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Knicole Colón ’07 shines among NASA stars in James Webb Space Telescope image reveal

Knicole Colón ’07 shines among NASA stars in James Webb Space Telescope image reveal

Knicole Colon stands outside the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Knicole Colon at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Credit: Mike Morgan.

Physics alumna Knicole Colón ’07 was among NASA’s go-to experts to explain the significance of the first images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope earlier this month. Specifically, the images showed the travel patterns of an exoplanet 1,000 light years away.

“There are billions of stars, that means there are billions of planets,” said Colón in the NOVA special “Ultimate Space Telescope” that premiered on PBS on July 13. “There’s gotta be something besides Earth that has life on it.” 

As an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, Colón is the James Webb Space Telescope deputy project scientist for exoplanet science. Her research involves the discovery and characterization of extrasolar planets (exoplanets) — planets that orbit distant stars. Using optical and infrared telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope and now the JWST, she focuses on studying exoplanets that are unlike any in our own solar system. 

In the NOVA special, she demonstrates how it all works using an infrared camera, a black garbage bag, and her hand. To the naked eye, all you can see is the black garbage bag covering her arm. But through the images captured by the infrared camera:

“You can actually see my hand with the infrared light, because you’re seeing through the dark trash bag to see my glow,” she explains. “You’re seeing my emitted radiation, my emitted heat.”

This simple concept demonstrates how the JWST can “see” deep into the universe.

The image is split down the middle, showing two views of the Southern Ring Nebula. Both feature black backgrounds speckled with tiny bright stars and distant galaxies. Both show the planetary nebula as a misshapen oval that is slightly angled from top left to bottom right and takes up the majority of each image. At left, the near-infrared image shows a bright white star at the center with long diffraction spikes. Large, transparent teal and orange ovals, which are shells ejected by the unseen central star, surround it. At right, the mid-infrared image shows two stars at the center very close to one another. The one at left is red, the smaller one at right is light blue. The blue star has tiny triangles around it. A large transparent red oval surrounds the central stars. From that extend shells in a mix of colors, which are red to the left and right and teal to the top and bottom. Overall, the oval shape of the planetary nebula appears slightly smaller than the one seen at left.
In the Southern Ring planetary nebula we see a dying star expelling gas and dust, in orbit with a younger star that is helping to change the shape of this nebula’s intricate rings by creating turbulence. The James Webb Space Telescope can see through the gas and dust in unprecedented detail. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Among her favorite images from the JWST is one of the Southern Ring nebula, which shows a pair of stars orbiting each other within a foggy cloud of gas and dust being thrown off by one of the stars as it slowly dies. 

“I almost have no words, you know?” she said. “It’s a feat of engineering, right? But it’s also, ‘Wow, our universe is beautiful.’” 

Read more about Knicole Colón and her research in the winter 2021 issue of TCNJ Magazine.

— Emily W. Dodd ’03