Auburn astrophysicist selected as one of 14 researchers for the 2026 launch of NASA’s ULTRASAT – Israel’s first space telescope mission
Dennis Bodewits, an associate professor in the Department of Physics in the College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM), is one of just 14 researchers selected to use NASA’s Ultraviolet Transient Astronomy Satellite (ULTRASAT), which will launch for orbit in the summer of 2026. Bodewits and John Noonan, a postdoctoral scientist in his lab, will study the water production rates and behaviors of comets throughout the solar system with this wide field space telescope.
Their research effort titled "Mapping Cometary Water Production Rate Throughout the Solar System" is supported by a three-year, $200,000 grant.
“This is an exciting opportunity to develop an online portal to track the changes of a wide array of comets,” said Bodewits who is the only researcher from the state of Alabama to participate from the 13 institutions in just 10 states chosen by NASA. "This telescope enables us to study a broad population of comets with an unbiased perspective, transcending the traditional focus on the brightest few."
According to NASA, ULTRASAT will be observing the ultraviolet region of the solar system with a 204-square-degree field of view – about a thousand times larger than the area of the full moon as seen from Earth. NASA is partnering with the Israel Space Agency (ISA) that will be handling the operations of the telescope. In preparation, Bodewits and Noonan recently traveled to Israel for strategic discussions with team leaders at the Weizmann Institute.
“COSAM has a bold new future for transformative research,” said Edward Thomas Jr., dean of the college. “Being part of this space mission is truly an amazing opportunity for COSAM to showcase the value of its research and sets an example for our student experience that anything is possible when you earn a degree in science.”
Following the official announcement by NASA, Bodewits and Noonan will shift their focus to the mission's data science aspect, ahead of the satellite's launch in less than three years. Bodewits explained, "The telescope will transmit images of comets upon entering orbit. We are in the process of developing sophisticated software that will identify all the comets in the image data, providing daily updates on potential changes in their activity."
The software program they create will analyze the images and count the molecules surrounding the comet converting this data into an activity rate.
“This project will create a new foundation of an extremely large sample of comets,” Bodewits added. “It has the potential to provide data about comets that have never been studied before and new information about objects in the solar system.”
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