The Webb Telescope arrives safely. Now Canadian astronomers are ready to unlock the mysteries of the universe

There’s been plenty of apnea since the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on December 25, but now astronomers can breathe their breath: The $10 billion US telescope reached its destination safely on Monday afternoon.

“We are very excited to announce today that Webb is officially on station in its L2 orbit,” said Keith Parrish, commissioning manager for the Webb Observatory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center during a media conference call. “This just caps off a remarkable 30 days.”

Lagrange points are a kind of ideal point in space where there is an attraction between two objects like the sun and the earth and spacecraft can operate in a stable or semi-stable orbit. Webb will sit at Lagrange point 2, or L2.

Webb is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990. Hubble is still hard at work, giving astronomers insight into our universe, but Webb is a new improved telescope it will go further back to a time when our universe was in its infancy.

Although Webb arrived safe and sound at Lagrange 2 point, the telescope will still undergo several months of testing to make sure everything is working properly.

After that, the science begins.

Lagrange points are positions in space where the gravitational forces of a two-body system like the Sun and Earth produce enhanced regions of attraction and repulsion. These can be used by spacecraft to reduce the fuel consumption needed to stay in position. (NASA/WMAP Science Team)

“It will be amazing when we have the first data,” said Chris Willott, an astronomer at the National Research Council Canada’s Herzberg Research Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics.

“I can’t even predict the things we’re going to find out just in the first year. There’s so many new things we’re going to find out.”

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Willott directs the Canadian observational program NIRISS Unbiased Cluster Survey (CANUCS), which will study some of the first galaxies that formed, as well as clusters of galaxies. NIRISS stands for Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph.

One of the things Willott is most interested in is black holes.

“We know that most galaxies today have large black holes at their centers, including our own galaxy,” he said. “So I’m going to try to see how these black holes started at the very beginning of the universe, because we know some of them got very big, very quickly, which is quite surprising.”

This image from a NASA television broadcast shows the James Webb Space Telescope shortly after its launch from French Guiana on December 25. (NASA-TV)

Large telescopes (even terrestrial ones) are available to professional astronomers who wish to use them. However, they must first submit proposals and have them approved.

The reason Willott and more than a dozen other Canadian astronomers spend time on Webb is that Canada contributed to the groundbreaking telescope by providing instruments: the fine guidance sensor, which allows it to point and focus on objects, and the NIRISS which will be used to study the composition of atmospheres on distant planets – called exoplanets – that orbit other stars.

Now, these astronomers are eagerly biding their time to study everything from early galaxy formations to rogue planets (planets that don’t have stars) and search for possible signs of life on other exoplanets.

Using Webb, they will virtually travel back in time to a nascent universe.

Black holes and habitable worlds

Any light that reaches us takes time. Sunlight takes eight minutes to reach us. So when we look (safely) at the sun, we are looking at it as it was eight minutes ago.

The same goes for any light that reaches us from stars or galaxies. The further away they are, the further back in time we go. But we need powerful telescopes to look further, and Webb is the most powerful telescope capable of doing that.

To put things into perspective, our universe is about 13.8 billion years old. Webb will be able to go back to when he was around 100 million years old, when the first stars and galaxies were forming.

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Els Peeters will be one of the first Canadian astronomers to use Webb. His research focuses on radiation — which is seen primarily in infrared light, something Webb is designed to see — and how it influences young stars. So far, she hasn’t been able to see through the dust and debris that so often surrounds nebulae harboring young stars.

“The way I think about it is if you take a picture of a crowd cheering, say, a Raptors basketball game – with old cameras, each person’s face would be maybe four pixels said Peeters, who is a professor in the department of physics and astronomy at Western University in London, Ont.

“With the new cameras, every face, [will be] maybe 1000 pixels. And so if you have many, many pixels over the same area, that means you can track how a person’s facial features might change.

“Now you can say ‘has blue eyes’, ‘he has a large nose’ or ‘a small nose’ and that sort of thing.”

This illustration compares the capabilities of several space telescopes and their ability to see through time. (NASA and Ann Field)

This precision will allow her and her team to study the formation of new stars in an unprecedented way.

Erik Rosolowsky, an associate professor of physics at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, will use the telescope to study star formation.

“What I’m going to do is try to establish how long it takes for stars to form,” he said. “It’s a big question in astrophysics, and you might think it’s some kind of boring science topic or something, but how long it takes for stars to form tells us a lot about How? ‘Or’ What they form.”

And that can tell us a lot not only about our universe, but also about our galaxy and perhaps our own solar system.

“With James Webb, for the first time, we [will be able to] seeing individual stars form in this nearby spiral galaxy called the Triangle Galaxy,” Roslowsky said. “It’s a relatively simple experiment, but it’s been impossible to do until we have space telescope capabilities James Webb.”

One of the most intriguing observations will concern the TRAPPIST-1 system.

TRAPPIST-1 is a star system with seven rocky planets orbiting in the star’s habitable zone (where water can exist on the surface of a planet).

“We don’t know whether these planets have an atmosphere or not,” said Olivia Lim, who holds a Ph.D. student at the University of Montreal who will use Webb to study the atmospheres of the most intimate of these planets – those which have the best chance of habitability.

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“They could be rock balls without any atmosphere, we don’t know that. So we’re trying to figure that out,” she said. “If they have an atmosphere, that means there may be a chance to look for traces of life in those atmospheres.”

Studying these things – the formation of stars and galaxies, the atmospheres of distant exoplanets – may seem inconsequential and unimportant. But astronomers think it’s all part of being human: understanding our place in the universe.

“It’s really about understanding our whole universe, understanding where we came from and what the future will be like,” Willott said. “It’s a fundamental question for humans, I think, to understand, you know, what are we doing here and what is the nature of the universe?”

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