Former Poplar Bluffian helps with James Webb Space Telescope

Monday, January 10, 2022
Isaac Laseter a year ago had an opportunity to join the team working on the James Webb Space Telescope. He is a 2016 Poplar Bluff High School graduate and a graduate of the University of Texas.
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A former Poplar Bluff resident will have a hand in helping the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope find new galaxies.

Launched two weeks ago, Webb is outfitted with the largest and most sensitive mirror ever put into space.

Isaac Laseter is currently a graduate student with the University of Wisconsin and a year ago had an opportunity to join the team working on the Near Infrared Spectrograph, one of four main instruments on the James Webb Space Telescope. Laseter is a 2016 Poplar Bluff High School graduate.

His task is to help correct directional data gathered by the Hubble Telescope for when Webb begins scanning the universe this summer.

“Because we’re dealing with such large distances, and with such high resolution with the James Webb Space Telescope, we have to have those immensely precise,” Laseter explained. “We’re pretty much going to overlay the telescopes of where they’re looking.

“What we found with Hubble is the way it observes, we found positions can get skewed in general directions.”

The Webb telescope has a tennis court-sized sunshield that protects the 18 segments of the main mirror, which is made of lightweight beryllium and coated with an ultra-thin layer of gold, highly reflective to infrared light.

It will scan for light streaming from the first stars and galaxies formed 13.7 billion years ago.

“We have a catalog of tens of thousands of objects that we want to observe, but their positions are kind of skewed somewhat,” Laseter said. “I pretty much fixed all of those, so that we could have accurate measurements when we actually point here in a few months.

“After that, we’ve been running simulations on what we expect the observations to be. So we’re actually performing our projects on simulated data, so that when the real data comes in, we can just drop it in, pretty much.”

These are pretty advanced simulations of observations, he explained.

“We’re pretty much getting ready for June or July when we start getting data from the telescope. These projects are what I will be using in forming my thesis,” Laseter said.

Laseter has bachelor of science degrees in physics and astronomy from the University of Texas and he’s currently working on his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin.

Laseter said, “At a very young age, my father, Dr. Michael David Laseter, definitely instilled a curiosity for the natural world. I think that was the basis, but it wasn’t till late junior high, early high school I became more aware of or interested in how the world’s working around us in a natural sense.”

While Laseter credits his dad with developing his interest, “my mom, Donna Laseter, and my stepdad, Gary, have been immensely supportive.”

Gravitating toward physics and astronomy, Laseter explained, was “because some of the more obscure ideas were there with relativity, and quantum mechanics and things like that. Also the size difference, it was so different than what I was used to in terms of the scales we were talking about, whether that’s quantum skills or universal scales. I started to get a lot of questions and I couldn’t answer those questions. I said, ‘Well, I can make that my job of answering those questions,’ and that’s how I got into physics and astronomy.”

Based on projects Laseter did at the University of Texas, and his first year at the University of Wisconsin, the next logical step for him “was pretty much at the end of what I could do without the James Webb Space Telescope existing,” he said. “I wanted to be a part of the James Webb Space Telescope, because of what it would do for the research that I’m a part of.”

Dr. Michael Maseda was hired for a faculty position at the University of Wisconsin around the same time Laseter was applying and accepted to graduate school there.

Laseter described him as “young, brilliant. He was at CalTech and then at Leiden in the Netherlands.” He worked on the James Webb Space Telescope. Because the James Webb Space Telescope is an international telescope, it is NASA’s, the European Space Agency’s and the Canadian Space Agency’s.

“We came into contact, and they were looking for someone that wanted to be a part of it at a graduate level, I wanted to be a part of James Webb Space Telescope and we started working together. Since then, I’ve been doing stuff with some other projects, but the main one has been with him,” Laseter said.

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