UTSA graduate research assistant helps to enhance images from NASA’s space telescope

U.S. Army veteran Mason Leist helped reveal faint features within Galaxy NGC 5728

SAN ANTONIO – For months, a UTSA professor of astrophysics and his students have been analyzing images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and have made important discoveries, using a technique to enhance the image quality.

A UTSA graduate research assistant, Mason Leist, is a U.S. Army veteran and recently led a study published in The Astronomical Journal on the best method to improve the images.

“We collaborate with people from Alaska, all the way to Japan and many places in between. We have a whole series of students, postdocs and early-career researchers and everybody is just marveling at these images,” said Chris Packham, UTSA professor of astrophysics.

Leist worked with Packham on the study.

“What we have done using advanced image processing techniques, known as deconvolution, is we’ve enhanced some of the faint dust features within this galaxy,” Leist said.

“What we’re discovering by using these images is we are peering into the very centers of these supermassive black holes and we’re seeing the interaction of the galaxy within that black hole. And we’re seeing how gas and dust are being devoured and falling into that black hole,” Packham said.

Leist said growing up, he was always curious about astronomy.

“My passion for astronomy sort of came to light when I was in Afghanistan on patrols at night,” Leist said.

While deployed in Afghanistan, his passion for science grew stronger.

“I would look at the sky and the very, very, very dark skies. Very, very pretty skies. But that’s sort of when my interest was rekindled,” Leist said.

After returning to the U.S., Leist went back to school.

“I served active duty Army and then I separated from the military in 2015 and enrolled in the Alamo Colleges and then transferred to UTSA,” Leist said.

At UTSA, Leist earned a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in physics. His journey led him to the project, studying images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

“It is incredibly humbling, to be a part of not just to be a part of our paper that we publish, which I tell people represents the efforts of 35 people from institutes in 14 different countries, but also be a part of this, this telescope,” Leist said.

Packham said he and his team of researchers, including Leist, are just getting started.

“We have new images coming from the JWST (James Webb Space Telescope). We’ve been allocated more time in the future to use the telescope,” he said.

About the Authors

Tiffany Huertas is a reporter for KSAT 12 known for her in-depth storytelling and her involvement with the community.

Dale Keller is senior news photographer at KSAT-12.

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