Back to All Events

Dr Heidi Hammel: James Webb Space Telescope — NASA's Next Great Observatory

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is NASA's next Great Observatory, the scientific successor to both the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes. Its scientific equipment will include several cameras to produce amazing images in the tradition of Hubble. JWST will see the first galaxies to form in the universe, and explore how stars are born and develop planetary systems. It will examine planets around other stars to investigate their potential for life, and study planets within our own Solar System. 

This innovative telescope represents a major step forward in technology, with a segmented mirror three times larger than Hubble that operates a million miles away in the cold, dark environment of Earth's Lagrange 2 point.

Dr. Heidi Hammel is one of the six Interdisciplinary Scientists for this cutting-edge facility, which is scheduled to launch in 2018. In this public lecture, Dr. Hammel will update us on the telescope's current status with images and videos. She will also give an update of JWST's anticipated science: JWST's potential for measuring water in the atmospheres of exoplanets, JWST's capacity to detect the light of the first galaxies to form in the Universe, the ability of JWST to study the coldest objects within our own Solar System, and much more.

Planetary astronomer Heidi Hammel -- a world authority on the planets Neptune and Uranus -- is known for her many achievements probing the cosmos, often using the famous Hubble Space Telescope. In 1994 when comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter, Heidi was the leader of the team that analyzed images of the event taken with Hubble. She was also a member of the research group that first spotted Neptune's Great Dark Spot (a raging storm as big as Earth) with the Voyager spacecraft, and led a Hubble team that later documented the Great Dark Spot's disappearance.

Today she is involved in another milestone: helping to develop the next great space observatory that will succeed Hubble -- the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to be launched later in 2018. "As much as I love Hubble, it's time to build an even more sophisticated tool that will enable us to see new things," says Dr. Hammel. "Webb will probe regions of the cosmos that are simply not visible to Hubble," she explains. "It's much bigger and it will be tuned to wavelengths that Hubble can't see. With Webb, we have the potential to answer questions about the origins of just about everything in the universe."

She received her undergraduate degree from MIT in 1982 and her Ph.D. in physics and astronomy from the University of Hawaii in 1988. After a post-doctoral position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, she returned to MIT, where she spent nearly nine years as a Principal Research Scientist. She then worked as a Senior Research Scientist and co-Director of Research at the Space Science Institute until 2011. Dr. Hammel is now the Executive Vice President of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA). AURA -- a consortium of 39 U.S. universities and institutions, as well as seven international affiliates -- operates world-class astronomical observatories including Hubble, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, the National Solar Observatory, and the Gemini Observatory. 

Dr. Hammel primarily studies planets. Her current research involves studies of Uranus and Neptune with Hubble, the Keck 10-m telescope, and other Earth-based observatories. For the Planetary Decadal Survey released in 2011, Dr. Hammel led the Giant Planets Panel; in that role, she was involved in designing and characterizing a number of mission studies for outer solar system exploration.

Dr. Hammel has been widely recognized for her work. She was profiled by the New York Times in 2008[1], Newsweek Magazine in 2007[2], and was identified as one of the 50 most important women in science by Discover Magazine in 2002[3]. She was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2000. In 1996, she received the Urey Prize from the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences. Dr. Hammel has also been lauded for her work in public outreach, including the 2002 Sagan Medal for outstanding communication by an active planetary scientist to the general public, the 1996 "Spirit of American Women" National Award for encouraging young women to follow non-traditional career paths, and the San Francisco Exploratorium's 1998 Public Understanding of Science Award. Asteroid "1981 EC20" has been renamed 3530 Hammel in her honor.