By David Peck
Astronomer. Physicist. Optics specialist. STEM education enthusiast. Scientist. Husband. Father. Proud Wyoming native.
All of the above titles fit Riverton native Dr. Scott Action, who spoke in Greybull last Monday night, then visited Lovell.
And now one more title can be added to Dr. Acton – round-the-world bicyclist.
Acton is one of the key scientists developing the James Webb Space Telescope. His work is critical to the planning and eventually fine-tuning of the huge device once it is rocketed from Earth and placed in deep space in late 2018 or early 2019 to gaze at the origin of the universe.
In the meantime, Acton, an avid cyclist, has set off on a 15,000-mile around-the-world bicycle trip during which he will promote the James Webb Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, with a series of talks.
The trip combines his love of bicycling with his love of large, space-based telescopes, and it comes just seven months after Acton underwent quadruple-bypass heart surgery.
Acton had hoped to start his trek on October 1, but in mid-August – during a time when he was bicycling 200 miles a week to prepare for his trip – chest pain led to the operating table, where he had life-saving bypass surgery.
The round-the-world trip is being done in four segments, so Acton hoped to merely postpone the first segment and begin with the second – a trip across Cuba, which took a lot of work to arrange – in December. But with recovery and cardiac rehab, he had to postpone until spring.
The ride started April 1 in Boulder, home of Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., for whom Acton has worked since 2001. Stage 1 has taken him north across Wyoming to his hometown of Riverton to visit his parents and speak at Central Wyoming College, then on to Greybull, where his sister Kathy Clucas lives, for his April 11 presentation.
After a night in Lovell April 12, Acton rode north into Montana heading for a Saturday talk in Bozeman at the public library, battling headwinds Wednesday west of Laurel en route to Columbus, then blowing snow and zero visibility on Bozeman Pass between Livingston and Bozeman Friday, riding in what he called dangerous conditions.
He camped in Townsend, Mont., Sunday night, then it was on to Wolf Creek Monday, Choteau Tuesday and Browning Wednesday for a talk at Blackfeet Community College.
He will continue to work his way north into Alberta, across the Yukon and across Alaska until reaching Deadhorse, Alaska, on Prudhoe Bay. He should reach Deadhorse and the Arctic Ocean in late June, before returning to Montana for a family reunion.
After the reunion, Acton will fly to Lisbon, Portugal, for Stage 2, which will take him in two months – July 7 to Oct. 9 – east across Europe – Spain, France, Italy, the Balkans, Bulgaria, Turkey and Armenia to finish in Baku, Azerbaijan. Depending on political situations, he said he may ride north of the Black Sea instead of south, which would take him across Romania, the Ukraine and southern Russia to Baku.
Stage 3, from October through January, will begin in Perth, Australia, and take Acton east across the southern coast of Australia to Sydney, followed by a segment across New Zealand to Cape Reinga at the northern tip of the North Island.
Stage 4, from February through April of 2017, will take Acton from San Juan, Puerto Rico, across Cuba, then after a hop to Miami, across the United States northwest until he reaches home again – Niwot, Colo. – on April 17, more than a year on the road.
A 1979 graduate of Riverton High School, Acton attended CWC and the University of Wyoming and picked up credits from other institutions, as well, before settling in at Abilene Christian University, graduating with a degree in physics in 1984. He went on to earn his PhD in physics at Texas Tech University in 1989 and during those years also started working for Lockheed Martin in the Palo Alto, Calif., area, specializing in Adaptive Optics, the science of correcting for the effects of the atmosphere on a telescope. In describing the specialty, he noted the atmospheric turbulence a person can see when looking through binoculars on a hot day, which must be corrected in a telescope.
Acton performed basic research and did some defense work for Lockheed Martin, then spent a year in Germany for the Kiepenheuer Institute For Solar Physics in Freiburg. He went on to the Keck Observatory on the Big Island of Hawaii from 1995-2001, continuing his work in Adaptive Optics, before moving in 2001 to Boulder, Colo., to work for Ball Aerospace.
He has had to resign his position with Ball Aerospace to bicycle around the world, even as he promotes the space telescope project. He plans to give around 75 talks during the trip and, as of Saturday in Bozeman, had given six.
Acton and his wife, Heidi, have two children, John and Stacy.
Acton’s passion for science and exploration was evident during his presentation in Greybull April 11. The James Webb Space Telescope is the preeminent project for NASA currently in the non-manned space flight arena, he said. Ball Aerospace designed and is assembling the optics and mirror segments for the telescope. Acton has worked on the project for many years and, though he won’t come right out and say it, he is one of the critical people who can make the giant telescope work after it is launched.
“What do you do when you have a passion for travel and love space-based telescopes?” Acton asked the small audience in Greybull. “You do the James Webb Space Telescope World Bicycle Tour.”
Acton said he began his tour with a sense of humility, knowing the many challenges that lay ahead. He figured if he would survive the first week he could handle the whole trip. So far, so good.
During his presentation, Acton said he is passionate about Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education, saying that STEM affect all aspects of life.
“STEM jobs are regular jobs held by real people,” he said. “Whatever you do, you’ll do it better with a STEM education.”
He gave a synopsis of humankind’s thirst for knowledge about the universe, noting that simple observations told people thousands of years ago that the earth is round, not flat, – “why, because you can see it” – and that there are vast distances in space, with the sun at the center of the solar system.
Acton told how the chief librarian of the great library at Alexandria, Egypt, Eratosthenes, calculated the circumference of the earth using the angle of the sun on the day of the summer solstice using a simple stick, a tool, stuck into the ground. The James Webb Space Telescope, like that stick, is a tool to advance knowledge, Acton said, albeit an instrument of tremendous capability.
“When you have a new instrument of this type, everything is a new discovery,” he said. “It’s like showing up a day early for an Easter egg hunt. The JWST will re-write textbooks. We will see parts of the universe we can’t see now.”
People may not think they like science, but people, especially kids, do like technology, Acton said, explaining the advancement of telescopes over the centuries. And with the advance of astronomy comes great beauty, he said, showing many slides of images from the Hubble Telescope of nebulae, star clusters and galaxies.
“If you’re artistic, astronomy is for you,” he said.
The Hubble Telescope can provide images from about halfway to the Big Bang, about half the age of the universe, Acton said, but the Webb Space Telescope is so powerful that it will be able to take scientists “almost back to when light first shined,” except that the Webb will operate in the infrared spectrum, he said, noting that infrared “allows us to see through dust” to see objects at incredibly vast distances.
The Webb Telescope
The James Webb Space Telescope is being assembled now and is the size of a tennis court, Acton said. Its primary mirror is so powerful that it could see a lit candle on the moon if a candle could burn there, he noted.
The Webb’s primary mirror, 6.5 meters in diameter (21.3 feet) is actually composed of 18 mirrors that work together to act as one mirror. The 18 mirrors, 46 pounds each, are made of beryllium so they won’t shatter during their journey to a spot 1 million miles from Earth known as L2 where the telescope will look to the furthest reaches of the universe.
Acton asked the question during his presentation: How can we see the most distance (oldest) objects?
Distant objects would be very small, “so we need a big telescope.”
Objects would be very faint, “so we need a telescope in space that won’t be swamped by background noise.”
Objects would be very red (in the spectrum) and obscured by lots of dust, so the telescope must operate as an infrared instrument, and it must be cold, he said.
The Webb Telescope is too big to fit in a launch vehicle – a French Ariane rocket — without being packed together, so once it reaches L2 it unfolds like a transformer toy and cools, and the mirrors are deployed and carefully aligned, which is where Dr. Acton comes in. As a wave-front sensing and controls scientist, he must make the incrementally fine adjustments to position the 18 mirrors so they will work together a million miles from Earth, the ultimate fine-tuning to create a perfect image across the entire field of view.
He noted that the Webb Telescope is too far away to be repaired, so it is being constructed with redundant systems in case a system fails.
The Webb Space Telescope is a $10 billion project that has taken 25 to 30 years to develop. He said the life expectancy of the telescope, once deployed, is about 10 years. That’s when it will run out of fuel.
In the meantime, Dr. Scott Acton is slowly his way around the world to spread his love of science, space-based astronomy and perhaps the most marvelous instrument ever designed by humans. And he’s doing it on a bicycle.
“It’s a novel way to travel,” he said simply.
When he is finished with the ride, however far he makes it, Acton will be a different man, he said, and when the James Webb Space Telescope is deployed and functioning, with Dr. Scott Acton at the controls, mankind will be different, too.