June 5, 2023

James Webb telescope set for launch: Here’s how Canadians played a crucial role

As the James Webb telescope prepares for launch, Canadians have had a crucial role in its development and in processing the information scientists will receive from it.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), known in layman’s terms as the replacement to the Hubble Space Telescope, is 100 times more powerful than its predecessor and uses infrared technology for its images, meaning it’s capable of uncovering parts of the universe scientists have never seen before.

The telescope is scheduled for launch on Dec. 25 from French Guiana. 

As part of development of the telescope, Canadian researchers made two important contributions: a sensor designed to help it stay on target and an instrument called a Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS), which helps study astronomical objects. 

“It’s an incredible [piece of] machinery that’s going to be sent 1.5 million kilometres away from the Earth, trying to essentially shield itself from the light of the sun and also the heat from the Earth,” Martin Bergeron, manager of Planetary Exploration and Astronomy Missions at the Canadian Space Agency, said in a recent virtual interview.

Bergeron compared the stability of the sensor as being able to focus in on a dime from four kilometres away, without shaking.

Bergeron said that once data becomes available, his job is to make sure Canadian scientists make the most of the information. Canada’s contribution to James Webb means the country’s researchers receive about five per cent of the telescope’s viewing time.

“It doesn’t mean that we’ll get exactly that, but it means that on average, we’re looking to secure that percentage of the observing time,” Bergeron said.

“It’s a significant share,” Bergeron added. “It may seem small, but it’s actually a lot of observing time.”

Els Peeters, a physics and astronomy professor at the University of Western Ontario, is part of the team leading the “Early Release Science Program,” which is designed to release some of the information from the JWST to the astronomical community as soon as possible, to show off its capabilities.

“In order to showcase what all the instruments could do, the project basically decided to come up with a special category of programs of which the data would be immediately public for the entire astronomical community and showcase what the instruments could do,” she said.

For this role, Peeters will be among the first people to see what images JWST can produce.

“The nice thing about these special programs is that they will be scheduled very early in the lifetime of James Webb and so it will be one of the first observations that will be taken,” she said. “I’m very excited about it because for the research that I’m doing … the instruments are just fantastic.”

Peeters compared the images of JWST to an image with millions of pixels, compared to the Hubble’s one.

“You can really disentangle all the different processes and all the different regions that occur with distance from these young stars,” she said. “The observations by themselves will provide just ground-breaking results because of the huge advancements that were made for these instruments.

Among the Canadian researchers looking to make use of the new telescope is Loic Albert, a researcher at Universite de Montreal and a scientific instrument expert for Webb, whose study is in failed stars known as brown dwarfs.

“In my case, James Webb opens the possibility of studying some specific types of brown dwarfs, the coldest and the least massive brown dwarfs,” Albert told The Canadian Press last month. “They are so faint that you can’t observe them from the ground.”

For those studying planets outside our solar system, the Webb will be able to show images that the Hubble simply couldn’t, Albert said.

“For the exoplanet community, it’s going to be a game changer,” he said. “It’s going to allow measuring exoplanet atmospheres for a large number of planets and at exquisite detail.”

In addition to looking for exoplanets, the James Webb will also be useful at looking deep into the planets and moons in our own solar system and will be able to see how stars evolve over time, Bergeron said.

“James Webb Space Telescope is essentially a time machine. It allows you to go back in very distant and therefore very ancient systems, whether they be stars or whether they be galaxies and that’s things that you’ll be able to look at with this very capable system,” he added.

Peeters said it will take about six months before the first observations arrive back at Earth, meaning initials images from the JWST are expected in mid-June.

With files from The Canadian Press

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