franklin & Marshall College student busily helped their professor with final calculations to one of JWST's first projects that went up this week. 

“The goal of my work was to develop a method to easily and accurately model the blurring and spreading of light from astronomical objects in our observations of them," Io Kovach says.

Kovach, of Falls Church, Va., a rising senior double major in astrophysics and mathematics, works with Ryan Trainor, assistant professor in F&M's Department of Physics & Astronomy. Trainor’s research project, in part, involves understanding how certain chemical properties vary across galaxies in the universe.

  • Senior astrophysics and math major Io Kovach helped code the galaxy coordinates for the JWST. Senior astrophysics and math major Io Kovach helped code the galaxy coordinates for the JWST. Image Credit: Ryan Trainor
  • F&M Physics Professor Ryan Trainor and Kovach will work together in the fall to begin analyzing the trove of data sent back from JWST. F&M Physics Professor Ryan Trainor and Kovach will work together in the fall to begin analyzing the trove of data sent back from JWST. Image Credit: Ryan Trainor

“Our data is not as visually beautiful as some of the images that have come down already, but it allows us to peer into the nitty-gritty of how our periodic table came to be over the course of cosmic history,” Trainor says.

Kovach and Trainor worked to finalize alignment of JWST. Kovach coded a program that aided in directing the telescope at an area of deep space where Trainor plans to research 20 galaxies.

“What I did was useful specifically for calibrating the telescope and figuring out where exactly to point because you need a really precise measurement of where you’re going to point it," Kovach says. "When you look at a galaxy through the Hubble Telescope, there’s some blurring, and Professor Trainor is looking specifically at really tiny galaxies at high redshift (increased wavelength), so it’s really important to get a precise measurement. My code kind of led into his current observation data. I think it worked.”

Kovach and Trainor provided a program that blocked out certain aspects of space to reduce light interference. Unlike previous space telescopes, JWST, larger and more powerful than Hubble, observes multiple galaxies simultaneously through an array of microshutters less than a millimeter in size. 

“We can open shutters on the galaxies we want to observe and close shutters that are not on things that we want to observe to block out background light," Trainor says. "That was something where Io’s work was very helpful and instrumental."

Issac Lin '22, while in his senior year, also "was instrumental in helping us figure out which galaxies in particular we wanted to focus on for this project,” the professor says. 

During July 24-25, the JWTS collected data from these galaxies that Trainor will process and calibrate in preparation for research in the fall.

 "Future students will help with the data analysis,” he says. "We expect the main results of this to be coming together in the next two years, but then certain aspects of the data, depending on what it looks like once we get it, we may be using for years to come.” 

Kovach, who is working on research this summer at Rutgers University, looks forward to working with Trainor again in the fall.

"He’s an awesome professor to work with," they say. "He makes it really clear what your task is and I learned a lot. And that’s the other thing, the stuff I learned last semester has been very, very useful for what I’m doing this summer.”

They say they intend to pursue graduate school because of their passion for physics that F&M encouraged and supported. 

“I wanted a small liberal arts college with an astrophysics major," Kovach says. "That narrows things down a lot and F&M offers that.” 

*The name of JWST is controversial because of the prejudice the man it is named after practiced in his leadership role at NASA. Read more about it here.

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