The beginnings of stars — it’s a hard thing to imagine. Such imaginings are the stuff of daily life for Caitlin Casey, an astronomer whose research will be the main project for a massive space telescope going up next month.
“We’re aiming to find the most distant galaxies in the universe and do it on a scale that just hasn’t been done before,” said Casey, an associate professor of astronomy at the University of Texas-Austin and a 2003 graduate of Rock Bridge High School.
Her project with colleague Jeyhan Kartaltepe was recently approved by the Space Telescope Science Institute for the new James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch Dec. 22 from French Guiana.
“You work so hard for these things for multiple years ... and so getting that through just felt like winning the lottery,” Casey said.
The telescope is able to look deeply and closely into some of the oldest galaxies and take photos of them. Casey is interested in how stars and galaxies formed and affected their surroundings in the universe’s early history, which she said began 13.8 billion years ago.
Casey said she applied for the Webb telescope because of its size — roughly the size of a tennis court with a 21-foot-tall mirror — and its ability to take bigger photos than other deep-space telescopes, such as the Hubble Space Telescope.
The Webb telescope will take about 30 days to reach its position and then another six months to calibrate instruments. Casey’s research is scheduled to start in late 2022. The area of space Casey’s research will cover is comparable to three full moons in our night sky. Her project will take roughly eight days’ worth of time.
The central question in her research is “whether or not the early universe is highly clustered” — that is, whether early galaxies developed in large clusters or were spread out. She likened it to the large distances between towns in a state like Nevada versus much smaller distances between towns in a state like Missouri.
Casey described her research, which has taken place under a number of grants at various universities, as a continuous study of “the history of the cosmos.” That research has taken her as far as Hawaii and even near the South Pole on the SOFIA space telescope, which is mounted on an airplane.
Her passion for space research began in Columbia, as a student at Mill Creek Elementary School going on field trips to the Rock Bridge Planetarium.
“It just stuck with me early on — I always wanted to know what was out there,” Casey said, “and I’m really lucky that I’ve been able to make this my career.”