Wednesday, November 24 2021

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

Posted Tuesday, November 16, 2021 at 6:07 a.m. EST

Last updated Tuesday, November 16, 2021 at 6:08 a.m. EST

MONTREAL – In just over a month, the world’s largest and most advanced telescope will be launched into orbit from a spaceport in South America, and among those eagerly watching, the physics professor Montrealer René Doyon.

The James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to take off on December 18 aboard the Ariane 5 rocket from the Guyanese Space Center in French Guiana. The in-orbit infrared observatory, a collaboration between NASA and European and Canadian space agencies, will be 100 times more powerful than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope launched in 1990.

It will feature two Canadian components: a fine guidance sensor that will help it stay locked to the target, and an instrument called the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph, or NIRISS, which will help study astronomical objects, from exoplanets to distant galaxies. .

Doyon, professor of physics at the University of Montreal, is the principal researcher of tools built in Canada and has worked there for 20 years. He said it was both an exhilarating and hectic time.

Before the enormous telescope begins to operate, there will be many tense moments. The two weeks immediately following launch will be critical as the telescope will unfold in an elaborate sequence described by NASA engineers in a recent briefing as an origami exercise.

“This is what we call the 14 Days of Terror – the time it takes to deploy the telescope – but I’m very confident,” Doyon said in a recent interview. “We have tested this and retested, so there is good reason to believe it will be okay.”

The telescope, named after the former NASA administrator who led the Apollo lunar exploration program, has been folded compactly for launch, and thousands of parts must work to allow it to deploy properly. It will be operated at a distance of 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, too far away to be served as was possible with Hubble, which was only 500 kilometers away.

The Webb Telescope’s instruments can only function properly at a very low temperature – minus 233 degrees C – so one of its components is a tennis court-sized sunscreen that will shield it from the heat of the sun. and sunlight. Earth and moon.

Canada’s contribution means that when the telescope is ready for operation – expected around the middle of next year – the country will be guaranteed at least five percent of the telescope’s available observation time. Of the 286 proposals accepted worldwide for the first year of use, 10 will have Canadians as principal investigators.

Many were eagerly awaiting the launch of Webb, which has been repeatedly delayed. Doyon said Webb’s infrared wavelength visualization capabilities mean scientists will be able to see certain things for the first time, like the first stars and galaxies in the early universe after the Big Bang. It will also represent a huge step forward for the study of exoplanets – planets outside our solar system – to probe their atmospheres for clues of first life.

Sarah Gallagher, science adviser at the Canadian Space Agency, said it was an exciting time.

“This is the culmination of decades of work by truly talented people, and I am so proud of our Canadian contribution, both scientific and industrial. I think it really shows the strength of our community, ”she said in an interview.

“We have people who want to study bodies in our solar system, planets around other stars, galaxies in the very first universe, and all kinds of different subjects.”

Among them will be Loïc Albert, who will be able to continue his work on brown dwarfs – essentially failed stars. The project involves looking for mates for about 20 of them, and he will use Webb’s sensitivity to his advantage.

“In my case, James Webb opens up the possibility of studying some specific types of brown dwarfs, the cooler and less massive brown dwarfs. They are so weak that you cannot observe them from the ground, ”said Albert, a researcher at the University of Montreal and scientific instrument expert for Webb.

Albert says scientists who have studied exoplanets using Hubble’s limited capabilities should reap the rewards of Webb. “For the exoplanet community, this will be a game changer,” he said in an interview. “This will make it possible to measure the atmospheres of exoplanets for a large number of planets and in exquisite detail.”

Doyon, who plans to travel to French Guiana for the launch next month, said the prospect of unanticipated discoveries is the most exciting part ahead of Webb’s launch.

“Every time a new telescope is started, history shows that after five or 10 years you ask the question, what was the telescope’s biggest discovery. It was something that was not planned.” , he said. “I’m sure Webb will be the same.”


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