Oh Heavens

The successor to the Hubble Telescope will be able to see further back in time with a little help from Thomas Zielinski C’04.

By Amy Vames

What have you been doing since you graduated from Drew? I am finishing up my Ph.D. in optics at the University of Rochester. Last spring I worked for the wavefront sensing group at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. At NASA, I worked primarily on the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. The Webb telescope will work in the infrared. That’s important because light from far away is heavily red-shifted and cannot be seen by telescopes like the Hubble, which operates at visible wavelengths. The tentative launch date for the telescope is 2014.

Zielinski’s time at Drew’s Summer Science Institute paved the way to his work with NASA.

What did your job at NASA involve? I wrote computer software that will help in the operation of the telescope. The pieces of the telescope are assembled on earth but will be folded up before deployment. Once the telescope deploys, the individual optical surfaces have to be lined up to within a few billionths of a meter. To do that, the telescope will take a picture of a star. Since the surfaces aren’t aligned, the image will be blurry. NASA will use a computer algorithm to analyze this pattern to determine the misalignments, and then calculate the correct commands needed to align the telescope. My job was to make the algorithm work better. The telescope is going to be a million miles from earth, so it will all be done remotely.

What led you to optics? A good portion of my undergraduate research at Drew had to do with optics. I was a Drew Summer Science Institute student as a sophomore. I worked with [physics chair] David McGee on a project with Bell Labs.

How did it feel to work on a project that could open up our understanding of the universe? It was exciting; it’s definitely cutting-edge stuff that has the potential to produce profound science. That was the major motivating factor to go to work every day, the feeling that I was contributing to something bigger.

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