Home Science Meet Jane Rigby, senior undertaking scientist for JWST and advocate for LGBTQ+ astronomers

Meet Jane Rigby, senior undertaking scientist for JWST and advocate for LGBTQ+ astronomers

Meet Jane Rigby, senior undertaking scientist for JWST and advocate for LGBTQ+ astronomers


Considered one of a telescope operator’s major jobs is to maintain any stray gentle out of the instrument. Earthly and different unwelcome photons can swamp the cosmic gentle from distant stars and galaxies. Throughout greater than a decade as a undertaking scientist for the James Webb House Telescope, Jane Rigby obsessed over minimizing gentle leaks — with extraordinary success. The sky seems darker to JWST than most anybody had hoped.

Rigby herself, now the senior undertaking scientist for JWST, is a supply of sunshine.

“I keep in mind the sunshine in her eyes,” says astrophysicist Jane Charlton, who met Rigby the summer time earlier than her freshman yr at Penn State and later suggested her analysis. “Jane had unimaginable grades, however that’s not essentially what I search for. The love of astronomy, and fervour for that, is what I search for.”

Almost three a long time later, Rigby’s palpable pleasure in discussing the success of JWST, which launched on December 25, 2021, has made her one of many public faces of the telescope. She offered the telescope’s first photos on the White Home and has given keynote speeches at a few of the greatest astronomy conferences (SN: 8/13/22, p. 30). Throughout public appearances, she usually wears JWST-themed socks, scarves and pins. “I’ve JWST socks for just about day by day of the week,” she says.

She has additionally lit a path for queer astronomers, in addition to others who’re traditionally underrepresented in astronomy. Rigby has been out as a part of the LGBTQ+ group since 2000, when she met her now-wife once they had been each astronomy graduate college students on the College of Arizona in Tucson. She has devoted a lot of her profession to holding the door open for others.

“I didn’t develop up with any queer position fashions,” she says. “I hope I’m the final era for which that’s true.”

Specializing in the devices

Rigby remembers being requested to attract a favourite TV present in preschool. She used up a complete black crayon drawing Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

Her curiosity in area crystallized right into a profession plan at about age 12, after she noticed Sally Journey communicate at an area faculty. Journey, the primary American lady in area, made Rigby wish to be an astronaut.

“I knew there have been two paths to changing into an astronaut: a check pilot or a scientist,” she says. “And it was fairly clear that I used to be by no means going to be tall sufficient to fly the shuttle.” At 5 ft, 2 inches tall, she’s nonetheless two inches too brief to have been an area shuttle pilot. If she couldn’t make it to area, she noticed extra potential in science than in flying planes.

Rigby’s first expertise utilizing a telescope for analysis, as an undergraduate scholar at Penn State, was stymied by gentle leaks. She, Charlton and one other scholar traveled to western Texas to make use of the telescope on the McDonald Observatory. They had been seeking to catch gentle from a distant quasar filtering by way of a diffuse and mysterious cloud of cosmic gasoline. These small, dense clouds seem like full of heavy parts from supernova explosions, however surprisingly, they’re not present in galaxies’ facilities the place quite a lot of stars are born and dying. “We had been, at the moment, making an attempt to determine what they had been,” Charlton says. “As we nonetheless are.”

After an evening of guiding the telescope by hand, the group realized that gentle from one thing aside from the quasar — perhaps an alert gentle on an instrument panel — had flooded the telescope. The trio tracked it down, lined it with tape and tried once more. The identical factor occurred evening after evening. In the end, they returned to Pennsylvania with no quasar knowledge.

“It didn’t work,” Rigby says. “However it was actually enjoyable. I used to be studying every little thing, making an attempt to learn the way the telescope labored.”

A photo of Jane Rigby standing in front of the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.
Jane Rigby has had the chance to look at at many notable telescopes all over the world, together with the Magellan telescopes on the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, proven right here round 2011.J. Rigby

Since then, Rigby has used many main telescopes, from these on the Keck Observatory in Hawaii to the Magellan telescopes in Chile to the Spitzer and Hubble area telescopes. Alongside the best way, her analysis developed a theme: investigating how galaxies develop and alter together with the tremendous­large black holes hiding inside.

However her strategy is much less “How can I reply this burning query?” and extra “What can I do with this shiny new instrument?”

“I’m a really observational astronomer,” she says. “I’ll use any telescope I can get my palms on.”

All that telescope time meant she was prepared to hitch the JWST group when the chance got here.

“As a result of she had seen knowledge from Spitzer and Hubble,” JWST’s precursors, says astronomer Matt Mountain of the Affiliation of Universities for Analysis in Astronomy in Washington, D.C., “she knew what she was on the lookout for.”

Assembly the James Webb House Telescope

Rigby started engaged on JWST in 2010, when she took a job at NASA’s Goddard House Flight Heart in Greenbelt, Md., because the telescope’s deputy operations undertaking scientist.

One of many first issues she did was learn the report of an impartial assessment panel that discovered that the telescope was mismanaged, over funds by billions of {dollars} and would launch years later than initially deliberate (SN: 11/11/10). “I’ve definitely been 4 years from launch a number of occasions,” she says.

Earlier than launch, most of her time was devoted to creating certain that modifications to the telescope’s design wouldn’t mess up the science. She imagined attainable methods to make use of JWST and met with different group members to ensure the ultimate telescope would ship on these objectives. Would the telescope supplies glow or launch gases that might freeze to the machine? Might JWST use two cameras concurrently? Might it research shifting targets, like asteroids throughout the photo voltaic system (SN: 11/5/22, p. 14)?

“As a result of she is a working scientist who actually needed to make use of the information,” Mountain says, “she was a perfect alternative for operations scientist,” a job she moved as much as in 2018. “In these advanced areas, with all of the engineering, the personalities, the politics at NASA, working with contractors, she at all times retains her eye on the prize: What science are we making an attempt to do?”

Rigby bridged the divide between the science and engineering groups, serving to them communicate a typical language. Her job has been “quite a lot of lively listening and mushy energy, quite a lot of synthesizing and a dose of specialised technical experience,” she says. “Oftentimes I’m the big-picture particular person in a room stuffed with specialists.”

The James Web Space Telescope is pictured at the Goddard Space Flight Center in 2017.
1000’s of individuals labored on the James Webb House Telescope, proven right here at NASA’s Goddard House Flight Heart in 2017.Desiree Stover/NASA
Larkin Carey removes the cover that kept the James Webb Space Telescope's instruments safe from contaminants and stray light.
Engineer Larkin Carey removes the duvet that stored the telescope’s devices secure from contaminants and stray gentle whereas it was being assembled and examined.CHRIS GUNN/NASA

After the telescope launched, acquired in place and unfolded itself — “the six-month unwrapping of the Christmas current,” Rigby says — her job shifted to characterizing how effectively the telescope works. In virtually each metric, it’s a dream come true.

There’s better-than-expected picture high quality, larger sensitivity, quicker response occasions and an extended potential mission lifetime than predicted earlier than launch — and virtually no gentle leaks. The telescope’s nice golden mirrors are uncovered to area, and lightweight can scatter off mud grains on the mirrors, registering on photos as faint, diffuse patterns the group calls “wisps” and “claws,” or a ghostly streak dubbed “the lightsaber.” However the mirrors proved remarkably dust-free, which means the sky seems extremely darkish.

“It’s not an accident that the telescope works so effectively,” she says. “That was cautious work beforehand.”

When requested about such successes, and her personal, Rigby factors to an enormous quantity of labor by tens of 1000’s of individuals. “I perceive the need to humanize one thing that may appear actually massive and impersonal. However I don’t just like the singling out,” she says. “I attempt to replicate it again to the group.” It took 1000’s of individuals and duties to make sure JWST’s success. Engineer Larkin Carey, with Ball Aerospace, for instance, cleaned each sq. centimeter of the telescope’s mirrors by hand with a device like a shaving brush, Rigby says.

With the telescope working so effectively, Rigby might flip her consideration to the scientific questions. She helps lead an observing program known as TEMPLATES, taking a look at galaxies whose gentle has been magnified by foreground objects to get a glimpse at how the galaxies kind stars. At a June assembly in Albuquerque of the American Astronomical Society, Rigby shared how the TEMPLATES group discovered hydrocarbons, “the identical stuff that smoke is product of,” in a galaxy whose gentle dates again greater than 12 billion years — the furthest again in time such molecules had ever been seen.

Early in July, Rigby grew to become the senior undertaking scientist for JWST; it’s her job to determine learn how to get probably the most and greatest science out of the telescope.

Analysis colleagues describe her as superhuman. “I don’t know the way she does every little thing that she does, and does every little thing effectively,” says TEMPLATES collaborator Keren Sharon of the College of Michigan in Ann Arbor. And Rigby’s enthusiasm is plentiful: “She will get giddy,” Sharon says. “It might be about determining a bug, or discovering this tremendous thrilling factor a few galaxy that we didn’t know earlier than … and he or she’s actually bouncing. Her face lights up.”

A galaxy 12 billion light- years away and shown is false color is being magnified by a nearer galaxy.
With knowledge from the James Webb House Telescope, Rigby and colleagues discovered indicators of hydrocarbons on this galaxy (crimson ring, proven in false colour) greater than 12 billion light-years from Earth. A second, nearer galaxy (blue) lined up completely to amplify the sunshine from the extra distant one.J. SPILKER, S. DOYLE, NASA, ESA, CSA

Opening doorways for others

Rigby needs anybody to have the ability to expertise and pursue that enthusiasm. When she began attending American Astronomical Society conferences within the Nineties, she didn’t know there was a secret LGBTQ+ networking dinner. “You needed to understand it existed. That was somewhat closety. However it’s the place folks had been.”

On the time, there was an absence of safety from employment discrimination and no assure of institutional assist for astronomers with same-sex companions. Rigby remembers accepting a fellowship at Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, Calif., and instantly having to request medical health insurance advantages to cowl her associate.

“That’s awkward,” she says. “You wish to be speaking about your science and your telescope proposals, not how can I get medical health insurance for my household as a result of we’re totally different.” Discovering different LGBTQ+ astronomers was “a lifeline,” she says.

Lately, the meet-up at AAS is just too massive to exit to dinner. At a January 2023 assembly in Seattle, “we misplaced depend at 120 folks. We needed to spill out into the hallway,” Rigby says. “That feels good.”

Seeing queer astronomers like Rigby up to now alongside of their careers was useful to Traci Johnson, a knowledge scientist who was a graduate scholar in astronomy in Sharon’s lab on the College of Michigan. Johnson identifies as lesbian and nonbinary and got here out throughout graduate college. “I spotted it’s attainable to be out, and be pleased, and still have a extremely superb profession,” Johnson says.

Rigby has taken an lively position in encouraging inclusivity, although she appears to be up towards the legacy of JWST’s namesake. Many astronomers have known as for the telescope to be renamed as a result of James Webb was NASA administrator at a time when the U.S. authorities fired staff for being homosexual.

Rigby gained’t touch upon the telescope’s title. However her assist for LGBTQ+ astronomers is obvious. Rigby was a founding member of the AAS Committee for Sexual-Orientation and Gender Minorities in Astronomy, which works to advertise equality for LGBTQ+ astronomers throughout the area; has co-organized conferences on making astronomy extra inclusive; and authored a current white paper urging the astronomy group to deal with variety, inclusion and harassment. A present precedence is ensuring trans folks really feel secure and welcome.

Rigby doesn’t wish to be pigeonholed as “the homosexual astronomer.” She is aware of her contributions to astronomy prolong far past any explicit group. However she says the management expertise, resilience and skill to shift her perspective that she has realized by way of residing and organizing as a member of the LGBTQ+ group have made her a greater astronomer. They’re expertise she transfers to her position as a frontrunner at NASA.

“The entire imaginative and prescient is, you get to deliver your genuine self to work,” she says. “And work embraces your genuine self.”



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