Even at age 4, Chris Packham was fascinated by the night sky.
Packham recalls visiting his grandparents’ house located on the southern coast of England as a boy and gazing at the star-strewn heavens alongside his uncle and grandfather. When he wasn’t stargazing, he was inside watching astronomer Carl Sagan’s groundbreaking television series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.”
“I watched that over and over, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” Packham said. “It is without fail, the coolest stuff that we can do… so that’s when I started to optimize my school and then university days towards doing this flavor of science.”
Now Packham — a UTSA professor of astrophysics — is playing a critical role in helping unravel some of the mysteries of our universe. He’s one of the five board members of a collaboration selected to access data from the James Webb Space Telescope. The largest and most powerful space science telescope in existence, the Webb telescope has dazzled both scientists and the general public with its first images released in July.
Launched in December, the Webb is a $10 billion international collaboration among NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. It uses a near-infrared camera to capture images at different wavelengths — allowing it to achieve depths even beyond the Hubble Space Telescope’s deepest fields of sight.
As of early July, Packham and his fellow members of the Galactic Activity, Torus and Outflow Survey, known as GATOS, have been interpreting data coming from these state-of-the-art images, initially released to the public on July 12. GATOS has been given 55 hours of telescope time on the Webb — a significant amount of highly coveted research time.
For the 50-year-old Packham, seeing and interpreting these images is a lifelong dream. The Webb telescope allows scientists to look back “further in time” than any previous telescope has — making it critical to better understanding the beginnings of the universe, Packham said.
“We’re hoping that we will pull together a paper over the next couple of months which will be our first scientific paper using the James Webb,” he said. “We’re trying to share some of the quick scientific discoveries. We just want to share the excitement.”
As an astrophysicist who specializes in studying supermassive black holes in galaxies far away, Packham explained that modern scientists believe every large galaxy has a supermassive black hole at its center — including our own Milky Way.
Black holes form when a star runs out of energy and implodes, collapsing in on itself. Normal stellar black holes have a mass between about three and 10 solar masses, whereas supermassive black holes are astonishingly heavy with masses ranging from millions to billions of solar masses. While astronomers theorize that supermassive black holes form from some sort of chain reaction, much about them is still a mystery, Packham said — a mystery scientists hope the Webb can help them solve.
“It turns out that the speed of rotation of the galaxy around the supermassive black hole is intimately linked to the mass of that black hole — so why is that true for a galaxy but not true for a solar system?” he said. “This is one of the questions that [the] James Webb wants to solve.”
Incoming data from the telescope is disseminated to the 50-plus global members of GATOS, including Packham, from the Space Telescope Science Institute located in Baltimore. The group gets early access to all images and data before any of it is released to the public. For Packham, that means the data is loaded into UTSA servers so that UTSA’s Arcticus supercomputer can start analyzing information. From there, Packham and his students can begin trying to understand what it is they’re seeing and measuring.
UTSA is “so fortunate to have a front row seat to the groundbreaking and global work that professor Chris Packham is doing with NASA and the James Webb Space Telescope,” said Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Kimberly Andrews Espy. Espy said it’s a unique opportunity for UTSA students to be a part of the historic work while seeing how researchers collaborate internationally.
For Packham, astronomy is a unique science in that it’s not as “touchable” as other disciplines — it’s more a science that is studied through just observing.
“So if you’re in chemistry, you can set fire to something; if you’re in biology, you can inject the cell with something; if you’re in physics, you can smash the box and look inside,” he said. “In order to understand astronomy, you have to be very literate in mathematics and physics.”
When the first images came through to him and his students in early July rather than in September as was previously expected, Packham said it was one of the most amazing things he’d ever seen, and that it represents years of hard work for many scientists .
“The images were far superior to what I could have even dreamt of,” he said. “The excitement in the community was clear before we saw the images.”
Webb’s first deep field image, an image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, is approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length, Packham explained. This makes the number of galaxies it shows even more amazing because it shows how infinite the universe really is, he said.
The galaxies shown in the image are about 50 million light-years away — meaning it has taken 50 million years for the light of those stars to reach us, Packham said.
When a supermassive black hole starts to devour gas and dust, it produces lots of heat and energy, Packham said. That heat and energy create a wind that blows from the center of the galaxy to its outer edges, where it can stop star production, he said.
“We have to understand those supermassive black holes to understand our complete position in the universe,” he said. “We have to understand all of the universe is intimately linked, and particularly that supermassive black holes are the centers of those galaxies. If we want to understand our place in the universe, we have to understand what’s going on in the centers of galaxies.”