Marcia Rieke Discusses Her Role in the Launch of the James Webb Space Telescope

Marcia Rieke of Midland began her journey gazing at the northern Michigan sky — now she’s helping discover cosmic novelties.
Illustration by Rachel Idzerda

Launched on Christmas Day in 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope is the largest and most powerful space telescope ever created. Needless to say, the device and its crisp, detailed images have left the world in awe.

A mission of this magnitude doesn’t happen overnight. It took over two decades of planning and preparation by various scientists and engineers around the globe to launch JWST. One member of this team is Marcia Rieke, 71, who is originally from Midland and now teaches at the University of Arizona.

Rieke, the principal investigator for the telescope’s near-infrared camera (also known as the NIRCam — the camera that can pick up wavelengths humans can’t see), has been involved in the project since its infancy. She has contributed from the early stages of planning the mission and testing the equipment all the way to the research being conducted now. She uses her expertise in infrared astronomy to help fulfill one of JWST’s primary goals: looking back on the formation of the earliest galaxies. With JWST fully functional and in orbit, Rieke explains to Hour Detroit that the work has only just begun.

What was it that sparked your interest in learning about space?

Maybe growing up in upper Michigan, where the sky is nice and dark. Even as a relatively young kid, I was interested in space and read science fiction books. And then, when I was in fourth grade, the first astronauts were launched into space, and that perked a lot of people’s interest.

How did that interest in space end up turning into a career?

Well, for a while, I thought I actually wanted to be an astronaut. At that time, it looked like to be an astronaut, you needed to be an aeronautical engineer. So when I went to college, I thought I would be an aeronautical engineer. But then I took a cosmology class, and that was it. That did it: Forget the engineering — I was going to be a physicist/astronomer.

You’ve done much work with infrared astronomy in particular. How would you explain that branch of the field to someone who doesn’t know anything about it?

Visible light is, of course, the kind of light that astronomers have used for the longest time because they started out just using their eyes to observe it. But once astronomers learned how to detect other forms of light, we started learning all kinds of different things about the universe. The name infrared literally means “beyond red,” and so it starts more or less at the reddest your eyes can see and eventually transitions into longer wavelengths.

The infrared is important in several contexts: One is that the output of planets peaks at infrared wavelengths. So, if we wanted to study planets around other stars — we call them exoplanets — the infrared is the best wavelength regime at which to do that. Additionally, when things move away, the wavelengths get stretched.

The original reason for building JWST is that the universe is expanding, and things that are moving away from us, their spectrum is being shifted toward the red. In the case of the first galaxies formed after the big bang, they’re far enough away that their visible light is all shifted into the infrared.

What types of things is JWST looking for specifically?

[We are] trying to find the most distant galaxies. We just finished getting our first batch of data, and we are seeing objects that are not seen by Hubble [Space Telescope]. We’re still sorting out what’s what.

A lot goes into an undertaking like this. What has your role looked like over the years?

My role has changed quite a bit. At first, my role was to help define what the mission should look like, what instruments it should have, and so on. Then, my team was selected to be the one to lead the design and construction of NIRCam. Once it was constructed, we had to test it. And now that all that is done, we’re actually getting the scientific data that we’ve been working for all these years. Now we’re shifting gears and analyzing that data.

What continues to drive your passion for learning about space?

That we don’t know so much. It’s fun to discover things — that’s what drives the passion. That’s what this is all about. You turn up things that you never expected.

What else should people know about JWST?

We have gotten so much coverage in the media because everyone was looking for some kind of good news. To me, it’s very heartening to see that a project that involved 14 different countries has come together and worked so well, … just exquisitely. We worked together to make this happen. I find it reassuring to know that people can still do that.

This story is from the February 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition