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The Meridian - S03E03

A transcription of the third episode of season three.


Welcome to the third episode of the third season The Meridian, produced by and recorded at Lund Observatory in Sweden. Crossing our local Meridian today, we have our own exoplanet specialist Judith Korth who recently moved to Lund to start a postdoc position here.  

Later in the episode, will also bring in some Cosmic Curiosities. This is the part of the show where you c.a hear about some ideas, event or trivia from astronomic history.  

Yes, history has become legend and legend has become myth. Some things that should not have been forgotten will now be rediscovered in our cosmic curiosities. But first, this!


The intro scene includes background music and 24 high school students saying astronomical words like “Space missions”,  "Solar wind", "The big dipper", "Galactic dynamics", "Gravitational waves", "Exoplanets", "Black holes", "Betelgeuse", "Dark energy", "Near earth asteroids", "Jupiter", "Ground based telescopes" and more.  Slowly it fades to everyone saying “The Meridian”.      



Rebecca: Hi Nic!

Nic:  Hey Rebecca.

Rebecca: I'm excited to get to talk to you again.

Nic:  Yeah, me too.

Rebecca: Nice, so what have you brought to me today?

Nic:  I've got some news.  

Rebecca: Ohh news!  

Nic:  Yeah. So telescope news. So I've got been talking about, like my adventures of observing and, but like there have been a lot of cool developments from other telescopes like the JWST that I thought we should maybe talk about because everyone else seems to be talking about these kind of things so.

Rebecca: Makes sense, I guess, like a very quick recap then is because last season we had Ori Fox, who is a scientistworking with James Webb on the podcast and they had just launched the JSWT and during last summer, I guess it had first light and we had a lot of these nice images coming out. So yes, it's working.

Nic: Yeah, exactly. And it's working really well. So like one of the newer images that's come out is Pandora's cluster, which is one of the latest deep field images that to come from JWST.

Rebecca: Ah, wow, yeah.

Nic: So a deep filled image is basically a snapshot of a part of the night sky which contains a lot of galaxies from the early universe. One of the interesting things about Pandora's cluster is it's a cluster of galaxies that's so dense that it gravitationally lenses or those small a lot of other galaxies that are further behind it.

Rebecca: Yes, OK. Yeah. Yes, so even older.

Nic: Yeah, really old galaxies. So we've sort of never been able to see these types of galaxies in such great detail before. So there are 50,000 sources of light  seen in this image. Some of them are big galaxies that we have never really seen before Yeah.

So yeah, the image detail and quality that has come from JWST is just not possible to get anywhere else and so it's a lot of the quotes that come from the press releases are just, I can't believe what I'm seeing. I just had to stare at this image. So like, here are these scientists who try not to be befuddled by the universe sometimes, and work at trying to explain it,  And they are getting baffled by what JWST can  do.  

As  a couple of other things, so a team has also provided an in-depth inventory of the deepest, coldest ice measurements in space.  

Rebecca: Mm-hmm it can really pick up emission from really cold things.


Yes, really cold things. And like the colder you get, usually the dimmer things are in space. And so JWST is able to go a layer deeper that will never been able to go before. One thing a bit more closer to home for me is that JMST confirmed its first planet.

Rebecca: Yes, and this is important confirms.

Nic:  Right. Yes, it didn't detect it. It confirmed it. So LHS 475-B...

Rebecca: ...a lovely name.


Yeah, it's a plant almost the exact same size of Earth. So it was already detected by the TESS satellite, which detects exoplanets, but TESS doesn't get to confirm that planets exists, it gets like oe signal and says, “hey, there's a planet right here, and we need someone to follow it up”. And so JWST was the one that did that. It picked a target that was not much more harder to observe than maybe other telescopes can do, and basically passed with flying colours without a doubt prove that this might existed.

Rebecca:You may correct me here, but as I've understood it, like James Webb's expertise or the telescope, expertise is not to really look for exoplanet, right?

Nic:  No, exactly. So it's you're looking for an exoplanet with JWST is like taking a Ferrari to go grocery shopping.

Rebecca: OK.

Nic:  Yeah, you can take a Ferrari grocery shopping, but that's not what it's built for. And so JWST instead is much better at characterising a planets, or even looking at it in much greater detail.  

That was the thing that this team actually did. They tried to look for an atmosphere on this planet. The signal was not strong enough, but they were able to rule out a few things - like having a methane dominate atmosphere, which is what Titan has, one of the moons of Saturn. So JWST is basically able to do a lot of cool things. I think one of the really interesting things about it is that it isn't doing anything new per say. What's exciting about it is it's doing groundbreaking work at a level of detail that was impossible to do before.

Rebecca: Right. So you mean like we have seen all the galaxies before, we're just seeing them clearer now and we have seen exoplanets before, but we see them better, I guess.

Nic: Yeah. And then now, so we know that they were there, but the detail that JWST is providing for us is unlocking stories that we were never able to explain before. So the first telescope that really was able to see galaxies as large distances was Hubble.

Rebecca: Hmm, yeah, and hopefully it's still up and running, right?

Nic:  For now, yeah.

Rebecca: For now, OK.

Nic: So NASA has  sadly said that they’re not going to finance any more servicing missions up to Hubble and its orbits also decaying.

Rebecca: Yeah, cause it's an orbit around Earth, right? That will slowly,  well, lose height.  

Nic: Yeah, and then fall back and burn up in its atmosphere. So NASA basically said, “look, you've been going for 30 years, you've done a great job, but we now have JWST, and the technology is moving along, so maybe it's time to go to sleep. You've done a great job.”  

The thing is, SpaceX then came along and said, hey, wait a minute, what if we service or we push the satellite up into space and keep it orbiting for a little bit longer. Could we do that? And NASA says, “sure, we won't pay for it.” So this is sort of becoming an experiment – SpaceX now gets a chance to test its ability on pushing satellite telescopes in space, which has never been done on a satellite which was going to de-orbit anyway. So if they're successful, we'll get a few more years of Hubble, which is still quite useful and people want  to use and if not, we'll learn something anyway, so it's been a great telescope to have and it was the first thing to do this new stuff. But now JWST going forward.

Rebecca: Yeah, no, I think also because I'm thinking back to that interview I had with Ori Fox – which I encourage anyone who hasn't listened to it to go back and listen to it  – and he really said that James Webb Space Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope, they're complementary to each other. So I think anything you can do to have Hubble observe for longer is all good. So that's good news if it works. And but there's one thing that is nice with the telescopes here on the ground is that you can update them very easily. I’m of course very biassed, I guess, from my month at ESO.  I'm also very sort of like, ooh, ground based telescopes are cheaper and you can build them bigger and you can maintain them and upgrade...

Nic:  ...and you can visit them on your holiday if you're really keen. Well, maybe not all of them.

Rebecca: I wouldn't go on a holiday to the Atacama desert.

Nic: Yeah, fair enough. Well, then there is one big telescope that's being built. It's extremely large. Yes, and yu know a bit more about that, actually. Maybe you wanna fill me in a bit.

Rebecca: Ohh, I guess yes. So the ELT is being built right now. It's super cool! So one of my tasks at ESO was to check the webcams every morning to see that they're up and running. And that means that, like the webcams that was monitoring the construction of the ELT, was like part of my task to look at. So I could really see it being from when I arrived, from just the foundations until now with having like the dome walls are being put up.  

So that's really cool. It will be this new generation telescope, like 39 metre and you, you went to the KECK you said which is like 10 meters. And that's like the big ones we have now so this is like really another big leap and you'll be able to collect a lot of photons with with that. So also get very, very sharp things. It will also characterise exoplanets and let us look for galaxies, and many other different cool things.  

For now, it's like the timing of it is a bit pushed. Because, well, we've had a pandemic and there's also a lot of issues with transport chains because of the war, for instance.

Nic: Yeah, of course, right.

Rebecca: So there's a lot of issues there, but it's due to come online end of this decade, so.

Nic: I'm looking forward to that, yes. Yeah. So there's, I'll call it a hero that hasn't hadn't had their song sung. And that's the VeraRubin telescope. Yes. So there's is  this telescope, 8.2 metre telescope, so really the same size of the VLT, but the thing about this telescope, it's a bit special. Instead of making a bigger telescope, they've specialised it to observe as many stars or targets as they can in one shot. This telescope is gonna be able to survey the entire sky in just three nights. Yeah. Which is insane.

Rebecca: That’s really crazy!

Nic:  Yeah, exactly. And most telescopes are more or less designed to look at one target for a very long period of time. So to go from one target to the entire night sky at once is really a lot, and with a good amount of detail which is impressive. So I think that yeah, things are looking pretty good for telescopes at the moment.

Rebecca: Really. And I think just like shout out here to Vera Rubin in a way. So we talked with Ruth Pöttgen last week and she is looking for dark matter and Vera Rubin was one of the astronomers actually indirectly discovered that dark matter actually exists out there so.

Nic: Yeah right, so, comes full circle.

Rebecca: Tying the knot. But yeah, who do we have on for this week?

Nic: For this week, we have Judith Korth, who is an observer who works with us here at Lund Observatory. She's just started her job and we've pulled her in our podcast studio to find out more about her

Rebecca: Great, let's hear more about Judith.


---------------------- Scene change with music.      

Nic:  And now I'd like to welcome to the mic Judith Korth. Hey you, how you doing?

Judith: Hi, thanks for writing me and for letting me speaking here.

Nic:  It's our absolute pleasure. How about you tell us a little bit about?

Judith: Yes, of course. I'm Judith. I'm a German researcher. Actually I'm from exoplanetary research, yeah.

Nic: Cool, like me.

Judith: Ohh you too,I didn't know.

Nic: Yeah, I guess we're we're still getting to know each other around the office. So yeah, I look at atmospheres of exoplanets,well, more about you. So how did you get into exoplanets?

Judith: Ah, this is very good question. Interesting. Because for me it was not quite straightforward as people maybe think this is as you say. Oh, I'm a researcher because, uhm, I started actually as a metreologist, or trying to be a meterologist.






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Frida Palmer in front of telescope
Frida Palmér standing by the meridian circle (taken ca 1929)

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