Canadian astronomers to play a major role in James Webb telescope investigations

On Christmas Day the James Webb Space Telescope was successfully launched from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana
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LONGUEUIL, QC, Dec. 26, 2021 – Yesterday, the James Webb Space Telescope (Webb) was successfully launched at 7:20 a.m. ET from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Approximately 30 minutes after launch, Webb detached from the Ariane 5 rocket, marking the beginning of a million-mile journey and the start of a two-week complex deployment process to unfold the spacecraft in preparation for arrival at Lagrange Point 2 (L2).

James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

The telescope, which promises to change our understanding of the universe, is an international collaboration between the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), NASA, and the European Space Agency. Through strategic investments in space research and development and our world-class expertise in astronomy, science and engineering, Canada’s contribution opens tremendous science opportunities for Canadian astronomers, who will be among the first to have access to the data collected by Webb, and to study it. 

During the journey to L2, Webb will convert from its stowed position in which it left Earth to the configuration that will allow it to see light coming from the earliest stars to shine in the Universe. Part of this journey is to unfold the tennis court-sized, five-layer sunshield around the sensitive mirrors that allow Webb to take pictures and collect data that will come back to Earth for scientific review. Once operational, Webb will explore farther than ever before into the cosmos, looking back 13.5 billion years.

The Canadian astronomy community’s interests lie in the study of exoplanets, the search for the first light sources in the universe, the formation and evolution of galaxies, the lifecycle of stars, and small bodies in our own solar system — all study areas that will be accessible with the successful launch of the telescope.

Quote

“Once again, Canada’s space sector is pushing the frontier of science and, more so, of astronomy. Webb is the largest space science project in the 60-year history of Canada’s space program. Thanks to substantial past investments in space technologies, Canada was able to be an active partner in this exciting mission with the U.S. and Europe.”

– The Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry

To deliver its scientific data, Webb incorporates innovative design, advanced technology, and groundbreaking engineering. Ten technological inventions were created to build the revolutionary telescope so that it can detect light from the first stars and galaxies. Some of these innovations include optics, detectors and thermal control systems.

Quick facts

  • Canada’s contribution to Webb consists of two important elements, built by Honeywell with the help of scientists and engineers from the CSA, the Université de Montréal, NASA, and the Space Telescope Science Institute:
    • The Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) will guide the telescope with incredible precision during all of the telescope’s observations, with an accuracy of one millionth of a degree; and
    • The Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS), one of the telescope’s four science instruments, will enable scientists to observe distant galaxies and study exoplanets’ atmospheres to determine their potential for supporting life.   
  • The Canadian Webb science team is led by Principal Investigator Dr. René Doyon of the Université de Montréal; and Project Scientist Dr. Chris Willott from National Research Council Canada’s Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre. Researchers from a number of other universities and institutes are also involved.
  • From 1998 to March 2021, the CSA invested approximately $177.8 million into the design and build of the FGS and NIRISS, and an additional $16.5 million in science support for Canada’s contribution.
  • The telescope will orbit the Sun around a position called Lagrange 2, located 1.5 million kilometres from Earth. It will take Webb about a month to travel to its final destination in space.

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