Bryce Canyon to host NASA event on Saturday ahead of largest, most complex telescope launch

The new James Webb Space Telescope artist conception, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez, St. George News

ST. GEORGE —The largest, most advanced space telescope ever deployed launches soon, and Bryce Canyon National Park is celebrating on Saturday with an offering of programs beginning at 10 a.m.

Scientists will use the Webb telescope to study the impact of three quasars on their host galaxies in a program called Q3D. Quasars are known as black holes are paradoxically some of the brightest objects in the universe, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of NASA, St. George News

Bryce Canyon National Park and select sites across the country will celebrate the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s next great space science observatory over the next decade. This telescope is the largest and most complex space science telescope ever built, and the international mission, led by NASA in partnership with the European and Canadian space agencies, will launch on Dec. 18.

“This new telescope will give us a revolutionary glimpse into the depths of cosmic history. Starting with the beginnings of our solar system to the most distant galaxies in the early universe, it’s peering back into time to the earliest stars and galaxies,” Peter Densmore, public information officer at Bryce Canyon National Park, said.

Park superintendent Jim Ireland said parks like Bryce Canyon are places of learning and discovery and noted the significance of this launch.

“This mission promises to change our understanding of the universe for this generation fundamentally and many to come,” Ireland said.

Saturday’s programs include videos exploring the Webb telescope and its mission throughout the day, as well as astronomy-themed art activities held at the Visitor Center Plaza from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Night Sky from Sunrise Point in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Keith Moore/National Park Service, St. George News

At 3 p.m., the park will host a live virtual interview in Visitor Center Theater with Dr. Kevin Hainline, an assistant research professor with the Steward Observatory. Hainline will explore the relationship between active galactic nuclei and star-forming galaxies. He focuses on the extent to which obscured active galactic nuclei can affect gas throughout their hosts and also how an active central supermassive black hole grows alongside its host galaxy. Hainline is also a member of the JWST/NIRCam Science team. 

Hainline’s interview will be shared on Bryce Canyon’s social media sites closer to the launch date in December. Details will be shared on the park’s social media pages as they’re finalized.

Sign-up for night sky and telescope viewing at the visitor center front desk same-day from 8 a.m. until full. Later, at 8:30 p.m., telescope viewing is available. This portion of programming is weather-dependent.

Even though there have been a few space telescopes in space, this new telescope is unique.

“I’m very excited about it,” Hainline said. “It is going to be the largest space telescope at 6.5 meters, which is just over 21 feet across, and operates at a wavelength regime, at a set of wavelengths that our eyes can’t see.”

The telescope will observe in infrared, peering inside dust clouds to study light from distant parts of the universe for the first time, including the first galaxies that formed about 13.5 billion years ago. It will also explore other solar systems and objects in the solar system, all of this in part because of its giant mirror, he said.

Some of the points covered in his presentation include finding the earliest galaxies in a baby universe, back in time when the universe was young, 100 million years old, and how the telescope can trace the evolution of the universe.

“So it’s essentially like watching the history of the universe with one telescope. And I’m pretty excited about that,” he said.

Densmore said Bryce Canyon National Park had not used their telescopes for a couple of years due to public health and safety issues during the pandemic but now are offering use in limited numbers and sanitizing the telescopes.

“We’re thrilled Bryce Canyon was selected to be one of the sites,” he said. “We’re one of the darkest places that you can reach by a paved road in North America. That’s thanks to our high elevation, clear air and low levels of light pollution. It provides an opportunity for people to see deeper into the cosmos than they may have ever seen before.”

The Webb telescope will also extend the scientific discoveries of other NASA missions like the Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-ray Observatory, and Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.

Densmore added that Bryce Canyon is considered the birthplace of the National Park Service astronomy interpretation. For over 50 years, the park has provided astronomy-based ranger programs.

“We have a long legacy of interpreting the night sky here. Certainly, a legacy that we’re proud to be continuing with events like this,” he said.

The number of people who get to view the dark night skies is shrinking. As light pollution becomes common, coming to a place like Bryce Canyon National Park and seeing it is rare, Densmore said.

“Generations ago, it would have just been considered part of the normal human experience,” he said. “It is amazing to see people encounter that for the first time in the middle of their lives and be awestruck by the dark night sky.” 

These events and activities are free with park admission. For a full schedule of events, visit the website.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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