Meet the astrophysicist with stars in her eyes

9 Feb 2023

Dr Emma Whelan. Image: Daniel Balteanu

Dr Emma Whelan is using data from the James Webb Space Telescope to learn more about the formation of stars and planets.

Since the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), we have been rewarded with a treasure trove of stunning images.

From shots of Jupiter in August 2022 to spotting its first exoplanet at the beginning of this year, the telescope has been giving the scientific community plenty to work with.

One such scientist working with the data coming from JWST is Dr Emma Whelan, an expert in star and planet formation and a lecturer in the Department of Experimental Physics at Maynooth University.

Speaking to, Whelan said she and her team have been planning what they want to do with the JWST data for years.

‘We all have cameras in our phones thanks to the astronomers who wanted to design better detectors for the telescopes’

“How it works is, normally to get the observing time on the different telescopes, you have to write proposals and you do this typically a year before you get your data and it’s highly competitive,” she said.

“All the data that we’ve seen so far is from what we call ‘guaranteed early release’, so they wanted to pick things that were going to really highlight the capability of that work.”

The process is similar to applying for research grants, except instead of looking for money, scientists are looking for data.

And while this process is competitive, Whelan said certain people also receive guaranteed time in return for contributing to the telescope in some way. In Ireland’s case, Prof Tom Ray of DIAS helped build the infrared instrument on the James Webb.

The evolution of stars

There’s a huge amount of information that can be derived from the data coming from the JWST. For Whelan, it’s all about the evolution of stars when planets start to form.

“We call them teenagers. They’re not stars yet because they haven’t started to diffuse hydrogen. So, our definition for a star is when this hydrogen fusion reaction kicks in and then they reach what we call the main sequence and that’s like adulthood in a way.”

But before these stars reach their main sequence, they’re still forming. But as they come to the end of their formation, Whelan explained, they have disks around them, which sort of looks like the rings around Saturn, as well as jets that kind of look like a geyser.

“We think this is important because it takes away spin from the star. The star, when they start to form, are spinning too fast and the processes we see shouldn’t take place because of this spin.”

This means that there is some way in which this spin gets removed, which Whelan said could be because of the jets and the winds from the stars. “This is really important because it allows plants to start to form,” she said.

“I’m interested in how the jets play a part in this, removing the spin, and how they affect the material in the disk and how that all feeds into our understanding of how these planets start to form.”

The challenges of space research

While her work can give her an amazing insight into where we come from and how our solar system came to be, Whelan’s work is not without its challenges. “It can be very unstable,” she said. “It’s tougher now than it was when I was a young researcher.”

She said it can be very difficult to find a job that gives you any kind of life other than work. “This is the problem I see with my PhD students now, they want to have relationships and build lives with people and they want to have homes and they might get a job here for a year or another job here for two years and it’s very difficult to get any kind of permanency,” she said.

“Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of people drop out, really clever, really intelligent people who could have done great work, because it was just impossible, you know, they had personal reasons why they needed a more stable job.”

Whelan said there have been a lot of discussions in the media of late about the conditions for PhD students and she hoped that this would help change the situation.

“That has been the most difficult aspect of my career to date. The personal sacrifices that you need to make in order to stay in your career long enough, to get some permanency of success.”

Another challenge Whelan spoke about, particularly in her area of research, was about the volume of grants that were there for her.

“SFI has a list of priority areas, astronomy doesn’t fall into one of those priority areas so you’re very limited. Most of the calls for SFI, I can’t apply for, so the number of grants is very limited,” she said.

“To do day-to-day research in astronomy, it’s quite cheap. You need to pay for people, you don’t need the big equipment or big labs. But if you want to develop beyond that and you want to get involved in instruments and the future telescopes, then you need the money.”

One development that has helped scientists like Whelan is Ireland’s decision to join the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in 2018.

This has given Irish astronomers and physicists much greater access to some of the most powerful telescopes on Earth, such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile and the ESO’s Very Large Telescope.

“One of the benefits of joining the ESO for Ireland was that our companies can now get involved so it has huge industrial benefits,” she said.

“But for the scientists, OK, we can we have better access to observing time, but what we really want is to be able to contribute to instruments and development of instruments. And it’s just very difficult because there are not many places you can go to apply for money in order to be able to participate.”

The value of space exploration

While certain areas of research such as health can show clear benefits to the wider public, I asked Whelan about the public’s perception of space research.

“I think people feel that we’re indulging ourselves a bit,” she said. “People will say, ‘Oh, but you’re obviously quite intelligent, why don’t you use that to cure cancer or to do something more practical?’” she said.

“But I think that humans are never more innovative or never more clever than when they’re trying to discover things and satisfy their own curiosity.”

Whelan also pointed out that there have been huge knock-on effects from the advancements in astronomy, such as medical imaging and cameras.

“We all have cameras in our phones thanks to the astronomers who wanted to design better detectors for the telescopes,” she said.

“By encouraging people to do work in this area, you’re encouraging innovation and you just don’t know where that’s going to lead to and I think people need to be made more aware of that.”

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic