The Solar System’s Wild Ride with Stefanie Milam

Do solar systems move or do they just stay there? Listener Levan had this question. In this episode, we learn that our solar system - and all others - are moving through space in many different ways.

Technology plays a huge role in what is possible to learn about our solar system. When our ancestors looked up at the sky on a starry night, they couldn't comprehend how our planet is physically moving through space. But with the invention of spectroscopy, the secrets of our place in the universe began to open up. It began with simple prisms and telescopes. But now, scientists and engineers are building better and better instruments to measure our motion, and more.

You can think of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) as a space-based observatory. You've seen incredible photos from the Hubble Space Telescope - JWST's will be even more incredible! With new technology, astronomers will be able to look deeper into the universe, and get a close-up look at what's happening in our very own solar system.

It's set to launch in 2018 from an island called French Guinea. This is an artist's conception of what the James Webb Space Telescope will look like in its soon-to-be-home - outer space!

NASA created a full-scale model of the telescope and took it on tour. Here it is in Austin, Texas! You can get a sense of how large it is.

A group photo of the scientists who helped build JWST with the "Integrated Science Instrument Module." It's a package of four instruments, including a Near Infrared Camera, a Mid Infrared Instrument, a Fine Guidance Sensor and two different Near Infrared Spectrographs. Those spectrographs are the ones Stefanie was talking about. They'll help us see deeper into spectrum of light in space.

Here's a video showing how the instruments fit into the telescope:

A scientist tests the mirrors on the James Webb Space Telescope Array, as it's being built.

The telescope sits completed in a space simulation testing facility in Houston. It's one of the last chances to make sure that the telescope will work in space.

NASA documented every step of the process. To see and explore their photographs, visit their photo gallery on Flickr.

For everything else you might want to learn about the James Webb Space Telescope, visit NASA's JWST website.

There are resources for educators, as well, here.

Stefanie Milam thought she wanted to be a ballet dancer or an astronaut when she grew up. She studied dance for many years, while focusing on science in school. It turned out that she was too short to qualify to become an astronaut (don't worry, NASA has changed their height requirements!). So she studied hard to get a Ph.D in astrochemistry, or the study of chemistry in space. She focuses on the solar system. The scientists behind JWST decided that her research was important to their mission, and so she got to join the team. "The whole universe is my laboratory now," she says.

Here's what Stefanie has to say about science and technology:

"For hundreds of years we've been doing the same thing. We’ve been looking through telescopes to look at stars to find new things. With modern day astronomy though, we have better technology, so we can see further, we can see different things. And that's part of the quest, is every time we find something new, or we think there should be something new, that's what we're looking for. And if we find it, it's how did it get there? What is it? How is it going to evolve? Is it going to do something even more spectacular?"

Can you think of other examples of how technology has allowed scientists to learn more? How has technology allowed YOU to learn more?

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