Tech Talk

One of the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope. The telescope focused on a bright star for minor alignment evaluation.

With a major research university right in our backyard, a strong military presence and innovative companies throughout the metro region, there’s often a plethora of interesting science, medical and technology news to be found in Southern Arizona. Here’s a breakdown of the most interesting recent developments.

Space Sights. University of Arizona researchers are playing a critical role in one of the biggest science stories of the year: the James Webb Space Telescope. Intended to replace the Hubble Space Telescope as NASA’s “flagship mission,” the JWST launched into space on Christmas 2021. It is currently undergoing testing and alignment before becoming fully operational in May, but UA’s involvement is already coming in handy. 

George and Marcia Rieke, both UA Regents Professors of Astronomy, are leading science teams behind some of the JWST’s infrared cameras. George worked on the Mid-InfraRed Instrument, while Marcia worked on the Near InfraRed Camera. Both instruments observe infrared radiation, and are planned to collect data on planets in distant solar systems, also known as exoplanets.

Over the last few months, the Near Infrared Camera has been used to focus the JWST’s 18 mirror segments as part of the telescope’s “testing and alignment” phase. First, the JWST’s unaligned mirrors produced a mosaic of 18 images of the same star. And more recently, the JWST produced its first focused image of a single star. Due to its larger mirrors, the JWST is expected to be able to collect roughly six times as much light as the Hubble.

According to UA, on March 11, the JWST team completed the “fine phasing” stage. At this key stage in the commissioning of Webb’s Optical Telescope Element, every optical parameter that has been checked and tested is performing at or above expectations. The team also found no critical issues and no measurable contamination or blockages to the telescope’s optical path. The observatory can successfully gather light from distant objects and deliver it to its instruments without issue.

“Demonstrating this high level of optical performance ensures that NIRCam will deliver the science results that everyone is hoping for,” Marcia said. “The telescope is working absolutely fabulously and will reveal the fine details that we want to see.” 

Student Science. In March, the Southern Arizona Research Science and Engineering Foundation hosted their annual engineering fair, their largest event of the year. At the fair, thousands of pre-school to high school students show off their science projects to win awards and scholarships. This year, more than 6,000 Southern Arizona students from 120 schools showed off 1,500 projects. At the end of the fair, more than $100,000 had been distributed in the form of awards and scholarships. 

“My favorite part about SARSEF was learning something new in science and being able to present the outcome of my research,” Sunnyside High School student Yaritza Durazo said in a SARSEF release. “Before, I thought science was mostly about getting results and drawing conclusions from them, but I quickly learned that science communication is a huge part of the scientific process. I had fun learning how to code, reading scientific papers, and presenting my research. I am excited to continue my scientific journey, wherever it takes me.”

The students’ science projects included: “Who Has the Cleaner Mouth – Dogs or Humans?”, “What Foods Power a Potato Clock Better than a Potato?”, “Tap vs. Bottled Water: Which Has Less Contaminants?”, “Creating Antimicrobial Lipsticks” and “Bilingualism’s Effect on Memory.”

Eight students who participated in the SARSEF fair will now go on to compete at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering fair, one of the largest student science fairs in the world, hosted in Atlanta in May. 

“SARSEF taught me that your own hard work does indeed pay off,” said SARSEF fair winner Nathaniel van der Leeuw from University High School. “Even though you might doubt yourself or wish that you picked an easier project, you must remember that hard work is the basis of society. Without carefully analyzing your code or making faulty predictions, you run the risk of building an unstable foundation for humanity. By participating in the Science Fair you are not guaranteed to win but you are guaranteed an opportunity to compete on a fair plain with all of Southern Arizona.”