Astrophysicist Akin Yildirim: the only German at the NASA telescope

private / Dr. Akin Yildirim

NASA, together with the European Space Agency ESA, will launch the “James Webb” telescope, equipped with new technology, into space this year. With its advanced sensors and mirrors, which can collect ten times more light, the new telescope is said to be able to record data from the universe even better. Thousands of applications from all over the world were submitted for the research competition advertised by NASA.

The astrophysicist Akın Yıldırım, who works as a research assistant at the German Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, is one of around 40 scientists worldwide who are working on this new mission – and the only one from Germany.

If everything goes as planned, the Stuttgart-born scientist will be able to observe the galaxy, which is three billion years away, for around ten hours with the new NASA telescope in May 2022. Yildirim wants to find an answer to the question of how matter is composed in the universe, i.e. how much of it consists of “dark matter”, “dark energy” and “visible matter” by determining the speed of the galaxies in the universe and how quickly they diverge from each other. Current measurements indicate that there is 74 percent dark energy, 22 percent dark matter and about four percent visible and perceptible matter in the universe.

Yıldırım’s family comes from the eastern Anatolian city of Tunceli in Turkey and is one of the first generation of guest workers who emigrated to Germany in the 1960s. The grandfather came to Germany first and worked on the assembly line at Daimler for years. He later caught up with the family. Yıldırım’s parents also worked in auto parts factories until they went into business for themselves.

The Stuttgart physicist has been interested in the universe since childhood. Germany as a location also plays a role. “We are lucky that we are doing well in Germany and that we are given opportunities here to achieve everything we want,” said Yildirim in an interview with “In many other countries this is not a matter of course and I find it all the more sad when you don’t take advantage of these opportunities to make your dreams come true.”

The teachers wanted to send him to secondary school, but the parents objected

Originally, his teachers wanted to send today’s astrophysicist to a secondary school. But the parents opposed it. In the end I went to high school, then to university. After completing his physics studies in Stuttgart, he did his doctorate at the University of Heidelberg on astrophysics on black holes. In 2016, Yildirim started working at the Max Planck Institute as a research assistant.

“Our generation is severely affected by the fact that, due to the language barrier at home, they did not get the best help with schoolwork. That’s why it was all the more important to get the best support from the teachers, ”says Yıldırım.

Another hurdle is “invisible obstacles”. Yıldırım: “Unfortunately we still have invisible obstacles in Germany because of our names”. Before he took up his position at the Max Planck Institute, Yıldırım wrote many applications: “I had sent at least 100 to 150 applications and didn’t get a single answer. It’s no different in other areas either. ”But when he talks to friends who have more European names, he hears next to nothing about such problems.

He thinks that the fields of physics and science are the best example of being judged not by nationality but by quality. “My professor at the university was Dutch and my current boss is Taiwanese and we don’t look at what our name is, but what we can achieve together.”

His dream is to explore the universe – and Yıldırım likes to tell you about it: “We know that the galaxies in the universe are constantly moving away from each other after the Big Bang. However, gravity counteracts this tendency. Thanks to the Hubble constant, we can calculate the speed at which the universe is expanding. ”This in turn is important for calculating the various proportions of matter.

The new telescope as a hope to learn more about the early universe

And again, the new telescope is important. “While 10 years ago you could take photos in 2-megapixel quality with the camera of cell phones, today we can take photos in 16- or 32-megapixel quality. This is exactly how we can see the depths of space much more clearly and in greater detail with the new telescope, ”says Yıldırım. He believes that NASA’s new space telescope will make it possible to obtain better information about the early universe.

NASA's James Webb Telescope

NASA’s James Webb Telescope

picture alliance / Newscom | Desiree Stover

With the newly developed telescope, the astrophysicists selected by NASA will observe the galaxy “RXJ1131-1231” because there is a black hole behind this galaxy. Yıldırım: “When a black hole devours a galaxy or a planet, it emits a kind of light that we call“ quasar ”. The light emitted by this black hole goes through the galaxy we are observing. ”Although this light comes from a single source, it is said to appear around the galaxy in four different ways due to gravitations. “With these calculations of the galaxy’s gravity, you can determine the distance between the black hole and the galaxy, as well as the speed,” says Yıldırım.

The James Webb Telescope (JWST) is expected to be positioned closer to the world than the previous Hubble Telescope. In this way, the data transmission should take place more quickly. The new telescope collects data primarily in the infrared range, but it also detects visual elements in the visible light spectrum. Therefore, with JWST, the researchers can take another look into the past of the universe.


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