Astronomer Dr. Chris Willott was with his colleagues in Halifax on Monday when they gathered around a TV to watch U.S. President Joe Biden unveil the first image generated by the James Webb Space Telescope.
Willott’s elation at seeing that image — which showed a cluster of hundreds of galaxies in deep space — was a culmination of 16 years working on the project. He primarily oversaw one of Canada’s two main contributions to the telescope: the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS).
“We all kind of jumped up and ran to the screen to try and get a closer look as we wanted to see the detail of this beautiful images with thousands of galaxies,” said Willott, who is based at the Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre in Victoria.
“I’ve been working on studying distant galaxies at the far reaches of the universe for 20 years, and it still blows my mind just how big everything is.”
‘Cosmic time machine’
The James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful and complex space observatory ever built, is a $10 billion venture led by NASA in collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA/ASC) and the European Space Agency (ESA).
The telescope, whose development dates back to 1996, was launched into space on Dec. 25, 2021.
Willott, one of the lead Canadian scientist in the James Webb project, began assuming a leadership role in developing the NIRISS instrument in 2011 and has since collaborated with scientists from Europe and the U.S.
Dubbed Canada’s “cosmic time machine,” the NIRISS is designed to help scientists determine the composition of exoplanets’ atmospheres and observe black holes and distant galaxies — some of the earliest in the universe.
Willott said he and his team are already hard at work using the instrument to research the telescope’s first image.
“Every single one of those galaxies will have a spectrum from the NIRISS instrument,” said Willott.
“It allows us to measure some chemicals and properties from those galaxies that you can’t just get from looking at an image.”
The instrument has already helped identify the possible presence of water in the atmosphere of a distant exoplanet, said Herzberg astronomer Tyrone Woods.
“It’s really close to the sun so it’s constantly getting roasted, but it’s still an awesome proof of concept. It’s something we hope James Webb is going to be able to see — the slightly more hospitable looking planets around other stars,” Woods said.
Scientists from Herzberg were also involved in designing Canada’s other contribution to the telescope, the Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS), which enables it to pinpoint distant objects.
“It allows James Webb to point with the extraordinary precision that we need in order to look for these needles in a haystack,” Woods said.
Canada’s contributions mean its astronomers will be given five per cent of the telescope’s observation time, with the NIRISS team alone allocated 450 hours in the first year.
“It’s a very exciting time for them to be able to be getting this data and for observation projects that they designed and planned,” said Willott.
‘There’s a lot of things we don’t understand’
The James Webb telescope was designed to succeed the aging Hubble telescope, which is expected to remain operational until the late 2020s.
“It’s a huge thing for Canada to have played such an important role in this, whereas we didn’t play such an important role with the Hubble space telescope,” said Willott.
“I think it shows Canada can really produce world class equipment on the best telescope the world’s ever made.”
He says the Webb telescope is performing better than expected, and he is eager to delve into the universe’s mysteries.
“What keeps me going is I know that there’s a lot of things we don’t understand,” said Willott. “With the Webb telescope, we’re going to learn more in the next few years, but there will still be a lot of mysteries beyond that as well.”