Mysteries of the universe to be explored by Heriot-Watt researchers



Scientists from Heriot-Watt are to be given exclusive access to NASA’s next generation space telescope to unlock the building blocks of life. 

The Heriot-Watt Astrochemistry Group has won over 30 hours of observing time in the first few months of operation of the new James Webb Space Telescope after it is launched in 2019.

Academics will look at distributions of gas and ices in regions of space where stars and planets are forming to get to the bottom of how planetary systems are formed.

The study will also focus on understanding the chemical origins of life as well as test the telescope’s wide-ranging cosmic capabilities.

A total of 13 proposals from around the world were picked by The Space Telescope Science Institute for science observations. The Heriot-Watt researchers, led by Professor of Chemical Physics Martin McCoustra, are part of an international team of experts that will begin in spring 2019.

Speaking about the high profile space project, Professor McCoustra said: “Although it may not seem like a lot of time, 30 hours on the most complex space telescope will provide our consortium with an immense amount of data.

“The quality of the data we will get from this study will be literally out of this world.

“We will be observing ice dust grains to help us confirm how they develop. If it wasn’t for dust grains and the molecules formed on them, there would be no small stars like our sun and we as humans would maybe not exist.

“We’re delighted and it’s a big boost for our research.”

The 13 programs awarded viewing time represent participation by 253 investigators from 18 countries with a total 460 hours viewing time. 

The successful teams are now tasked with developing documentation for their research. This will help the astronomical community maximise the science output of the mission.

John C. Mather, senior project scientist for Webb and senior astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre added: "I'm thrilled to see the list of astronomers most fascinating targets for the Webb telescope and extremely eager to see the results. We fully expect to be surprised by what we find."