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Physics Department's Kaczmarczik Lecture Explores New Era of Astronomy


NASA's Knicole Colon delivered the 2024 Kaczmarczik Lecture

NASA astrophysicist Knicole Colón, PhD, delivered the 2024 Kaczmarczik Lecture | Photo by Liz Waldie


March 22, 2024

The world is in an extraordinary era of astronomy — thanks to a suite of existing and upcoming facilities designed to study the universe across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which successfully launched in late 2021, is a particularly revolutionary observatory. As the premier space-based facility for near- and mid-infrared astronomy, the 6.5-meter space telescope includes four state-of-the-art instruments with imaging, spectroscopy, and coronagraphy capability.

On March 7, the Department of Physics welcomed Knicole Colón, PhD to deliver the 2024 Kaczmarczik Lecture. Colón, an astrophysicist with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, is the James Webb Space Telescope Deputy Project Scientist for Exoplanet Science and the Project Scientist for the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), as well as the Pandora SmallSat missions.  

Nearly 300 students from Drexel University and local high schools attended the lecture. During her presentation, Colón showed several highly detailed images that the JWST has captured and explained what makes it revolutionary for astronomy — and particularly her field of exoplanet science. The JWST can teach us more than what scientists have previously known about the process of planet formation and how common planets are in distant solar systems, and has even led to the discovery of hundreds of never-before-seen planets.

"We have directly imaged planets before with telescopes," Colón explained. "We've looked at individual stars and seen planets around them. But we hadn't seen to this scale these free-floating planets before. This is something that is almost mind-blowing because it was totally unexpected." 

"What we really want to do is go to all these planets," she added. "But when we can't, we use Webb."  

The Kaczmarczik Lecture Series was established in 1995 to honor beloved Drexel University Professor of Physics Paul Kaczmarczik. Professor Kaczmarczik attended Drexel as a student, graduating with a BS in physics in 1948. He began his career at Drexel in 1953 and became a key player in building the Physics and Atmospheric Science Department, where he made important contributions to teaching during his many years of service. Well-liked by both his colleagues and his students, Kaczmarczik became Professor Emeritus in 1989. Professor Kaczmarczik passed on January 20, 2009. 

We thank Lockheed Martin for their generous sponsorship of the Kaczmarczik Science Fair and Lecture.