STA, 17 May 2022 - Slovenian astrophysicist Maruša Bradač is the recipient of the prestigious European Research Council (ERC) grant for a project called FIRSTLIGHT. The dive into the prehistory of the universe, backed with EUR 2.1 million over five years, will allow the researcher, who has worked in the US for 17 years, to continue her career in Slovenia.
The main focus of Bradač's research has been the formation of the first galaxies, from which all other galaxies evolved. She was also involved in the development of the NIRISS camera, one of the four most important instruments on the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope.
The ERC funding was awarded to Bradač for the processing of data from the James Webb telescope and related research on the first galaxies in space. "This is a very important part of the origin of galaxies in the universe, because it is about a very early universe, about which we know very little," the astrophysicist told the STA.
"The universe at that time was full of neutral hydrogen and was not permeable to visible light. Try to imagine it like a kind of fog, and like with fog which can be dispelled by the sun, the first galaxies gave off enough light to ionise the hydrogen and drive the fog away.
"This brings us to the end of the cosmological dark ages. However, we know very little about how this actually happened. Thus this data and this ERC project will help us answer this question," she explained.
The James Webb Telescope differs from the older Hubble Space Telescope in that it captures images in the infrared spectrum, whereas Hubble operates in the visible spectrum. In the infrared, we can observe galaxies that are far away from us.
"The main thing about the James Webb are the spectrographs which are featured on all four cameras and which allow us to not only capture images of an object, but to study its composition. So for these first galaxies, we will be able to discover what they are made of and, as a result, answer the question of how they were formed," Bradač explained.
With FIRSTLIGHT, Slovenia is also gaining access to data from the new telescope. "As a result of me having been a member of the scientific team that helped develop one of the four cameras, we have access to data that other researchers around the world do not have," Bradač said, pointing out that only about 30 people in total have access.
"Since I am one of them, all my collaborators on the ERC project will have access to this data. This is a really good opportunity for young researchers," she noted.
The Slovenian astrophysicist, who spent 17 years working in the US, most recently at the University of California, Davis, said it had been "quite a big step to move back to Slovenia".
Bradač said she would continue her research in Slovenia at a higher level than in the US, and that she was looking forward to better opportunities in the future.
"This is the biggest project I have been given in my time as a researcher, so it will definitely allow me to work more easily than would be the case presently in the US."
"I expect that we will take Slovenia to a higher level of membership of both the European Space Agency and the European Southern Observatory, which is building the next large telescope in Chile.
"If Slovenia joins these projects, we will have optimal conditions, even better than in the US, where these projects are experiencing some issues at the moment," she explained.
The project will be carried out at the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics, University of Ljubljana, where Bradač will set up her own research group, which will include students at the faculty and researchers from abroad.
"We have just recruited a researcher from Australia and one Slovenian researcher is returning from Germany, so it will be a diverse bunch here."
"I'm already full-time at the faculty and I already have one course, so I'm getting to know the students. Of course, I'm trying to get them to take part in this project, because there will be a lot of opportunities for research here," said Bradač, who herself studied at the Ljubljana faculty.