Another First for Benedictine Astronomer

James Webb Space Telescope Illustration (iStock)

Last March, Dr. Christopher Shingledecker, assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy at Benedictine College, was part of a group of scientists who discovered new molecules, long thought to be common in the universe but never before identified, in interstellar space. Now, he has learned that he will be part of an international team of astronomers to be among the first to use NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Their project, “Blazing the Trail of Complex Organic Molecules from Ice to Gas,” will harness the power of the JWST to study the very earliest stages of several star- and planet-forming regions.

Dr. Christopher Shingledecker“The basic question that arises when we discover complex molecules in the cold, harsh depths of interstellar space is ‘how did they form?’ Much of my career has been spent trying to answer that basic question, however, before now there simply has not been a telescope capable of providing us with the kinds of clues that we could piece together to solve this mystery,” Shingledecker said. “That all should change with the launch of JWST, and it will truly give us a view of the universe we have thus far only been able to see ‘through a glass, darkly,’ as St. Paul wrote.”

The world has been watching as NASA launched the new space telescope on Christmas Day 2021, and each step of deployment has continued to build excitement. The recent deployment of the JWST’s secondary and primary mirrors marks the culmination of almost three decades of work and more than 10 billion dollars in funding. Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, which is only about 300 miles from Earth, the JWST will be 1 million miles away at the “second Lagrangian point.” It has now reached that point and will settle into orbit.

To support Shingledecker’s project, the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates the JWST, has awarded the team a research grant of $187,000, part of which will fund summer research by Benedictine College students working with Shingledecker on the project.

Students working with Shingledecker will analyze the results from JWST observations using cutting-edge computer programs that allow them to simulate in mere seconds the development of interstellar clouds that, in space, occurs over tens of millions of years. These advanced computer simulations will facilitate the testing of a wide variety of scenarios under which complex molecules could form, with the goal of both understanding the initial data from JWST, as well as generating reliable predictions to motivate subsequent projects.

More information about the James Webb Space Telescope can be found here.

Founded in 1858, Benedictine College is a Catholic, Benedictine, residential, liberal arts college located on the bluffs above the Missouri River in Atchison, Kansas. The school is proud to have been named one of America’s Best Colleges by U.S. News & World Report, the best private college in Kansas by The Wall Street Journal, and one of the top Catholic colleges in the nation by First Things magazine and the Newman Guide. It prides itself on outstanding academics, extraordinary faith life, strong athletic programs, and an exceptional sense of community and belonging. It has a mission to educate men and women within a community of faith and scholarship.